Meet JM, Ed, Matt and Karen. They’ve made it to the top of their professions at a ludicrously young age, thanks to talent, ambition, luck and smart clothing. But what route did they take? And what has it cost them? Vikki Miller and Sarah Richardson found out

Ed Bartlett

Director of International PPP, Cyril Sweett

Career path

22 Started his career as a project manager with Shepherd Construction
24 Moved to research group BRE as a research analyst
28 Made an associate director of Faithful & Gould
30 Joined Cyril Sweett as director of consulting
33 Made director of International PPP and a board director of Cyril Sweett Holdings

Ed Bartlett feels he has paid a high price for his swift ascension to the top. “I was working 60-hour weeks and quite a few weekends,” he says. “I wouldn’t take my full holiday and didn’t see enough of my friends and family.”

The reward was being made a director of consultant Cyril Sweett at 30, after focusing on PPP/PFI projects, including work on the controversial St Bart’s and the London hospital project. But last year Bartlett made a decision to change his lifestyle. He is now trying to work more sensible hours and, following his marriage in February this year, he moved back to the north-east of England where he is setting up a Newcastle branch of Cyril Sweett. He is also using his experience to advise younger members of his team about how to find a sensible work–life balance. “My advice is to work as hard as you can but keep a watch on issues outside of work,” he says.

Bartlett’s path to the top surprised his colleagues. He failed his assessment of professional competence because he was too specialised and to this day he’s still not chartered. He has also job-hopped every two to three years — Shepherd, BRE, Faithful & Gould — leaving at the peak of each to pursue something new.

The best thing about being a director, he says, is the quality of people and projects he now works with. “I’ve been accepted into the premier league,” he says. “I’m working with the top clients on the top projects.”

His long-term ambition is to try his hand at being a client and then, ultimately, to run his own consultancy business. His advice to others reaching for the top is not to be too cautious about taking risks.

“The industry is in short supply of good people,” he says. “Push for promotion. If you don’t get it, don’t be afraid to look elsewhere.”

(l-r) JM Erasmus, Ed Bartlett, Matt Hawkins, Karen Gidwani
Credit: Bohdan Cap
(l-r) JM Erasmus, Ed Bartlett, Matt Hawkins, Karen Gidwani

JM Erasmus

Partner, Davis Langdon

Career path

I was working 60-hour weeks. I wouldn’t take my full holiday and didn’t see enough of my friends and family

Ed Bartlett, Cyril Sweett

23 Joined Arthur Andersen Consulting’s corporate finance department as a graduate, initially in South Africa
Moved to Davis Langdon as a non-cognate project manager
Made a partner in Davis Langdon’s business development team

If you told JM Erasmus five years ago he’d be a) in the UK, b) working in construction and c) a partner at a cost consultancy, he would have said you were delusional. But last May, the recently married South African was made a partner at Davis Langdon in London in the business development team – at the age of 29.

Erasmus claims he is not the youngest partner ever at Davis Langdon – Building’s Hall of Fame entrant Paul Morrell takes that credit. “I think Paul pipped me by a year, or maybe he was the same age,” he says. “Honestly, I’ve never checked,” he adds, hastily.

Erasmus ended up at Davis Langdon by accident. He came to England five years ago to pursue a job in the legal or finance sector with Arthur Andersen but when the firm imploded after the Enron scandal in 2002, Davis Langdon took him in. His colleagues have taken his rapid rise in good humour, but his larger pay packet means he’s often coaxed into getting the beers in.

His success has come, he claims, as a result of hard work and knowing his skills. He says he is determined to climb higher still and has no plans to slow down now that he’s a partner.

“You can’t afford to take your foot off the accelerator. It’s not an environment where you can relax,” he explains. “Making partner is the result of hard work but it’s not a result in itself. I have to keep on working hard. On the flip side, I also have to work hard to relax and switch off.”

To cope with the pressures of the job, he deliberately keeps his professional and personal lives separate. He says he is usually home by 7.30pm to spend time with his wife and makes sure he finds the time to play squash and the occasional round of golf.

Erasmus looks surprised when asked if he plans to work less as he gets older: “Early retirement?” he says. “What would I do?”

Matt Hawkins

Partner, EC Harris

Career path

22 Joins EC Harris
27 Made an associate
30 Becomes a partner, with responsibility for the London commercial team

By his own admission, Matt Hawkins never had a burning desire to be a QS. He fell into the role when he became disillusioned with his first degree – history and politics – a year into the course. “I had a friend at Reading who was studying quantity surveying and was quite enjoying it, so I joined up. I think most people there would be lying if they said they took the course because they really wanted to be a QS.”

Despite this initial indifference, Hawkins has risen to be one of EC Harris’ youngest partners. Having joined the company straight from university, by the age of 30 he was made responsible for the London commercial team, working with leading clients including Land Securities, More London and Chelsfield.

I have walked into meetings and been treated sceptically because of my age. But after a while, they stop seeing you as young

Karen Gidwani, Fenwick Elliott

Hawkins did not have an ambition to be a partner from an early age, but says he worked hard because he enjoyed his job. “I don’t think thinking like that at the age of 21 would have been right,” he says. “Everything I did at work probably was a step on the way, but I didn’t wake up every day thinking it.” He puts in long hours “when required”, but says that it isn’t the norm. “I have a work hard, play hard philosophy,” he smiles.

Hawkins believes that he stood out as a potential leader because he was clear about what he could offer the firm. He says: “Plenty of people work hard, but a lot is about having a real understanding of what it takes to be a partner in the firm you’re at.”

He also feels that his age offered EC Harris an easy way to bridge the gap between older partners and site-based workers: “Being younger does mean you have different things to offer. I can empathise with the guys on the ground, and with clients. It’s not unusual for clients to be under 30 years old.”

Hawkins doesn’t feel that he has sacrificed much during his rise. He has a long-term partner and an active social life, and is a season ticket holder at Arsenal. The one thing he may have missed out on is travelling. “Looking back, I maybe could have taken the opportunity to travel a bit more when I wasn’t working,” he says. “It’s slightly harder when you have to persuade people you’re entitled to a really long sabbatical.”

(l-r) JM Erasmus, Ed Bartlett, Matt Hawkins, Karen Gidwani
Credit: Bohdan Cap

Karen Gidwani

Partner, Fenwick Elliott

Career path

24 Qualifies at law practice Sharpe Pritchard after studying at Oxford and joins construction department at Titmuss Sainer Dechert.
25 Moves to Fenwick Elliott
26 Promoted to associate
30 Becomes a partner

Oxford-educated Karen Gidwani makes no secret of the ambition that drove her rapid rise to partnership. “There would be no point in doing my job without the ultimate aim of becoming a partner,” she says.

“You don’t do specialist law just to hang around.”

Five months ago, her ambition reaped its reward when she was made a partner in the firm she joined five years ago. Although she studied law at university, it was only after qualifying that she made the decision to specialise in construction, driven by childhood memories of her father’s job as a civil engineer. “He worked on Docklands for George Wimpey,” Gidwani recalls. “I was excited by construction. We don’t get to do enough site visits as lawyers.”

Gidwani’s rise was boosted by the fact that she works for a small, niche firm that recognised her talent quickly. But even with the close support of the partners she has not always found progression easy. “Nobody just sails through, and there are pressured moments,” she admits.

One of these is the reaction she faces from some clients as a young woman. “Women tend to look younger than men anyway, so I have had to be quite careful,” she says. “I have walked into meetings and been treated sceptically because of my age. But after you’ve been working with someone for a while, they stop seeing you as young and just see you as their lawyer.”

Despite this, Gidwani says she wouldn’t have done anything differently. There is little time for friends and family, particularly for those who live outside London, but she says that (so far at least) people support her choices. “Everyone I’m close to has a job which requires a lot of energy and thought, so I wouldn’t say my career has a negative impact,” she says. “All of us are under pressure, but we are still a close knit group of friends and we are happy for each other.”