The man credited with pulling Schal’s chestnuts out of the fire at the Royal Opera House is now its boss. So how’s he going to make sure the company’s troubles are behind it?
For a man who has just accepted what many in the industry consider a poisoned chalice, Paul Reeder is remarkably relaxed. More than that, the managing director of Schal has clearly enjoyed his four months in the hot seat.

Mild-mannered and courteous, Reeder is described by many in the industry as a safe pair of hands. His appointment followed the resignation last October of former chief executive Malcolm Bairstow. And he took the helm at a troubled time for the construction manager. Its reputation received quite a battering in 1999, with a number of clients saying they had lost confidence in the company after its involvement in three difficult, high-profile lottery projects.

A quantity surveyor by profession, Reeder spent more than 20 of his working years with Wimpey, mostly in the Middle East. He joined the board of Schal in 1995 as part of the Wimpey/Tarmac assets swap.

He is widely credited with delivering the controversial £220m refurbishment of the Royal Opera House on time. He was sent in to troubleshoot the project 18 months before its completion and impressed everyone who worked with him with his running of it. “Mostly, he brought clarity,” says one insider. “He was very good at cutting through problems and finding solutions. He pulled the job out of the fire.”

After a long recruitment process, which saw Schal’s parent Carillion interview a number of big hitters outside the company, Reeder was appointed. Many believe that he was offered the job because the Carillion board feared that a number of Schal’s senior staff would leave if an outsider were appointed, and the industry view of Reeder is that he has been brought in to steady the ship rather than take it into new and more interesting waters. In short, he is a solid, rather than an innovative, manager.

Reeder allows himself a wry smile before disagreeing with the description. “In principle, I probably am a safe pair of hands,” he says. “It’s true that I don’t make snap decisions; I like to review things first. But in terms of shaking things up, I am doing that. I’ve got a lot of new ideas for Schal.

“I’ve already changed the way the board operates and there will be other changes. I’ve told some of our more senior directors to be more outward-focused. They should be out there talking to clients more and finding out exactly what it is they want from us.”

Reeder is anxious to draw a line under Schal’s troubled recent past but he is not afraid of facing the issues raised by its involvement in three of the UK’s most high-profile projects. Many in the industry felt that Schal had taken on too much with three undeniably difficult projects: the opera house, Tate Modern and the Royal Court Theatre refurbishment. However, like Edith Piaf and Norman Lamont, Reeder has no regrets.

“People are aware that we built the opera house and the Tate, and we’ll get kudos and publicity for that,” he explains. “We always end up talking about those projects to new clients and they always say to us that they are terrific jobs. I think that’s a big benefit to us .”

Going through each of the three projects individually, Reeder brushes off criticism of Schal’s involvement. “As far as the Tate goes, anyone who has seen the television show will see we had problems. But it’s nothing more than would be expected on any large project on an existing building. We were also dealing with a set of very artistic clients. But it’s finished on time and looks great.

“Yes, the Royal Court was late. But, at the end of the day, it’s a superb job and our relationship with the client is tip-top. It is over the moon with what has been achieved there.

“Sure, we had problems on the opera house, but it all went very well in the end. Anything that went wrong, big or small, got publicity because it was such a high-profile job. But it’s a superb building now and, on the whole, the project went very well.”

Talk of the opera house and Tate Modern inevitably brings up Stanhope’s name – it project managed both jobs, and its director, Peter Rogers, famously claimed that Schal had lost its ability to manage large schemes.

It’s true that I don’t like to make snap decisions; I like to review things first. But in terms of shaking things up, I am doing that

Reeder was working with Rogers on an almost daily basis at the opera house. Did his very public attack on Schal make working together more difficult? Again, Reeder allows himself a slight smile before answering. “Well, I wasn’t happy about it. But we didn’t believe or accept his comments and it gave us that extra bit of determination to get the bit between our teeth and prove him wrong by finishing the job. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all water under the bridge now.”

Essentially a private person, Reeder is happier talking about Schal and its future than about himself. Beyond mentioning that he took a year off work while in the Middle East to organise the Dubai Rally, Reeder keeps his personal life filed in a separate cabinet drawer to his working life.

For some in the industry, Reeder’s weakness is that he lacks technical expertise.

“It’s a fair point,” says Reeder. “I do need a good bits and pieces man, but I’ve got people close to me that have the detailed building skills I lack. Clients have the dream ticket.”

Reeder’s vision for the future of Schal includes improving its margins over the next two years, partly through internal efficiencies – not a euphemism for job losses – and partly through providing a better service that will ensure clients keep returning to Schal.

“I don’t want Schal to be the biggest CM company in the UK. I want it to be the best,” he says. “And we’ll achieve that not by bidding for every job that comes in the door, but by building relationships with existing clients, ensuring we understand what they want.

“More than 50% of our work is repeat business with key clients like Sainsbury’s, Standard Life, BP and Nokia. We’ve got £130m of work on line at the moment and it’s all from repeat clients. That says a lot about how clients see us.”

The recent move to forge closer and more public links with Carillion is also part of Reeder’s overall strategy to provide a better service than its CM competitors. “Over the past 10 years, CM has been about 10% of the construction market, but nowadays, pure CM is less than that. The product is changing, and companies like us, with the backing of Carillion, are able to offer clients lump-sum price security. That’s part of the reason why we’re lucky having Carillion at the back of us.

“But also, I look at Carillion and think ‘Christ, what a wealth of expertise and resource there is available for us to tap into and use for the benefit of our clients’.”

Reeder is also keen to expand Schal’s project management portfolio. “It’s an area we haven’t capitalised on and one we should expand. We’re doing some, most notably the World Square project (Foster and Partners’ design for a revamped Trafalgar Square), and the refurbishment of St George’s Hall in Liverpool, as well as other public sector work. But we want to build on that and do more private sector work.”

And, despite the negative publicity from those high-profile arts projects, Reeder is also keen to do more schemes like the Royal Opera House, Tate Modern and Royal Court.

“We’ve probably done more work for the arts sector than any other contractor in the UK.

Personal effects

Age 55. Where do you live? Limehouse, in London. Who’s in your family? I’m getting married to Denise in October. What are you reading? Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. I enjoy Wilbur Smith’s books. I have a passion for Africa, although I’ve never been there. What’s your favourite film? Schindler’s List. It’s the only film that has ever brought a tear to my eye. What are your hobbies? Denise and I both enjoy horse riding and I like a round of golf. I also used to enjoy rally driving when I worked in the Middle East.