In a career spanning 40 years, former Sir Robert McAlpine London boss Benny Kelly has seen it all, and done most of it, including the Emirates and Olympic stadiums and the Millennium Dome. The one thing he’s never done is give an interview - until now, that is. He tells all to Building
It has taken 40 years, but one of the construction industry’s biggest names is finally ready to open up. Over the last four decades Benny Kelly has worked for one of the UK’s most secretive contractors, making headlines without talking to the press, building up a reputation for being one of the most successful men in his field without ever giving an interview.
For Sir Robert McAlpine, courting the press has always been a big no-no. For years, the firm has managed to surround itself with an impenetrable barrier. Unless you’re in, you’re very much out. But now, while Kelly remains staunchly loyal to his former employer, for the first time since he retired from the firm at the end of 2009, aged 64, he lifts the lid on life at Sir Robert McAlpine just enough for us to catch a rare glimpse of the inner workings of one of the most successful, and most elusive, construction companies in the UK.
And then there is the story of the man himself. At Sir Robert McAlpine’s Mayfair office, he talks in his gentle Irish accent about building up a formidable reputation by, as he puts it, delivering a fair few “bollockings” along the way. He openly discusses his past mistakes, his love of the industry and how he is coping with a new phase of his life since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2005.
Lifting the lid on Sir Robert McAlpine
For Kelly, almost his entire life has centred around his career at Sir Robert McAlpine. He was at the company through the controversial court case in 2004 when Malcolm McAlpine sued the firm set up by his late uncle Alfred, contractor Alfred McAlpine, in the High Court over the use of the family name for the respective businesses. Kelly says the case was a family matter - one he was not directly involved in - though he does say Malcolm was right to take the action against the firm, which proposed dropping “Alfred” from its name and trading simply as “McAlpine”.
Kelly joined the firm in 1968 aged 23, fresh from Ireland and the University of Belfast, desperate to start work on Edinburgh’s stadium for the 1970 Commonwealth Games. This was what drew him to the company - shame, then, that he realised too late that he had made a mistake and McAlpine wasn’t working on the stadium after all. His first scheme ended up being a rather less glamourous brewery extension.
”It’s demanding mixing with people until whatever time. You can’t necessarily achieve the same things if you’ve got the constraints of a good marriage around you”
It may not sound like the sort of project great careers are made of, but Kelly is the first to admit he had a lot to learn. The brewery project actually ended up being something of a calamitous affair; one that went so badly wrong, Kelly feared it could be his last. He made a measuring error that resulted in the scheme being built a foot out of position. “When I came up for my annual review, my supervisor gave me a bonus for my hard work, but no raise, because I fucked up [the measurements],” Kelly says ruefully. “He said, ‘you’re lucky to still be working for us’.”
It turns out it was Sir Robert McAlpine that was lucky. Kelly learned from his mistakes and was soon on his way to a hugely successful career, rising through the ranks to work on some of the UK’s most iconic projects to date, including the Millennium Dome, the Emirates stadium and the Olympic stadium.
Despite these successes, the firm has always eschewed the press. Kelly tries to explain why: “We feel very sensitive to any potential distortion,” he says slowly, thinking hard about his response. “The interpretation of some reporters isn’t necessarily the correct one. It is often better to keep a low profile and say very little.
“Much as we’d like to be shouting from the rooftops about our successes, one always has a failure somewhere. It’s best to keep your cool and be calm. The people who need to know about the firm know about it.”
Ironically, it has been partly this close knit, need-to-know policy that has meant the firm has attracted so much external interest.
Sir Robert McAlpine, owned and run by the high-powered and well-connected McAlpine family, has always gone about its business in a distinctive way. There is no overall boss; instead, the business is split into five regions - Scotland; the North-east; the Midlands and the North-west; Wales and the South-west; and London and the South-east - with each run by a director and a member of the McAlpine family. The firm was well known, especially in the eighties and nineties, for being the hub of the construction social scene. It was famous for its Christmas cocktail party - a guest list in the eighties included names such as Denis Thatcher, Lord Beaverbrook and Michael Parkinson. Kelly describes these events as “some of the best parties in town.” And he still attends.
Kelly was partnered with David McAlpine during his time heading up London and the South-east from 1993 and says he couldn’t have withstood the pressure of the nineties recession without his steadfast support. He says he never felt held back by not being a member of the family. “It’s a family-run company, but they do allow a phenomenal amount of freedom to the directors to get on and do their jobs.” The “vast majority” of McAlpines join the family firm, Kelly says. He has his eye on Edward, shadowing his father David in the South-east; Gavin, heading up McAlpine’s renewable energy business RES; and Hector, joint head of Wales and the South-west, as future leading lights.
While he remains extremely loyal to the firm, Kelly admits there was a point in 2002 when he almost left. He was approached by a “colonial contractor”, but won’t be drawn on which other than saying: “It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.” He adds: “As much as I liked them, I didn’t like them enough.”
Then and now
Despite the occasional fiery dispute, Kelly says he is nostalgic for the days when contractors worked more directly with workers on site. He describes the industry’s move towards employing workers through labour-only subcontractors as the “biggest change” the industry has seen. He wistfully recalls the “characters” he had to deal with and claims the experience of dealing “minute to minute” with the workforce helped make him a better leader. It was on these jobs that Kelly developed his famed eye for detail and hands-on approach. He was known until recently for frequently walking through sites, including the Olympic stadium, and claims that, while understandable, the industry has suffered from the emergence of a more “management style” of contracting. “The characters that go through life in that fashion tend to be more robust, entertaining and interesting than supposed intellectuals. It’s probably true the industry doesn’t lend itself as well to the characters that went before us,” he says.
When Kelly landed the role of regional director for London and the South-east, his celebratory mood was short-lived. Kelly’s arrival in the capital in 1993 coincided with one of the worst recessions the industry has experienced. One of his early tasks was to slash the division’s staff from 600 to about 140. “It was a very testing time in my career,” he says. “Projects were being won at negative margins. People effectively didn’t take holidays and were working extraordinarily long hours. It was tough to do all that and retain the spirit of the community.” The dire patch lasted for four to five years, he says.
But he believes he picked up some valuable lessons from this period that may benefit firms in today’s recession. “Our experience of the nineties was, don’t concentrate on one area of construction,” Kelly says. He also argues that while the current downturn is “going to be tough for the industry,” it’s not as bad as the last one. “My perception is that margins are difficult again, but the recession of the nineties was much worse.” He says the biggest threat is from relationships breaking down between firms and clients. “The most important thing to do in this recession is to try to keep those relationships going.”
Benny the man
His dedication to Sir Robert McAlpine has been unfaltering for all these years but there have been other bonds in Kelly’s life that have not withstood the strain. The demands of establishing relationships and entertaining clients were incompatible with being married. His first marriage ended in 1982, freeing him up to take on the workload. He says the pressures were particularly acute when he was heading up London and the South-east. “I doubt if David and I could have done what we did if we’d been married. It’s demanding, mixing with people until whatever time at Mipim, the BCO [British Council for Offices] conference and so on.
You can’t necessarily achieve the same things if you’ve got the constraints of a good marriage around you.” As if to prove the point, with full-time work now behind him, he felt able to marry his 50-year-old Brazilian partner in July. Kelly - who by his own admission had a reputation for being “footloose and fancy free” - is now “very happy” be to settled down.
Over the past 10 years, Kelly has had more than just the ups and downs of a career to contend with. In 2005 he was diagnosed with the degenerative condition Parkinson’s disease. He describes it as his “second warning” after a severe blood clot led to an operation 11 years ago to put a stent in his heart. He falters slightly when talking about Parkinson’s. “My attitude is it’s the second warning God has given me. He hasn’t taken me out.” He chuckles but there are tears in his eyes. “I’m dealing with it. Ok, it does have its negative sides, but it doesn’t kill you. Or at least if it’s going to kill you, it takes a long time. So you just adapt and be thankful.
Kelly has never been one to take set-backs lying down. He talks passionately about entering a “new phase of life” with his wife (at the time of the interview he’s secretly planning a surprise second honeymoon). He’s also keeping busy with a variety of business interests. He’s taken on a non-executive directorship at an oil and gas exploration firm (“it’s something that gives me a buzz”); he’s consulting for Chorus, part of the Byrne Group, as well as for Sir Robert McAlpine.
“I don’t regard myself as being passive in any form,” he says with a grin. “Some people enter retirement and think ‘I’m going to put my feet up now’.” But there was never any danger of that happening with Benny Kelly.
America or Australia? America
Jaws or Star Wars? Star Wars
Box set or box office? Box set
Football or rugby? Rugby
Chocolate or cheese? Chocolate
Lions or tigers? Tigers
Pool or darts? Pool
Red or white wine? Red
The projects that made a career …
Kelly is proud of the contrasts that can be drawn between major Sir Robert McAlpine projects such as the Emirates and Olympic stadiums and schemes such as Multiplex’s chaos-hit Wembley stadium. It’s all about maintaining relationships, he says: “To some extent [Wembley’s difficulties] may have stemmed from the hard contractual relationship that may have been adopted with the supply chain.”
Kelly says he takes most pride in Sir Robert McAlpine’s successful completion of the Olympic stadium on time and under budget. He spent his penultimate year as regional director for London and the South-east putting together the bid and helped deliver the project in a consultative role after his retirement. “People in the industry were saying the budget constraints were too tight, that we didn’t have the skills, and there was also a lot of negative press speculation to contend with. But it’s been an incredible achievement for McAlpine and a vindication of our decision to go for it.”
He also mentions the Lloyd’s Register building and Millennium Bridge (pictured, left) - despite its “wobbly” opening and the fact the firm “didn’t make any money on it” - as highlights. As North-east regional director he was the driving force behind the firm delivering some of the biggest projects in the region, including Nissan’s first car plant in the UK near Sunderland, one of the UK’s first superconductor factories for Fujitsu and the UK’s first private prison in Stockton-on-Tees.
He adds that one of the things that gives him greatest pleasure is seeing the regeneration spawned by some of the contractor’s major projects, particularly around Greenwich. Sir Robert McAlpine built the Millennium Dome, the arena inside it following the O2 rebrand, and North Greenwich tube station. It also built the Excel conference centre across the river. “When you see all the regeneration that has happened, it’s amazing how east London has improved. It makes you proud to have been involved.”