Top executives are disappearing. They are being taken. Not by a dark alien force but by headhunters, who are making a comeback in construction.
In the last two months, three very senior, high-profile executives have been poached by rivals. Mowlem lost Brian May to Laing. Paul Whitmore left Laing for Morgan Sindall. And most recently, Garvis Snook left Morgan Sindall to join Mowlem.

Headhunting is rife. Recruitment firms specialising in the senior end of the market, such as Hays Montrose, Potensis and Building Recruitment Company, report order books packed with vacancies. “It hasn’t reached the peak it did in the late 1980s, but it is not far off,” says Chris Cheetham, senior manager at Hays Executive.

His views are supported by Bristol-based Building Recruitment Company. Although the firm does not headhunt as such, in the past two weeks, five senior managers in the building and quantity surveying sector have signalled to managing director Andrew Kew that they are not only looking for staff – they are also interested in a step up themselves should the right job come along.

The recent market machinations seem to be caused by a simple lack of good people. Workloads are lively, so there is more demand for staff. Young people have not been taking up construction as a career, and those who have are not necessarily the staff the industry wants – QS firms, in particular, lament the poor quality of graduates. To top it all, clients are becoming more quality-conscious, and s0 the firms they employ have to as well. “There is a small pool of good people in the industry, and to get to them you have to poach,” says Peter Rogers, director of Stanhope.

Poaching is not confined to executives. Good project managers are being taken left, right and centre. In housebuilding, for instance, there is demand for project managers with brownfield experience. Tony Carey, managing director of Berkeley subsidiary St George, is well aware of the value of good staff. “A lot of people are trying to take staff, and over the past 12 months, it has shifted from being senior executives to further down the chain,” he says.

In fact, good people are in such short supply that it is undermining trust between companies in project teams. There are horror stories of clients cherry-picking a contractor or quantity surveyor’s staff. In a recent case, a project management firm working for a telecommunications giant found that its project manager was poached by the client only six weeks into the job. More than likely, the biggest draw was not kudos but salary.

And there’s the rub. It doesn’t matter whether the poaching is the result of an informal round of golf or a series of secret meetings in a service station on the M25, there has to be an enticement. Headhunters say interest from the poachee is crucial, but in most cases, along with a nudge up the greasy pole, it is the recruiter’s money that talks loudest.

So is construction turning into a jungle, with headhunters constantly on the prowl? Are whole teams likely to transfer en masse? It seems that it is heading that way. There are already cases of poached senior managers taking their teams with them. Hays Montrose says this is happening in the traditionally immobile engineering sector. But, mostly, the movement is less dramatic. “In construction, a senior person will leave, and in the next six to 12 months, a trickle of people will follow,” says Cheetham.

But it isn’t all bad. A mobile workforce is a sign of a functioning industry. How else are people to gain experience? And if your staff are constantly being approached by rival firms, that is a form of flattery – as long as they do not all leave. Bob White, chief executive of construction manager Mace, says: “We haven’t been losing people in droves, but I know people have been approached, because they have told me about it. I actually believe that the movement of people around the industry is quite healthy.”

Being at the end of a headhunter’s spear can have its downside. The job may not be all it is cracked up to be. This happened to one project manager, although he figured out before taking the plunge that the title being offered was more impressive than the actual job. “They tried to offer me the title of project director, which we don’t have here. A project manager here may run a £100m contract, so it doesn’t necessarily reflect seniority,” he says. This is a view echoed by St George’s Carey, who has known staff leave for supposedly better jobs only to return a few months later.

Whether or not the job works out, there is no getting away from the fact that the merry-go-round of staff will not stop until either workloads slow or the pool of good-quality people becomes larger.

Diary of a poachee

How a divisional director with a privately owned contractor was poached to become a divisional director with a high-profile plc. Thursday 3 February, 10am: “Mr K? It’s Nigel Stubbs from an executive search company,” says the smooth voice on the other end. “Are you OK to talk?” My first thought is that I don’t need any executives, and of course I can talk. Then it sinks in. The call has come! I and give him my mobile number. Five minutes later, I decide to take up smoking and go outside for a cigarette. The phone goes: “The job is divisional director with a high-profile contractor. A plc, in fact.” I arrange to meet Stubbs next Monday, at 3pm, at the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone. Monday 7 February, 2.30pm: Arrive at the Landmark. No sign of anyone who looks like Stubbs (I imagine a short chap, waist inflated by £100 lunches). 3pm: The mobile goes. “It’s Nigel here. Everything all right? I’m by the reception desk.” Stubbs (tall and thin) and I sit in the lobby and have a coffee. “My name isn’t Stubbs,” he says, explaining the confusion over waistlines. Apparently, they give a false name until they know you’re interested. We go through my CV and he makes the noises made by interested men. At the end, he says he is going to put me on the shortlist. He also reveals the name of the client, a major plc. So, glamourous projects, greater status, a £15 000 rise to £80 000, share options, a BMW 7 Series. Perfect. Wednesday 9 February, 10.30am: Call from headhunter. Chief exec wants to meet me next week. Wednesday 16 February, 6.30pm: Arrive at the firm’s offices. The place is empty. Good job, didn’t fancy bumping into anyone who know anyone. Rigorous interview: “Why do you want to leave? What are your weaknesses? Why did you go into construction?” 10pm: Headhunter calls to see how I got on. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm, I say. Thursday 17 February, 11am: Headhunter phones. They want to see me again. This time with a presentation on how I would bring in new business Friday 18 February, 9pm: Discuss job in more detail with my wife. Wednesday 23 February, 6.30pm: Arrive for second interview armed with trusty laptop and PowerPoint presentation. Face four directors and the chief executive lined up like a friendly firing squad. Thursday 24 February, noon: Headhunter calls to arrange third interview. Monday 28 February, 6.30pm: The big day. Sit down to coffee in the boardroom. The chief exec wants me on the board. We go through contract and salary. Pause for a moment to create I say yes. Wednesday 1 March, 8.30am: Formal offer arrives in the post. I accept. 10am: Catch the boss and hand in my notice. I am now on gardening leave.