Turner & Townsend’s boss is looking beyond the UK’s third lockdown to a ‘golden era’ for construction

vince clancy headshot

For a man who has seen business at one of his most important divisions – aviation – nosedive 60% in the past year, Vince Clancy is feeling pretty positive about life.

Being positive can have a different meaning these days and Clancy is more aware of that than most. The Turner & Townsend chief executive, only the fourth in its 75-year history, tested positive for covid-19 shortly before Christmas and spent the festive period self-isolating at his Surrey home with his family.

Now covid-free, the 56-year-old is looking forward and trying to work out when things start to return to some sort of normality.

A global business, with over 100 offices, T&T is always going to be subject to the hot and cold of global economics: what is doing well in one part of the world might not be doing so well in another and so on.

He is looking to Australia and New Zealand for inspiration. Those two countries have locked down harder than most and are bearing the rewards. In the week, the Glastonbury music festival announced it was off for another year, pictures emerged on social media of a music festival taking place in New Zealand last weekend – outdoors and with lots of people standing next to each other in the sunshine.

Global governments’ plans to meet zero-carbon targets mean those working in construction stand on the edge of a “golden era, a once in a lifetime opportunity”

While right now it seems like a different world for those living in the northern hemisphere, Clancy says the two nations are a sign that normality will return eventually. In the UK a common mantra of “we’ll get through this, this will end” is all well and good but here is evidence of that, maybe tentatively, happening.

Clancy says Australia and New Zealand give his firm “confidence” that things will get back to normal and once they do, he says pent-up demand will fire up economies quicker than maybe some think. It’s not all roses and for every data, tech and life sciences sector there is retail, hospitality and aviation.

But he has been impressed with the way the construction industry here in the UK, his firm’s biggest market, has dealt with the pandemic. It is no exaggeration to say that last March, there was a very real risk parts of the industry could fall over as rumours that a lockdown was coming mounted. It did and the industry did not. Instead, it collaborated on a scale it probably never thought was previously possible and got back up and running in a matter of weeks.

> News: Industry has weathered covid storm better than expected

While the recent debate about workers packing onto the Tube raged, it was telling the discussion never strayed into the site protocols that have been adopted by the industry. They, by and large, seemed to have worked and mass shutdowns so far avoided.

Government support has been key to the industry weathering the pandemic storm and Clancy says Whitehall’s commitment to infrastructure spending will stand the industry in good stead.

Most accept that what the pandemic has done is accelerate change in the industry by several years. Clancy is no different. MMC and digital technology will herald a new dawn, he says, adding global governments’ plans to meet zero-carbon targets mean those working in construction stand on the edge of a “golden era, a once in a lifetime opportunity”.

It is difficult to see beyond the dreadful death rate from covid, certainly here in the UK, but while chief executives are paid to deal with the here and the now, they are also tasked with predicting what might happen when things, eventually, settle down.

It is not easy and Clancy says the uncertainty of covid, has made things doubly difficult. The financial crash was easier to navigate because there were familiar red flags and reference points from previous recessions – Clancy joined T&T in 1989 just as the industry tipped into the recession of the early 1990s. In a sense, there was an idea of what to do. With covid, because no one has had to deal with a global pandemic before, those reference points are not there anymore.

But there is some good news in all this, Clancy says. “The economic impact has been a lot less than I thought at the time [of the first lockdown last March] and the industry has been more resilient than I expected.” And right now, that is at least one good positive to end on.