How does a 34-year-old accountant with no real previous get the top of one of the country's largest housebuilders? Well, as we found out, a brain the size of a planet helps …
When a young man without a jacket or tie walks into a West End office, you expect him to ask directions to your dodgy photocopier. You don't expect him to sit down on a semicircular leather armchair and begin to tell you his plans for one of the nation's biggest housebuilders.

But it's a hot summer day and formality is not Peter Redfern's style. In fact, make that Pete. "That's what my family calls me," he says, and anyway it differentiates him from his boss, Peter Johnson. Pete is chief executive of George Wimpey UK; Peter is the chief executive of Wimpey Group, including its American subsidiary Morrison Homes.

Redfern has been in place for six months, since Keith Cushen retired. There was a change of style there: Cushen was a forthright Geordie, but Redfern is a mild-mannered Midlander with roots in accountancy. Don't be fooled by that, though. He joined Wimpey about three years ago as finance director. Now, aged 34, he is king of the castle at an age when most high-achieving housebuilding executives are pondering how to make it into middle management.

Cushen got a buzz out of doing the land deal; Redfern has a different approach: he gets his satisfaction from the transformation of a site. "You've got to be careful of just thinking about the deal," he says. "Land is our lifeblood, but housebuilding is going to be less and less about doing the deal."

The two men represent the traditional and the modern schools of housebuilding management, but Redfern says it hasn't been difficult stepping into Cushen's shoes, even at such a young age. "I've not tried to be Keith. Keith had an outstanding relationship with the people out on site particularly. You'd expect a young accountant to be regarded with suspicion there, but everyone's made it easy for me. You just get on with it. If you don't think about it, nobody else does."

In his first six months of getting on with it, Redfern has kept up Cushen's work and that should ensure a healthy set of figures when Wimpey releases its interim results next month. The group registered a pre-tax profit of £378m last year, having integrated McAlpine Homes and Laing Homes and exploited the resulting economies of scale. Wimpey made £72m of build and overhead cost savings in the process.

Not surprisingly, given the jostling for top spot among the major housebuilders, increasing the group's UK output of 13,000 units a year is integral to Redfern's game plan, particularly in the Laing Homes operation.

But the new CEO is astute enough to echo a favourite theme of his boss by pointing out that the business is not about being the biggest, but about being the best in areas such as customer service.

Wimpey's management may have created an efficient machine, but it is not one that is closely allied to the government's sustainable communities agenda. The company was once a key player in urban regeneration, developing the mixed-tenure Britannia Village in London Docklands in the 1990s, but it is no longer associated with big mixed developments.

You would expect a young accountant to be regarded with suspicion on site, but everyone’s made it easy for me

Just 585 of 11,813 George Wimpey-branded homes built last year were social units.

Redfern acknowledges the point and says Wimpey may change. "It is important to look at how we can take on government agendas and take a positive approach to more affordable housing," he says. "We have a very efficient site operation and that gives us the opportunity on major sites, like those in the Thames Gateway, to deliver something that our competitors can't."

The company already has some work under way on the Thames Gateway and hopes to do more, Redfern says. But though informal Redfern may be, careless with words he is not. Wimpey, he says, would only approach such a venture in a "managed, strategic way".

Those who work with Redfern praise his thoughtfulness, willingness to listen and his brain power – the latter confirmed by a first in mathematics. "He is really quite impressive," says Baroness Dean, the former chair of the Housing Corporation and non-executive director of Wimpey. "He is exceptionally bright and has grasped the issues very quickly. He has visibly matured into the job."

A colleague says that he doesn't come across as a typical accountant, adding that the comment is meant as a compliment. "I was never a natural accountant," says Redfern.

"It was a good way to see lots of businesses and find out what makes them tick. It has been a means to an end for me."

Redfern hasn't done a great deal of number-crunching for the past few years at Wimpey, as he has been occupied with the integration of McAlpine Homes. Redfern personally managed the closure of McAlpine's head office, and he is not afraid to take on awkward jobs. His first job as finance director was in a company where accounting irregularities had been discovered prior to his arrival, meaning that he had to conduct his day-to-day work alongside a bank investigation team.

The leap from finance to broader management has taught Redfern endless lessons, he says. "Mainly I've learned about the differences between managing a business from the point of view of handling facts and figures and from the point of view of motivating people to achieve. That's the difference between the financial mindset and the management mindset."

He pays credit to the people around him for smoothing that learning process, and especially to his predecessor: "Almost everything I know, I've learned from Keith.

Our objectives are the same, but my style is different. Having been in the business for a long time, Keith already had views on things.

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family? My wife Yvonne, two daughters and a son, aged nine, seven and two.

What are your interests? Mainly my family and things connected with my family. I like reading and sport – I’m a rugby fan and a football player.

What are you reading? A science-fiction book by Anne McCaffrey called Freedom’s Landing. It’s not that good, actually. I don’t go in for highbrow reading. I read for relaxation.

What type of house do you live in? I live in a new house, and we are househunting at the moment.
We want to buy new again – we’ve looked at one or two Wimpey houses.