HOW THEY MADE IT — In the first of a series looking at how the sector’s heavyweights scaled the career ladder, Lydia Stockdale speaks to Andrew Wyllie, chief executive of Costain

How did you get your first job?

When I was an undergraduate at Strathclyde, I wanted the best of both worlds: to find a job that would allow me to be an engineer and also to travel. One of the few organisations that sent graduates abroad straight away was Taylor Woodrow, so I went through their graduate development programme selection process. I started work in September 1984 and was posted to Saudi Arabia the following month.

Tell us about your first day on site.

It was terrifying. I was introduced to a room of 20 people who were to be my staff. These people were engineers, surveyors and technicians with 20 years’ experience, and there I was, literally a couple of days out of college. It was an extremely humbling experience. I couldn’t pretend to have any sort of authority on the basis of my knowledge. I learned a lot about direct management, being resourceful and thinking on my feet.

Did you always plan to be a chief executive one day?

No, I just kept turning up. It’s about role rather than seniority in my mind. It would be extremely arrogant to think, “I’m going to be chief executive”. I’ve been fortunate in my career in that people have been willing to give me greater responsibility.

The flip side of that is that I have tended to make a nuisance of myself throughout, with suggestions about how things could be done.

I can imagine that I really hacked some people off, but others were willing to give my ideas an airing. I’ve got a drawer full of reports that I did off my own back during weekends and evenings, on how we could improve business processes, customer service and organisation design.

Who did you look up to earlier in your career?

Tony Palmer, the then chief executive of Taylor Woodrow, who made an enlightened decision to sponsor me while I went to business school for a few years to do my MBA. I learned a lot about being a chief executive from him. He had foresight.

The common perception is that you train people and then they leave. My point of view is that you are never wrong training good people. Now I get graduates and members of our high-potential programme to voice their opinions in front of the executives.

Why did you decide to do an MBA?

Towards the end of the eighties I realised I didn’t only want to be a good engineer, but I was also interested in how business works.

Tony Palmer summoned me to his office and asked: “What’s this MBA thing and why do you want to do it?” I told him that I could either spend 10 years at Taylor Woodrow learning about the business, or take a shorter route to gain an understanding of the theory.

It’s absolutely not a panacea in terms of career development and there’s a lot to be gained from having real-life experience before you do it – it allows you to put the things you’re being taught into context.

Did you ever worry about staying at the same company for 20 years?

No. As long as you’re getting new experiences and enjoying what you are doing, then the fact that you’ve been with a company for 20 years is, I think, a positive, not a negative.

I’ve always been keen to develop my personal skills – I’ve been on three training courses this year alone – in corporate governance, health and safety, and television interview skills. I’m aware of how little I know and how much there is to know about all kind of subjects.

How important are your contacts? Is it all about who you know?

One naturally generates contacts within your peer group just by doing a job. I don’t actively seek to achieve a great address book.

Have you always had your CV at the ready?

I don’t have an updated CV as I sit here today. I’ve only ever dealt with it when I’ve needed to.

Do you enjoy job interviews?


What is the secret of interview success?

Being yourself.

Has your personal life suffered in your rise to the top?

I think this is something that you have to be aware of. I try quite hard to get that balance right. I try to have some time at the weekend to spend with my family.

On average, I’m out two or three nights a week for work, and I’m generally in the office at 7am. But I don’t want to do any more than that in the evenings, because I have a family and personal life as well. It’s important that you keep that.

Give us some advice.

Have courage in your convictions. If you believe that something should be done, don’t be afraid to stand up and say so in a constructive manner. The chances are that you are probably right.

CV - Andrew Wyllie, 43

BSc in Civil Engineering, University of Strathclyde

Graduate development programme, Taylor Woodrow, (included on-site, office, design function and senior experience)

Saudi Arabia

Ghana (pictured)

Falkland Islands (pictured)

Chartered engineer, Institution of Civil Engineers, part one

part two

Worked on Goldman Sachs Headquarters, London (pictured)

MBA, London Business School

Taylor Woodrow Construction, director

Taylor Woodrow Construction, managing director