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Perspective: Rick Willmott, Group Chief Executive, Willmott Dixon

Willmott Dixon is the leading privately-owned contracting and fit-out group, who have enjoyed another busy and prosperous year. We speak with their Group Chief Executive, Rick Willmott.

16/01/2020 4 min read

What is the best thing about your job?

I’m the fifth generation of the Willmott family to lead our business. Our company has a very clear conventional purpose; the successful delivery of capital projects in the built environment. But it also has a wider motivation and that is about legacy and our ability to make a meaningful, positive impact on society and the communities within which we work; to truly have a corporate purpose beyond profit – creating that legacy is a huge opportunity and one that I really enjoy.

I’m a simple, instinctive, common sense leader, there’s no management theory in my arsenal but I have a real interest in what makes people tick – what we are all trying to get out of this relationship.

I want people at Willmott Dixon to feel there is no better place to work and enjoy a career of a lifetime, and we do this by creating a common sense of purpose for what we are here to achieve. Seeing our people and company succeed is hugely rewarding.

Empowerment has been a driving principle in our business for many years – it is one of our core values. I can’t overstate the importance that personal responsibility and individual recognition make to enthusiasm, morale and commitment to the company; our growth is based on an empowered body of people.

What is your biggest frustration?

I do think we need more awareness in Government of the impact our industry has on the UK economy in terms of driving job creation and economic growth. In 2017, the construction industry contributed £113 billion to the UK economy, 6% of the total GDP.

I sometimes feel that contractors delivering vital national infrastructure in education, health and ‘blue light’, with very fine margins, are often viewed more globally alongside the house builders who generate developer margins; these two elements of the sector must always be viewed separately as they operate incredibly different business models. I’m always surprised there’s no dedicated Construction Minister we can talk with who’ll be able to translate our advice, feedback and concerns into clear and decisive policy.

This is especially the case when it comes to how we work together to re-clad high-rise accommodation post-Grenfell. This is a huge process and, as an industry, we need consensus and financial support from Government to address the confusion around the retrospective review of building regulations and the responsibility, within that, of public sector building control departments.

We set long-term goals, as it challenges our people to help meet them, and one thing we’ve found is that our work to leave a legacy is also making us an attractive place to work for young people.

What is the single most important thing the Government could do for the commercial construction industry?

In the short-term, get Brexit done (irrespective of whether you voted leave or remain) as we need business certainty to return so that the industry’s private sector customers, in particular, can be confident to invest in capital projects rather than adopt a ‘wait and see’ attitude.  We should also have a clear and dedicated line of communication so we can have a two-way dialogue about what we can do to support growth, job creation and social mobility. The latter is just as important as companies like Willmott Dixon are already doing a lot to help disadvantaged people or ex-offenders to get the skills and confidence to find long-term work and achieve their full potential.

With over 150 years as a private business that is still thriving whilst many others have failed, what are the key reasons for your success?

First, I am greatly saddened by any business failure in the industry. People work hard to create and sustain a business, so when it doesn’t work out, and the resultant impact that has on people’s lives and the supply chain, it is very sad to see.

We’ve been around since 1852 and withstood many major events and economic cycles in that time. This sustainable longevity is only possible by creating a flexible business model that can adapt to an ever-changing economic and political environment.

There are a huge number of factors that make Willmott Dixon different from those that collapse and those that had their struggles. We target controlled level of organic growth. We’ve never set ourselves aggressive turnover growth targets – we’re only interested in a sustainable bottom line.

You’re renowned as a business with a focus on sustainability. What does that mean in terms of long-term planning?

Leaving a legacy is something that’s important to me personally. Some 10 years ago we set ourselves the goal of being carbon neutral and we achieved that, and have been now for five consecutive years. Then we set ourselves the target of enhancing the life chances of 10,000 young people by 2020, which we have almost achieved already through our Foundation, which is guiding our strategy and monitoring progress.

We have our own verification system, independently audited, to check when we’ve enhanced a life, so rather than being a box-ticking exercise it’s about making a real impact. And that’s the point – we are impact driven, not focused on recording meaningless inputs.

This is part of our vision to support wider society beyond the projects we build. That includes upskilling young people and volunteering our time to help others. This year, four out of five of our people will spend time volunteering for a community related activity that will improve their local environment or someone’s life.

We set long-term goals, as it challenges our people to help meet them, and one thing we’ve found is that our work to leave a legacy is also making us an attractive place to work for young people.

When we recruit, we find that the incoming generation of new talent is intensely interested and concerned that their employer is a demonstrably sustainable business. This is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is an essential element of sound business.

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