Martin Donohue, the unassuming chief executive of housebuilder Westbury, has led the company through an appropriately quiet revolution, writes Elaine Knutt. Without seeking public plaudits, Donohue has transformed the Cheltenham-based £476m turnover company from regional also-ran to market-leading innovator.
The basis of his strategy was the realisation – ahead of the rest of the industry – that profitability lay in improving margins rather than chasing volume. Happy to consolidate in South-west England and forego national coverage, Donohue's thoughts turned to adding value by smoothing the supply chain and borrowing a manufacturing mindset.
He received – but also sought – little industry recognition for the result: two reports from the University of Warwick that laid the ground for much of Egan's thinking on eliminating inefficiency in the sector. Westbury's research also led it to today's Space4 programme of preassembled timber-framed homes.
Donohue can be credited with the gift of trend forecasting in other areas. In the mid 1990s, Westbury gained an edge by investing in brand building. Two years ago, it spotted a market for homebuyers to source goods, services and financial products through subsidiaries Westbury Direct and Incresco.
"Westbury were always the first to look at what later became industry buzzwords. They were always ahead of the rest of the game," comments David Birkbeck, director of Design for Homes. The City also admires Donohue for his willingness to break the mould, and his consistent advocacy of consolidation in the sector.
After anticipating Egan, Donohue is now at the forefront of making it work. He sits on the board of the DETR-sponsored Housing Forum and chaired the working group that instigated the first national Customer Satisfaction Survey. "There aren't many people so committed to upgrading the culture of the housebuilding industry," comments fellow board member Clive Wilding, managing director of Gleeson Homes.
According to Wilding, Donohue is "a great motivator", an attribute which helps him rally support and perhaps stems from his pre-construction career in the Army.
In person, the 55-year-old rugby fan is quietly spoken and keen to share his ideas. Happily, Donohue's people skills are also in the service of the industry, through his role as chair of the House Builders Federation's recruitment and training committee.
Building Awards 2001
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