You may think Andrew Wyllie doesn't look the kind of guy who'd happily tell 800 people they were out of a job – and you'd be right. The Taywood boss couldn't sleep at night while he did it. He tells Building why it was still the right thing to do.
Andrew Wyllie has had two sets of sleepless nights in his life. The first was when, aged 23, he heard the death drums beating in the heart of the Ghanaian jungle. The second was when he made more than 800 people redundant last year.

Wyllie is more enthusiastic about explaining his African adventure. "The Ghana experience was a frightening one. I was very young, working as an engineer on a palm-oil mill miles from anywhere and with only morse code to contact the outside world. It was terrifying," he grins.

The Ghanaian jungle was an ideal training ground for the tough world of contracting, he says. "We heard drums and chanting surrounding us. We had to face the terrors of camping in the jungle. It was up to me to realise whether I could sink or swim in a hostile environment, and luckily I swam." He has been swimming ever since.

The jungle adventure happened 16 years ago, shortly after the young Wyllie joined Taylor Woodrow through its graduate scheme. Now 38, he has been with the firm ever since. His big break came in 1999, when, after several years dealing with high-profile projects – including a stint managing the firm's Africa division – he was charged with managing the repositioning of the firm. Just over a year-and-a-half later, this July, he became managing director of the UK construction division, overseeing the organisation's £500m turnover contracting arm.

He vividly recalls the moment when Taywood chief executive Keith Egerton came to him at the end of 1999 and asked him to mastermind the company's turnaround. "I was excited and proud, but I also had to foresee the human cost of the change," he says, looking nervous and sitting upright to indicate the gravity of the situation.

Wyllie was put in charge of a cost-cutting project. Overheads were too high and City analysts were beginning to twitch; it was time for change. The move was labelled TW 2000, and billed as "a transformational change aiming to reposition the Taywood business, and drive cultural change through the organisation".

What the programme really amounted to was the removal of four-fifths of the firm's back office, followed by the acquisition of the Bryant Group. The overall aim was to turn an army into a special forces battalion, and use it to offer a comprehensive service for high-margin jobs.

"There were significant redundancies and some people that simply moved on, but a lot of tears," he says. "The toughest thing was having to tell board members they were no longer needed.

"It was a tough business decision that just had to be made," he adds, sternly.

There were a lot of tears. The toughest thing was having to tell board members they were no longer needed

Wyllie streamlined Taywood's back office from more than 1000 employees to only 188 – and has no qualms about doing it. He believes that the scaling down of the bureaucracy has proved to be the catalyst for its quiet but monumental turnaround.

He has no trouble in reeling off corporate stats. The firm managed to cut overheads by £15m in a year, from £36m at the end of 1999 to £21m at the end of 2000. But over the same period, the group's contracting turnover fell from £511m to £500m – a deceptively small drop, as the latter figure includes Bryant's contracting turnover of £100m.

With the purge complete, Wyllie has set about refocusing Taywood. He is charged with lifting turnover back to 1999 levels, which he expects to do by concentrating on specialist engineering projects and retaining high-profile clients such as BAA and Tesco. He has also appointed customer directors to help smooth client relationships and ensure that problems are dealt with quickly and efficiently.

His latest challenge is to integrate the Bryant group into the new Taywood. He says that his main aim is to inculcate Bryant Construction into Taywood's particular way of thinking.

"The integration has gone very well," he says. "Taywood invests very heavily in IT training, so there is a certain amount catching up to do, but so far there have been no problems."

He says Taywood and Bryant employees freely move around the groups, but continuity is maintained by ensuring that most Bryant project managers stay on the jobs they are working on. However, he adds: "There are cultural differences between the groups that we have to overcome, and for many of the Bryant project managers there has been a steep learning curve."

But it is steep learning curves that Wyllie has had to embrace for most of his adult life, and that he seems to revel in. Graduating in civil engineering from the University of Strathclyde, he admits to not getting the most out of student life as an "immature 17-year-old". After seven years at Taywood, he tried to rectify this during an MBA course at the London Business School. "It was daunting going in as a mature student but the social side turned out to be great," he says.

Wyllie is keen to elaborate on what "the company" has done for his life. "I even met my wife here through the Taywood 18-30 social club," he laughs. "Being young and single and coming back from abroad, the social life of the club was a godsend."

Personal Effects

Who is in your family?
My wife is called Jane, and I have a daughter called Jenna, who is two
What is your favourite TV programme?
Fawlty Towers
What music do you like?
Classical and stuff like the Manic Street Preachers
What is your favourite football team?
West Ham
What car do you drive?
A BMW 528
How do you keep fit?
I’m a keen rower, and I go to the gym.