BP man Struan Robertson is the first outsider to run the Wates' family concern in its 104-year history, and he's driving forward something of a quiet revolution.
Struan Robertson was an outsider on two fronts when he took over as chief executive of the Wates Group last November. For one, he was the first non-family member to head the £427m-turnover contractor, renowned as one of construction's last aristocratic family firms, in the mould of Laing or Shepherd. For another, his background was in oil rather than bricks.

Robertson's interest was somewhat stirred when a headhunter approached him about the job. But after meeting then-chief executive Sir Christopher Wates and the board, he realised that his management style, honed by nearly 30 years at BP, would suit Wates. "I was looking for a fresh challenge, but it was really the chemistry between my style and the Wates Group that interested me. The Wates family are terrific people and what they have achieved is a wonderful sense of belonging and teamwork."

His very Scottish name (in full: Dave Duncan Struan Robertson) is at odds with the Zimbabwean twang to his voice. He was born in Rhodesia in 1949. His father was a Scottish immigrant, and his maternal grandfather was the first white child born in the colony.

After gaining a mechanical engineering degree and an MBA, he spent eight years with BP's South African business, during which he ascended rapidly through the ranks. He then moved to the UK and held a series of senior positions, including head of BP's operations in Asia Pacific, central Europe and Russia. He was also chief executive of BP's Oil Trading International arm – the largest oil trader in the world – and chairman of BP's global alliance with Bovis, which built service stations.

This may have given him a client's-eye view of construction, but Robertson still had to adjust from helping to run one of the biggest and most profitable companies in the world to trying to raise the performance of a medium-sized contractor in an industry not known for innovation.

The 51-year-old believes his performance management skills have travelled well from oil to construction. At the same time, the south London-based company has tried to change its reputation as a solid, rather than a spectacular, performer. For example, Wates Interiors was set up last year to muscle in on London's lucrative fit-out market, and this is now posting a healthy £70m turnover. Other specialist teams were formed to tackle rail, education, social housing and the refurbishment of historic buildings.

Six months into the job, Robertson has already set himself, the company and all those hit squads, some testing goals. Heading the list is improving site safety, and this is an area where construction has a lot to learn from oil. "That's where my experience in the oil industry is a real advantage," he says. "The industry's safety record is poor and we've got to do something much more profound."

What he has in fact done, is institute a uniquely rigorous "measure and manage" approach (not the first time business-speak enters Robertson's vocabulary). This means that every accident is recorded, from "a cut finger to more serious incidents – and it's been really revealing on what is going on out there."

That's the measuring. The managing side of the equation is that the people at the top have pursued safety with "total commitment". Robertson has put safety at the top of every meeting's agenda to make sure it is discussed. He maintains this has led to everyone in the group thinking about safety, and hopes that it will result in a 20% reduction in accidents. The group even plans to publish its safety record on its website – a radical step in an industry notoriously secretive about its shocking injury rate.

His second priority is a focus on performance management, which means converting the group's cohesive culture into profit – the implication here is that, although staff were working well with each other, it was not paying off in the annual results. Now each Wates business is set monthly targets, based on financial returns and key performance indicators. These are followed up, and "gap analysis" is conducted to address any shortcomings.

But this is where he encountered his biggest difficulty – changing the attitudes of the 1320 staff. "Change is difficult, it's a human thing. The people here are hugely excited by the changes but they are also nervous."

The complement to this re-engineering of Wates' internal operations is a tighter focus on the clients' needs. He also wants to target blue-chip clients and build longer and more profitable relationships with them.

It is now that he slips into the mantra of a construction chief executive, all of whom try to raise margins above one or 2% and avoid loss-making contracts: "Good relationships with key clients are vital," he explains. But Robertson differs from many other construction top dogs in that he can be reached fairly easily. Not only does his business card have his direct-dial and car phone numbers, but he actually picks up the receiver himself.

"I don't see the point of hiding behind others; if I'm at my desk and available I take the call. I like to be accessible; it's a southern hemisphere thing."

Personal effects

Where do you live?
Wimbledon, south London, with my wife and two sons, aged 22 and 20.
What was the last film you saw?
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It was good – but then I haven’t read the book yet.
Who is your role model?
BP chief executive Sir John Browne, for his leadership qualities.
Favourite subject
The Second World War. It was an extraordinary time.
Sailing and reading.
Favourite book
Five Days in London by John Lukacs. It studies five crucial days in May 1940 when Churchill was deciding whether to fight or negotiate with Hitler.