Perhaps that's his secret. Understatement rather than showmanship is the hallmark of the Mace chief executive and chairman; White is more about results than rhetoric.
On 1 April, White takes the helm of the Movement for Innovation – the body that oversees the Egan-showcasing demonstration projects. For the past three years, the M4I has preached the Rethinking Construction gospel. It has 185 projects worth a total of £6bn signed up, demonstrating buzzy concepts such as benchmarking, partnering and supply-chain management. But now White wants to cut the proselytising and prove that innovation pays.
"It's a bit of a shake-up," he says modestly, in his soft Sheffield tones. "The principal thing is to secure the business case for the reform movement. There's nothing to be gained from just preaching to people about how good it will be, about the savings they might achieve."
White's appointment is part of a wider move to streamline the Egan movement following complaints that there are too many confusing initiatives. A new Rethinking Construction company, headed by current M4I chairman Alan Crane, will co-ordinate the activities of the various overlapping reform bodies.
According to Crane, White's geniality masks a dogged determination to see things through. "Bob's a grafter," says Crane, who worked with White at Bovis in the 1980s. "He's tenacious – like a little terrier. But he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve; he's a private person."
White, however, is not shy of expressing his feelings about the Egan movement, which he feels has lost its way. "Fragmentation and duplication have been a problem. We're just over halfway through a five-year movement. Anyone with any sense would say: how can we make this more efficient and dynamic?"
White has an armful of ideas to put M4I back on track. Most of all, he wants demonstration projects to live up to their billing and demonstrate how innovation can improve business. M4I will set tougher criteria for projects, discouraging those that trot out tried-and-tested procedures and encouraging those that experiment with techniques such as standardisation and prefabrication.
"We must be more prescriptive about what we want tested. We haven't yet had many projects tackling standardisation. In the past, 30% or more of the projects have been about partnering. We don't need any more of those."
One of my frustrations about M4I is we have not engaged the best people in the industry
Partnering is a bit of jargon that White particularly objects to. "A lot of people think it's about being nice to each other," he says.
"It will suffer from a bad press if people don't become a bit more learned about how they apply it. A client should be able to say, if you're going to partner, tell me how that's going to improve my business case."
White would prefer to ditch the term altogether and replace it with "collaboration": "Collaboration seems to me a much more professional word than partnering."
Under White, M4I will become proactive, seeking out projects and asking clients or construction teams to trial techniques on their sites, he says, rather than waiting for people to volunteer their schemes. It will also work harder to quantify and disseminate useful data about projects. Last year, key performance indicators on demonstration projects were better than the national average. "But that's too broad a statement," says White. "You need more factual evidence to take to a developer, to show how it really benefits his business."
White, 53, trained as an architect and practised for several years before deciding construction was more to his liking. He spent a decade with Bovis before departing in 1989, along with Ian Wylie and Ian MacPherson, to launch Mace as one of the first construction management outfits.
Before forming Mace, the three had been working alongside Stanhope on the ground-breaking Broadgate development in the City of London. The project was the first to introduce fast-track US techniques such as off-site fabrication and steel-frame construction. For White and the others, the project was a revelation. "It changed us in terms of our philosophy, on how the industry ought to be in 50 years," he recalls. "It re-engineered us."
Since then, Mace has tried to remain at the forefront of innovation, becoming a leading flag-waver for the Egan cause. White hopes that M4I will help other firms undergo the same Damascene conversion he underwent on Broadgate. But he is dismayed that so many big players have so far steered clear. "One of my frustrations about M4I is we have not engaged the best people in the industry," he says, specifically mentioning his alma mater Bovis and Broadgate developer Stanhope. "I think they should be sharing their knowledge and their good work. We need to engage some of these better organisations. This is a target of mine, and I'll make sure it happens."
Personal effectsYou’re known for your dress sense. What labels are you wearing today?
Oh gawd. Er, my suit’s Giorgio Armani. Oh, my tie’s Armani as well. It wasn’t on purpose!
What’s your claim to fame?
My son Nick plays for Ridgeway Rovers, which is David Beckham’s first team. He’s got his eye on being David Beckham number two.
What’s your house like?
It’s a mock-Tudor type of thing, built in 1935. Externally I hate it, but we’ve knocked it about and refurbished it. It’s now very comfortable, but it’s still mock-Tudor.
What car do you drive?
A small second-hand Mercedes – yeah, it’s T-reg. I’m not a car man, really. Until three months ago I drove a Golf.