Tributes paid to one of construction’s larger-than-life characters, credited with the Emirates Stadium success 


Benny Kelly, the former London boss at Sir Robert McAlpine and one of the capital’s construction industry “legends”, has died at the age of 77.

A career spanning more than four decades saw Kelly deliver numerous iconic projects across the capital, including the Emirates and Olympic stadiums and the Millennium Bridge.

The Northern Irishman, who had lived with Parkinson’s Disease since 2005 and has been described as charismatic and generous but also steely in business, died on Friday 22 July.

Kelly joined McAlpine as a 23-year-old engineer in 1968 after graduating from the Queen’s University in Belfast.

Having worked his way up to run the firm’s north-east England operations, he was eventually made regional director for London and the South-east in 1993. A time of deep recession, Kelly had to restructure the London business and later described the first five years there as a “testing time” in his career.

He was famous for his memory for details, working 12-hour days to ensure projects were delivered ahead of schedule and under budget, and for his hands-on approach – until late into his career he was known to frequently walk through his sites during construction, including the Olympic stadium.

Clare Gallagher, a project director at McAlpine who worked with Kelly on the Olympic Stadium project remembered him as a “fantastic leader” as well as a “great” engineer.

She said: “I remember walking around the stadium with him and feeling quite proud of what I’d been doing.

“He could always spot something you hadn’t thought about and right through his career he was always able to just spot that one thing that you hadn’t.”

In an interview with Building in 2011, he bemoaned the emergence of the “management style” of contracting and expressed nostalgia for an era where contractors worked more directly with site workers.

>> From the archive: Being Benny Kelly

>> What he was like to interview: Benny was construction royalty and a master of his craft

Kelly stepped down from his regional director role in 2007, staying on as board director and later taking on consultancy work and a non-executive directorship at an oil and gas exploration firm.

Paying tribute Vince Corrigan, chief operating officer at Keltbray, who worked with Kelly for a number of years at McAlpine described him as “a top man in every sense”.

“He always exhibited unwavering commitment to his clients, the McAlpine family business and especially the troops that worked for him – including me,” he said.

“Another iconic industry leader now lost, and in his case where life cruelly turned on him in his most latter years. His style, infectious character, and ferocious appetite to succeed will all be sorely missed. “

Benny Kelly

Benny Kelly was named Personality of the Year at the Building Awards in 2007

Keltbray’s executive chairman, Brendan Kerr, simply said: “Farewell my dear friend, you were the best.”

Kevin Arnold, G&T partner and board member, said: “It is truly sad to lose one of our industry’s most well-known and respected figures. I had no business really being invited into his network of clients and fellow professionals, given our relative ages. But invite me in he did. With warmth, affection and mutual respect.

“There is no doubt in my mind that my own career was positively impacted by my association with this charismatic, generous and amiable man. He was undoubtedly steely in business and his rise to the top of SRM certainly was testament to his considerable commercial acumen.”

Chris Cole, WSP chairman, said: “In the passing of Benny Kelly, the industry and colleagues have lost a legend and an inspirational figure who always used a blend of charm and resoluteness to get the job done.”

Mark Reynolds, Mace group chairman and chief executive, said: “I worked closely with Benny on the delivery of the London 2012 Olympic Stadium – he was a force to be reckoned with. He was personally responsible for driving forward McAlpine’s significantly during his tenure, and as a competitor and a peer I hugely respected his expertise and valued his judgement. We’re very sorry to hear he’s passed away and send our best wishes to his family and friends.”

Charlie Horne, project director at British Land, said: “Benny was an exemplar leader who made things happen and solved complex issues with his force of character. In all my dealings with Benny he personified the adage ’work hard play hard’, whether building on the land or racing yachts on the sea, he always wanted to win and that’s why I held him in the highest esteem and why he enriched my life. He truly was an icon.”

Sir Robert McAlpine said: “The McAlpine family are saddened to hear of the passing of Benny Kelly, former regional manager in London, who was extremely highly regarded. Our thoughts are with his family at this very difficult time.”

Of all the projects he worked on he had a special affection for the Emirates Stadium, and was good friends with the late Danny Fiszman, the Arsenal FC director who credited Kelly with the stadium’s success.

Olympic stadium construction - aerial3

Source: Sir Robert McAlpine

The stadium for the 2012 London Olympics was among the notable projects on which Kelly worked

He also worked closely with the late Geoff Wright at Hammerson on major retail projects such as The Oracle shopping centre in Reading and The Bullring in Birmingham.

Kelly was of the “work hard, play hard” school, and during the 90s and early 2000s he was known for hosting a “Benny dinner” at the annual Mipim jamboree in Cannes.

He developed a passion for sailing, owning a TP52 yacht, which he crewed with industry colleagues for races such as the Little Britain event at Cowes and around the Caribbean.

The Catholic boy from the divided town of Newry achieved huge success throughout his high-octane career, but his personal life became complicated, divorcing for a second time soon after his retirement and facing a long and debilitating battle with Parkinson’s. He went to great lengths to find treatments for his condition, eventually undergoing Deep Brain Stimulation at the age of 69, which improved his symptoms for a time.

Kelly had a heart attack in June and died in hospital last week. His daughter Nicola, also in the construction industry in London, said his indomitable spirit continued to the end and on waking from his coma in his hospital bed he said: “What do you think Nikki, shall we order a bottle of champagne, love?”

He is survived by his partner Martine, his daughter Nicola, his son Justin, a TV producer in Los Angeles, and his two Yorkshire Terriers Molly and Maggie.