As Mace chairman Steve Pycroft prepares to bow out, he will be remembered above all else as the man who delivered the Shard – and delivered it in style. Dave Rogers talks to him about the project that changed everything. 


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Source: Tom Campbell

Steve Pycroft in front of the Shard

Steve Pycroft has a word to describe things when they get a bit hairy. “It could have got a bit tasty,” he says of the decision to build the Shard.

Others in Mace at the time were less convinced of the probity of a move to build London’s tallest tower for a fixed price of £500m. “There were discussions at board level saying,  ‘can we not not do this?’, ‘Do we need to do lump sum because there is a major concern it will send us bust?’”

He recalls his daughter telling him after he had been discharged from a second spell in hospital with covid-19 last spring just how perilous things had got. She had managed to get a flight back from Australia, where she was travelling, to be at his bedside in spirit as visitors were banned from seeing those stricken with the virus in person.

And stricken her dad was. He spent nearly four weeks on a ward in an induced coma. Doctors later told him it was touch and go whether he would pull through. “It was only after I’d got out, Jessica said: ‘Dad, you know it got fairly tasty’.”

If Mace had a godfather, Pycroft (pictured) would be it. It is still extraordinary to comprehend that, around the year 2000, Mace had a turnover of something like £65m and yet, seven-odd years later, was taking on a £500m contract to build a tower whose design had already caught the public imagination because of its resemblance to a shard of glass. It could not have been a higher profile scheme for a firm to make its major contracting debut.

For those who know the 63-year-old, who is calling time on his career at the firm next month after close to 30 years at the business, what he now says about the Shard and battling coronavirus won’t surprise them a bit.

“There was never a doubt we could build it,” he says of the tower. And his brush with death and covid-19? “I didn’t think it was that life threatening.”

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But Pyrcroft is sharp enough to know deep down that building a very tall tower for a lump sum above one of London’s busiest railway stations could have sent the firm under. And he also knows that he was one of the lucky ones last spring. He survived, but thousands didn’t.

He is leaving Mace and construction behind, he says, because he is not enjoying it as much as he used to. “I’ve fallen out of love with it a bit,” he concedes. “I used to love every minute of every day. Now it doesn’t have that kind of appeal anymore. If you’re not enjoying it, stop doing it.”

I’m a dinosaur. The dinosaurs are dying and I’m one of them

Pycroft admits that he misses the rough and tumble of the old days, when deals could be done in a pub or over the phone.

“I won’t hide from the fact that I’m a dinosaur. The dinosaurs are dying and I’m one of them. When I listen to how much IT is involved on projects these days, we’re using this and doing that, using this kind of software for recruitment and I go: ‘Yeah, it’s not me.’ I’m sad that it’s not me, but it’s not me.

“The world has changed. There’s corporate governance, it is more strict on accounting since Carillion went bust.

“Accountants have got a lot more paranoid about everything and anything. The whole fun of running a business has slowly dwindled away. [Decisions are] more driven by corporates and group decisions, not by single individuals who are willing to put their head above the parapet. There’s too much scrutiny, criticism, question marks.”

It sounds like a lament – and some of it is – but he is self-aware enough to know that times have changed and it’s time to get out.

Strong relationships

To give an example of just how things have altered, he remembers the time he helped to put together the CLM team that was charged with making sure the venues and infrastructure for the 2012 Olympics got built.


Taking on the Shard could easily have sunk Mace. Instead the sheer ambition of the project propelled the firm to the premier league 

Mace was speaking to CH2M Hill, a US company that was little-known in the UK at the time. It was interested in the Olympics role and was hoping Laing O’Rourke might be too.

But there was a problem. The Americans were having difficulty getting hold of Ray O’Rourke. “So I rang Ray,” Pycroft recalls. “He said he was up for listening, we went down to Dartford [where Laing O’Rourke is based] and he said: ‘yeah, let’s go for it’.” It took half a day for the joint venture to be born.

“Relationships throughout my career have always been important,” he says. None more so than perhaps his ones with developers Gerald Ronson and the late Irvine Sellar.

Ronson, who successfully rebuilt his reputation after being handed a one-year prison sentence for his role in a 1980s share trading fraud, was the developer of the Heron Tower, the KPF-designed scheme built by Skanska, where Mace was the project manager.

Ronson was sufficiently impressed because Pycroft, who counts Ronson as a personal friend, says: “Gerald said: ‘Have a word with my little mate about a job he’s got’.”

That person turned out to be Irvine Sellar, who started out as a fashion retailer in London’s swinging 60s, later buying up the site of the Shard, then the headquarters of accountant PwC, in the late 1990s.

“If we hadn’t had a good relationship with Irvine, we wouldn’t have built it,” he says. But it was Pycroft’s rapport with Sellar that was key.

“All credit to Irvine, he said he wanted Mace. He wanted an individual he could relate to and I was lucky enough for that to be me. I got on well with Gerald, was fairly well known in the industry and that ticked boxes for Irvine.”

Sellar died four years ago but Pycroft’s relationship with the developer remains strong, turning out recently for the topping out ceremony of its Paddington Square scheme which Mace is building in west London, where he made a speech alongside Sellar’s son James.


The Shard had been in the pipeline for some years before work in earnest started in 2009. On-off for several months, Sellar eventually got through the 2007/08 crash and secured the funding needed from a consortium of Qatari investors. But Pycroft knew there would be a problem. “The weakness was the Mace balance sheet. We didn’t have one.”

Pycroft had to sweat it out as others, notably Sir Robert McAlpine and Laing O’Rourke, took a look at the job. Rival interest cooled, perhaps put off because they knew Sellar would try and stick with Mace. “All credit to Irvine because [in his discussions with the Qataris] he said: ‘I want Mace’. But Mace hadn’t got the balance sheet until Irvine stepped in and helped provide us with forward funding in terms of placing orders with contractors.”

Pycroft only met the Qataris a few times during the project. “The questions were fairly direct and succinct,” he remembers. “If there was flak to come from the Qataris, Irvine would always shield us from it. He would turn around and say: ‘Just make sure it’s delivered, Stephen’.”

I know a number of others said Mace would never deliver it in the programme. We had constantly got this comment from other major contractors that we weren’t regarded as one

The deal was a game-changer for Mace. Previously, its typical jobs were around £40m and some rivals sneered at it for just being a construction manager. As the Shard’s procurement process dragged on and funding chopped and changed, Mace progressed from a project manager to a construction manager to, finally, the main contractor.

“It put us in the premier league of construction,” Pycroft says. “There was no doubt it was a massive surprise to some. How can Mace be doing a £500m job? Why has Irvine supported them in delivering this? I know a number of others said Mace would never deliver it in the programme. We had constantly got this comment from other major contractors that we weren’t regarded as one. ‘It’s alright being a CM but you never take the risk. It’s all easy.’

“There was a lot of verbals, lots of chit chat, ‘you never have skin in the game’ and for me it was, you know what, let’s just go and show them all what we can do. Let’s just go and show them we can deliver it. If we were going to pick a job [to do that], we may as well pick one that’s the highest one in London.”

He adds: “I do look back and think: ‘Wow, we’re just stepping into a £500m, two-stage bid’. Perhaps I should have been more twitched. If the market changes, 2% or 3% margin can just be lost on inflation.”

The outsider

If Mace was an outsider at the time, perhaps it was a reflection of where Pycroft came from. He grew up in Bradford, his interest in construction sparked by his father, Arnold, a painter and decorator. Like many who make their way to the capital from the regions, Pycroft had something to prove. “I’ve been 40 years down in London. The plan was to pop down from Bradford, make a few bob and go back up North.”


The last pieces of steel are moved in to place at the top of the Shard 

He graduated as a quantity surveyor from Trent Polytechnic in the early 1980s, joining Gardiner & Theobald. He stayed there for 18 months before deciding that he didn’t like it anymore. “Bovis came along and said, ‘we’ll employ you as a QS, but you will have the chance to become a project manager’.”


His degree and experience at G&T was not to be wasted, though. “I think some of the best project managers are quantity surveyors by profession. It gives you an understanding of what is real cost and value, a bit more of a grounding in how decisions should be made.”

He remembers his first job at Bovis in a flash. “35-38b George Street in Richmond. A little cut and carve. Office and retail, £3m to £4m. I never looked back.”

At Bovis he met Ian Macpherson, who would later help to set up Mace in 1990, and it was Macpherson who gave him his first major project manager role at Bovis – the ITN building on Grays Inn Road in London in 1988.

Those who worked on it read like a who’s who of the industry. Developed by Peter Rogers and Stuart Lipton when the pair were at Stanhope, QS was Davis Langdon’s Paul Morrell – later to become the government’s first construction tsar – the architect was Norman Foster, with those from the practice working on it including Ken Shuttleworth, later to found Make, and Grant Brooker, now its head of studio.

The late Tony Fitzpatrick, the structural engineer whizz from Arup, who would later work on the Shard, was also there. “Ray O’Rourke was pouring concrete,” he adds.

Macpherson left to set up Mace after Bovis began to eschew the CM route. “Ian Mac said to them: ‘If you’re not going to do CM anymore, I’m going to go and form my own company’. So he did.”

Pycroft knew the call would come from Macpherson at some stage – he had told him to expect it – and it did, in 1993. He joined as a project manager and on his first day Macpherson sent him off to a job in Smithfield Market. “It was a combined heat and power scheme. I thought I had come in to run a big job at Mace and Ian Mac said ‘pop down there for a couple of weeks and look after it, Stephen’. A year later I emerged from the basement, two stone lighter, to eventually go and do the job I was brought in to do.”

That turned out to be 1-19 Victoria Street, a refurbishment scheme that would later become the central London base for the Department for Trade and Industry.

His rise at Mace was meteoric, leading a management buyout in 2001 when Macpherson decided to sell his one-third stake. “None of us were business people at the time and Ian was very helpful in trying to make sure there were no major cashflow issues.”

We’ve all been on major projects that have gone wrong. We did some resi in Birmingham that cost us money, resi in Manchester that cost us money

Pyrcoft took over as chief operating officer, becoming chief executive in 2004 and executive chairman in 2008. “Me and Ian Macpherson would pinch ourselves. Did we think we’d be this £2bn turnover company? No, not at all.”

For every Shard, the firm has had its share of schemes it would rather forget. “We’ve all been on major projects that have gone wrong. We did some resi in Birmingham that cost us money, resi in Manchester that cost us money.”

They were more than a decade ago but Pycroft cautions: “We moved out of our power base in London and we didn’t have that sway with the supply chain and it cost us money.”

In London itself, the firm lost around £40m on the Nova office building in Victoria. Finished four years ago, the job was fixed at around £400m but the design had not been completed and the cost of wages and materials began to outstrip what it had agreed with Landsec to build it for. “Nova was probably the biggest [loss],” Pycroft says. “You realise how fragile profits are.”

He picks the Shard as his favourite job. “It was a time and a place with a great group of people. We all had some good fun, it was tough, but we all enjoyed it. There was rarely any recrimination or finger pointing.”

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Steve Pycroft looks back over a long and impressive career with Building’s Dave Rogers

He will miss construction, the tales and the yarns, the moments that stunned the industry. Such as? O’Rourke buying Laing for a pound – “the deal of the century, Ray deserves his seat at the top table” – Multiplex taking on the job to rebuild Wembley stadium after its joint venture bid with Bovis disintegrated – “there was a big gasp at that” – Carillion going bust – “the senior people got too divorced from their own business”.

He recognises that people such as him are leaving the industry bit by bit. “They’re drifting away or passing away,” he says, sadly.

“It’s a lot more controlled and professional, which is good in so many ways but that comes with the removal of entrepreneurialism, a bit of fun. The mavericks are not part of that new era.”

Miss it he will, but he is adamant that he is not coming back and, in January, he returns to Yorkshire to be closer to his two older sisters and younger brother.

“I’ll remain a [Mace] director, me and [chief executive] Mark Reynolds [between them they own around 50% of the business] will no doubt keep in touch, but there will be no day-to-day involvement. I’ve done enough, it’s time to walk away. I’ve put my heart and soul into Mace and it’s time to draw a line. Mace is in safe hands.”

Might he not be tempted by a non-executive role in case he misses those Mace board meetings at 8am every Monday morning a bit more than he thought? “Not interested,” he says.

He is planning more travel, has a bike ride across the Pyrenees to complete next summer and a trip to tackle Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain, planned for later on in the year.

“I don’t want to get to 70 and then stop and not be able to do anything. I’ve got my health and let’s go and enjoy it while we can. There’s still plenty of things to do in the world.”

Over but not out

It was a neighbour who noticed Steve Pycroft wasn’t looking too good when she popped round to his house one day last March. He had come back from the US, was coughing, struggling to get up the stairs.

“She said: ‘You look shit, Stephen, I’d better get the ambulance’.” And so began a stay at Wexham Hospital, near Slough, with covid-19 which saw him put into an induced coma for nearly four weeks over two stretches.

He was discharged after a couple of weeks, only to be whisked back in when he contracted pneumonia. He doesn’t remember too much about the whole thing apart from being asked his name and date of birth every day when he was roused from his coma by the nurses.

The strain for his two children – Elliott, 22 and older sister by two years, Jessica – was hard. Jessica flew back from Australia, the birthplace of her late mother Joanne who died from breast cancer aged 39 in 2006, to be with her dad.

Pycroft’s spell in hospital helped him make up his mind over a decision as to when he would leave Mace. “There were a number of things that make you question what you do,” he says. “It had already been heading that way [to leave].”

Elliott and Jessica didn’t hear much for the first few days he was in hospital. “Nobody knew what was going on, which added to the anxiety and stress.” Discharged in May, it took him the rest of the year to recover. “There’s been no post-covid issues, though” he says. “I’m fortunate.”

Mace was my saviour as well. I could immerse myself in work much to the criticism of a number of people

After the death of Joanne, he threw himself into his work. “Mace was my saviour as well. I could immerse myself in work, much to the criticism of a number of people because I came back fairly soon after Joanne’s death. If you immerse yourself in work, you can ignore the real world.”

There is black humour when he mentions his wife’s reaction to the prospect of her going before him. “We always thought I would die first with the lifestyle I lived. Work hard and play hard. She said: ‘That’s the worry Stephen, I’m leaving these two children with you’.’” He admits: “It was tough for me but it was tougher for Elliott and Jessica.”

He is immensely proud of them, that much is obvious. Elliott is working at Mace as an assistant project manager and Jessica as a parliamentary researcher. “I’m more than pleased at how they’ve turned out and that’s an understatement.”

He says Jessica has no interest in construction. “Too aggressive,” he says, though he concedes that is changing – and for the better. “There’s rarely effing and blinding across the table anymore. It’s just not acceptable.”

Doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss it, though. It is left to his son to rib him about his dad’s sometimes four-letter tirades. “He told me I had made a career out of swearing and I said: ‘Elliott, I made a career out of giving clear direction that was unambiguous and which everybody knew’.”

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November’s issue of Building

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Steve Pycroft CV

1958 Born Bradford, West Yorkshire 

1980 Graduated from Trent Polytechnic 

1981 Joined Gardiner & Theobald as a QS 

1983 Moved to Bovis as a QS then project manager 

1993 Joined Mace 

1995 Appointed Mace group board director 

2001 Led management buyout, appointed Mace chief operating officer 

2004 Appointed Mace chief executive 

2008 Appointed Mace executive chairman  

2012 Stood down as CEO 

2012-21 Mace executive chairman and then group chairman 

December 2021 Will stand down from company, though remains a director with a 17% share of the business