For Wakeman, the answer – and the main theme of his year in office – is partnering. Not the high-value framework deals headlined in Building, or ambitious public sector procurement initiatives, but bread-and-butter partnering that reaches every B-road industrial shed and small-scale residential scheme. "A partnering apparatus has got to prevail in the whole of the industry, but not everyone is on board. There are still parts of the industry that don't subscribe to it," he says.
In particular, he wants to promote the benefits of pre-partnering schemes, such as the Construction Accredited Partner Scheme run by the National Federation of Builders, where contractors are assessed on their financial health, training, health and safety and customer care. The ones that make the grade are given a badge of partnering readiness to show to clients. "The people you wouldn't give credit to are the ones who don't pay attention to safety or to training – one follows the other," Wakeman says.
Through third-party accreditation services such as CAPS, Wakeman argues that members can raise their offer to clients and hence increase their prices, margins and profits. And by helping members to help themselves, the confederation can boost membership and reverse the trading deficit that Wakeman and five previous chairmen have presided over. As evidence, he cites the British Woodworking Federation, where timber window and fire-door certification schemes have helped to boost subscription income from £200,000 in 1995 to £400,000 today.
Wakeman believes that his materials background will bring a wider perspective to his year in office than simply a view from the bottom of the supply chain. He brings the "discipline" of running a static workforce in a regulated environment, and facing pressure to cut costs in order to compete against ever-encroaching foreign imports. And given that the contracting sector is driven by the CSCS scheme, health and safety and continuous improvement, it has more in common with manufacturers than ever before. And with his wide experience in marketing, gained through out his career, he hopes to bring some public relations sparkle to a somewhat plodding organisation, as well as shaking up its internal communications. "We can sell the Construction Confederation better, and I'll help staff to get a grip on that. I'm keen on market research to find out what members want from us." He certainly has the kind of frank, friendly personality that can rub off on other people, and make them feel secure enough to speak out and take risks.
Wakeman, 57, has a long career of talking, lobbying and advocacy behind him. He joined the door producing sector as a management trainee in 1968, and eight years later led a successful industry delegation against cheap Taiwanese imports. Later, he dissuaded HM Prisons from adopting a scheme that would have let its workforce stitch up the timber window industry rather than mailbags. Instead of making standard window frames, he encouraged the production of a rival to a Taiwanese product with no existing UK equivalent.
We’re third fix at the end of the process and we see all the issues the contractors have. I’ve had consistent experience of specialist contractors who don’t have the financial strength for the job
His progress through a variety of senior sales and marketing positions in the door manufacturing sector – leading to the 1999 management buyout of the £40m turnover, 450-strong LS Group – has always been paralleled by his industry roles, including two terms as president of the BWF in 1978/9 and 2001/2. "It's good for you, good for the company you work for and good for the industry. And if you put enough effort in, you can achieve things," he says, a doctrine that he clearly sets a lot of store by.
He has certainly inherited a long list of things to achieve, including the long-running campaign to reduce VAT to 5% on domestic refurbishments, and spreading the sustainability message. On health and safety, he wants to see take up of the CSCS scheme extend beyond today's 82% of direct employees (falling to 66% employed by the Major Contractors' Group members) to reach all of the 1.5 million working in the UK construction universe.
As for safety on multilingual sites where English is poor and skill standards uncertain, Wakeman again sees the priority as extending CSCS cards to overseas nationals. He says that the industry's grey fringes are beyond his remit: "I can't legislate for what happens outside the system." He is also unconvinced by speculation that east European contractors could operate here and undercut UK labour rates. "We'll have to see if there is a real threat. But we see the enlargement of the European Union as the enlargement of our markets," he says, arms wide in demonstration. "And without competition, how can you improve?"
But the battle to recruit school-leavers into the industry could already be half won. With a GCSE in construction under consideration, and plans for a city academy devoted to architecture and building, Wakeman says, "the government now accepts that vocational qualifications are as good as academic ones – and we've helped to persuade them to recognise that". But as vocational training in joinery is more expensive than GCSE French, "raising the level of funding available is a battle we're still trying to win".
Personal effectsWho’s in your family? I’m married to Judy, who’s a consultant home economist. Our daughter, 30, designs, manufactures and exports her own clothing label, and our son, 28, is in music production.
Where do you live? In Saffron Walden, Essex at the weekends, and a flat in Nottingham during the week.
What do you drive to clock up all those miles on the motorway? It’s a Mercedes E280. I’ve bought five cars exactly the same in a row. I need a big, quiet engine, power steering and four wheels – beyond that I’m not really into cars.
What do you do at the weekend? I come home and take over the house, I do all the food shopping and food preparation. And sometimes I play a bit of golf.
Any chef’s tips for readers? It’s all about planning – 80% of a good meal is in the preparation. I have all the ingredients prepared on the worktop and the timings worked out. That way, I can deliver the end product on time!