The firm’s founder and CEO would change pretty much everything about the industry and sees a huge opportunity to innovate and transform construction’s archaic ways of working 

Tony Head Shot LR

Why did you choose construction as a career?

I never planned to be in the construction industry. I was originally at British Steel as an electrical and controls engineer and then moved into the semiconductor manufacturing industry and led world-wide benchmarking into wafer fabrication capital cost reduction and industrial engineering.

In 1996 the UK wafer fab I worked at closed and I had the choice to stay in semiconductors and go to Singapore or move into cleanroom facility construction with a large contractor. I chose the latter. After two successful UK/US start-ups, winning and delivering $300m of projects in China and the US, I decided to do it for myself, so I quit and took over Merit in 2002.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

Having the courage to rip up Merit’s business plan in 2015 and commit totally to our tier 1, factory-manufactured platform design. I have had many sleepless nights wondering if this was the right choice and looking for clients who share our same vision – seeking to choose new, innovative solutions over traditional. Thankfully we got there in the end.

What has been the biggest challenge of your career to date?

Figuring out a design platform that would enable “configure to order”  manufacturing but with broad market reach has been a challenging nine-year engineering journey.

Product development in construction takes a long time and, in Merit’s case, we have had to fund our own R&D. But that makes you “hungry for profit and patient for growth”, to quote Clayton Christensen, and drives lean, productivity focused innovation.

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

Pretty much everything! The industry fundamentally needs re-organising towards I4.0 manufacturing and that won’t come from a few tweaks.

I especially dislike retentions and bonds. Such archaic behaviours rooted in client expectations of construction business/project failure which “reaps what it sows”. We would certainly have been able to grow faster if we had that cash to invest.

What is the most helpful advice that you have been given?

When I was a kid, I watched a BBC2 programme about running your own business. The presenter was at Blackpool pleasure beach on the Big Dipper and I remember him shouting “don’t run out of cash!” as he went over the first drop. Wise words!

Versailles Palace LR

Source: Shutterstock

The Palace of Versailles, 12 miles west of Paris, was adapted and extended between 1661 and 1715. Louis XIV moved his court and government there in 1682 

Name your favourite building in the world?

The Palace of Versailles.

Which famous building do you most dislike?

The National Theatre – although it looks better at night.

Which famous building do you wish you had worked on?

A bit before my time, but the VAB at Cape Canaveral – an amazing building for the inspiring Apollo programme.

Cape Canaveral LR

Source: Shutterstock

Amazing and inspiring: the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral in Florida

What single piece of advice would you give to someone starting out in your profession?

There’s a huge opportunity to transform the construction industry – so don’t go with the flow, always look to innovate.

Who do you most admire in the construction industry?

I admire engineers and innovators. In the UK, we had iconic Victorian engineers like Brunel. Nowadays, Elon Musk’s innovation in space flights is truly inspiring.

What is it like being you (and doing your job)?

I have never enjoyed my job as much as I do now. Every day is different. I’m surrounded by clever people who enjoy change, the pace of innovation is rapid, nothing stays the same and the pace of learning is accelerating the faster as we grow.

Do you have a life philosophy?

Pack everything possible into every day – don’t waste a moment!

What do you think your best quality is?

I enjoy getting into detail in everything, from economics to engineering.

What trait do you most dislike in yourself? And in other people?

I’m not good with negative people.

Name three things that you like

My family, racing cars and learning.

Tell us about a secret skill that we don’t know you have

I race European Le Mans series sportscars – I’ve had some success and won a few championships but qualifying the car on pole at Spa a few weeks ago was particularly special.

What is your most prized possession?

Good health – hopefully it stays that way.

Early bird or night owl?

Early bird.

What is your favourite food?

Kirsty’s home-made chilli nachos.

What would your superpower be?