He’s the boy from Bradford, done good – a ‘tough as nails’ business leader who built the Shard and steered Mace to become one of the UK’s most prestigious multidisciplinary construction firms. So what happened when Stephen Pycroft was given an on-stage grilling by Building editor Sarah Richardson at Building Live? Joey Gardiner reports. Photography by Dean O’Brien

Stephen Pycroft speaking at Building Live

If there’s one figure in UK construction that fascinates the industry, almost on a par with Ray O’Rourke, then it’s Mace executive chair Stephen Pycroft. The former Bovis project manager, who started his career as a site labourer, has presided over a period, since taking over from Bob White in 2004, in which Mace has grown tenfold, and transformed from a construction manager to one of the biggest contractors in the land – among many other things. Last year his firm, which encompasses fixed-price contracting, consultancy, construction management and facilities management, and works across both building and civils work, at home and overseas, turned over £1.49bn and it is well on course to hit its £2bn turnover target by 2020. Recent months have seen the builder of the Shard mop up a string of high-profile jobs, including that of main construction partner on Tottenham Hotspur’s £400m new stadium.

It’s fair to say majority shareholder Pycroft is the antithesis of the smooth City-friendly corporate managers that run many big builders. Passionate and tough, he has a reputation as a hard taskmaster who is not averse to using the occasional verbal hairdryer to pull people up.

One of Pycroft’s biggest clients says: “A born leader, very honourable and tough as nails. People are scared of him because he’s direct, but he’s one of the best people we deal with.”

So there was little competition when deciding who to ask as the keynote interviewee for Building’s inaugural Building Live conference last week. And Pycroft himself, seemingly keen to dispel any notion he might have retired since passing the chief executive baton to Mark Reynolds in 2013, took little time in accepting the challenge. But, given his straight-talking reputation, it was hard to know how he’d react to an on-stage grilling. Building editor Sarah Richardson put the questions, and below are the highlights of a much more revealing exchange than anyone could have expected.

PYCROFT ON … the market

Sarah Richardson: How are you finding the market at the moment?

Stephen Pycroft: Anybody in the room not seeing the market going up and up right now is not in the right business. But there’s a major question mark at the moment that, 18 months from now, is it going to be sustainable? There’s a nervousness that says, two years from now, can we see these major projects going through. That’s what Mace is questioning right now. Which projects should we pick, where should we aim for 2019-2020 – is it [the market] there? That’s where we concentrate the target now.

Stephen Pycroft speaking at Building Live

You’ve got to hand it to [the Chinese], they’ve worked it well. They’re coming and they’re going to get stronger and stronger

Pycroft on Chinese contractors winning work in the UK

SR: So is there any area in particular that you’re looking at?

SP: Most people are concerned at where the residential market is going – is it softening? What is the spend profile [on projects] over about £1,000 per ft2? If one or two resi jobs drop off, will that send a ripple effect? You look at if the Chinese market is going to stall, is that going to affect investment in the UK? Russia’s in turmoil. So you go what is it going to do? If one or two jobs do stop then is that going to remove the confidence? And you know it’s all about confidence in London. We’re now talking about south of Watford, still up north there’s very little major construction going on.

Even abroad, the likes of Qatar with the oil price reduction, there’s a reduction in major pipelines of work. Even in Dubai there’s a constraining of projects coming through, which worries us, as a global company.

PYCROFT ON … Chinese contractors

SR: As how much of a credible competitive threat do you see Chinese contractors?

SP: They’re coming, the Chinese, and they will be credible. Most people that know me know that I was a bit annoyed to say the least that we lost One Nine Elms to China State and Interserve.

The clever thing they [Chinese developer/contractors] do [is that] when they bring Chinese finance, they expect a Chinese contractor to come with them. And with a Chinese contractor they expect Chinese materials as much as possible. You’ve got to hand it to them, they’ve worked it well. They’re coming and they’re going to get stronger and stronger.

We’re not going to stop it. The question is how the hell are we going to adapt, as Mace, to compensate for it. Because I think a Chinese contractor must buy a major contracting organisation in the UK, to give themselves credibility in the UK market. At the moment they’re winning all the work, where a Chinese funder is there. Soon they’ll just buy somebody and then they’ll be a mega force to be dealt with.

Stephen Pycroft speaking at Building Live

SR: Are you talking Mace or someone else?

SP: Not Mace. It was rumoured they looked at Balfour Beatty. But I think it’s only a matter of time. It won’t be Mace, by the way.

PYCROFT ON … who’s in charge?

When the red mist descends and I lose my head and people get a few verbals, it’s because we’re not doing what we’ve promised. And that’s when I get tough

Pycroft on his ‘tough’ reputation

SR: You’re executive chairman of Mace, so how hands on are you, and who’s really in charge?

SP: Mark [Reynolds is] the chief exec and he runs it day to day. I’m there to support him and give him strategic direction. I love it when people say “Stevie, I thought you’d retired, I thought you were taking it easy.” Far from it. My view is that I help Mark strategically, and I work with clients and help deliver construction projects. I’m personally involved with a number of projects where Mace has challenges. Mark may be guided occasionally.

SR: That sounds pretty hands on to me.

SP: Yes. That’s what I like doing. Most clients, when they get Mace, they expect a hands on board director.

Stephen Pycroft speaking at Building Live

SR: What happens if you disagree?

SP: If Mark and I disagree it’ll be in a private room where the two of us have a debate. And whether he’s right or I’m right, we’ll both agree that’s the way forward, because we can never show any disconnect outside of that room.

PYCROFT ON … getting tough

SR: You have a reputation for being very tough, particularly early in your career. Have you mellowed?

SP: It’s not about being hard. I think I expect, and clients expect of Mace, that people do what they say they’re going to do. If you say you’re going to do something on the tin, do it. When the red mist descends and I lose my head and people get a few verbals, it’s because we’re not doing what we’ve promised. And that’s when I get tough.

I’m straightforward and it’s very easy – you’ve said you’re going to do something, [so] do it. And if you don’t do it, get ready to get your head chopped off because we’re not going to mess around. This is not a lightweight game – we’re dealing with lots of money and reputations. And Mace’s reputation is built on doing what you say you’re going to do. And at times I get really annoyed when we fail to do that. The expectation is step up. People who work with me get an easy ride if they do what they do and do it well. If they don’t, well, be careful, because it’s not going to be pleasant. And that’s in a light manner without the expletives.

Stephen Pycroft speaking at Building Live

PYCROFT ON … suppliers

SR: You have an initiative with your suppliers, Mace Business School, that I think Mace presents as a CSR benefit. I’m aware there are some people who object to the fact they have to pay fees to be a part of this and see it as a way for Mace to make money off its supply chain. What’s your response to that?

You know what? We’ve done what we said we’d do. We’ve been instrumental in helping the UK deliver the Olympics And we’ve delivered the Shard

Pycroft on his proudest moments

SP: We’ve had this on a number of occasions and we say if people don’t want to be members of the supply chain or the Business School then don’t be members. You know what, there’s an expectation again that people are trained in what they do. And there’s one thing in this industry we don’t do, is train our people. So we set up this academy to try and train our suppliers for two ends really. One, if they can do their job better, plan it, organise it, manage it better, know how to write a method statement, a risk assessment, a lifting plan and all this other bureaucracy that seems to have crept into this industry – it would make it easier for our managers on site. So our view is join the club, take full advantage of it. And by the way, if we want to tweak an individual programme to get the best for your industry, then we’ll do it. Those people who embrace it, and want to learn and improve, never question it. There are those people that say we never get on the Mace supply chain because we don’t pay the business school fees £30,000 a year or whatever it is. And we ask: “What other training would you do?” If someone said we’re not going to pay the business school, but we spend £150,000 on training our own staff then we’d say fine, love it.

SR: Do you reinvest all of the fees or do you profit from it as a Mace business?

SP: We reinvest this money in the business in some way shape or form. In better programmes, in better training. If the company gets better, and we win more and we do more projects, then all our supply chain should benefit.

PYCROFT ON … Mace’s structure

SR: You have a lot of different businesses within Mace. Is that a model other contractors should follow?

SP: Having internal businesses does cause internal conflict at times, especially if you set up separate P&Ls under businesses. It’s constantly under review. Especially if you set up businesses within companies that then can charge other parts of the business and try and make a profit. At Mace, [when the] snow’s falling, the turkey’s on the table, Christmas is coming, [it means] the structure’s going to change. And even this year now we’ve gone, “let’s forget all this internal charging, let’s get back to some basics”. So it’s always under review. It has its upsides. Our Mace M&E company has done great and dug us out of a few holes. We’d have done really badly if we hadn’t had them around us. On other occasions it’s got too messy and it’s caused more admin than we need. So we said scrap all the internal charging, it’s all as one.

Stephen Pycroft speaking at Building Live

SR: Will that remain the case?

SP: That’s been a nine-month programme with EY, the Simply Better progamme. Because you can never stand still – an age old saying is don’t believe your own PR. If you start to believe your own PR, that you’re one of the best, you’ll start going backwards. We’ve got to start improving. Everyone in contracting in one way, shape or form knows you can always deliver projects better. I said to someone in the pub last night: marks out of 10 for Mace? I’m a hard marker, by the way. I said Mace are about four out of 10 at the moment – there’s lots of room for improvement, lots of ways we could be delivering projects better. Luckily enough a lot of our competition are at the three or four mark as well.

PYCROFT ON … his best moment

SR: What’s your proudest moment when you look back?

SP: In 2001 I bought this company off Ian Mac[pherson]. Ian Mac said: “Stevie, I need a few quid and you take it over.” We sat about and said we want this company to be good.

Ultimately, in 2012 I was at the opening of the Olympics: I had Gerald Ronson, I had Irvine Sellar, I had [John] Ritblat and few others around me. And I thought: “You know what? We’ve done what we said we’d do. We’ve been instrumental in helping the UK deliver the Olympics with Laing O’Rourke and CH2M Hill, and we’ve delivered the Shard, which was a mega achievement for me personally.” And then we hit the £1bn mark. And I’m thinking: “Boy from Bradford. 2001. 2012. It can’t get much better than this.” You’ve got to prick yourself sometimes and look back and say: “Wow, isn’t this great?”