Monday Interview: Ken Gillespie, Galliford Try

Ken Gillespie likes to get back on to the building sites and meet workers whenever he can. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Ken Gillespie likes to get back on to the building sites and meet workers whenever he can. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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The birth of anyone’s first child is always going to be a special day, but for Ken Gillespie the event was made even more memorable as it coincided with a promotion that would eventually see him head up Galliford Try’s construction division.

It was 1998, and at the time Gillespie was working for Morrison Construction, running its business in central Scotland, when he received a call from chairman Sir Fraser Morrison.

“Fraser asked where I was, and I told him I was at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary,” Gillespie recalls from Galliford’s Melville Street offices in Edinburgh.

“He gave me about 15 seconds to explain that I’d had a son and then asked me to migrate the Morrison business into England. To this day my wife says I took advantage of her hormones to persuade her to move.”

Gillespie and his family spent about three years in York before heading back to Edinburgh, around the time that Anglian Water acquired Morrison Construction for £262 million.

“I opened offices in Manchester, Birmingham and London as we migrated the Morrison business down through the country, and when I got promoted back to a UK role the logical thing was to come back to the headquarters in ­Edinburgh,” he says.

Another promotion came along in 2005, when Gillespie became managing director of Morrison Construction, the year before the division was taken over by Galliford. He now serves as chief executive of the FTSE 250 company’s construction arm and is seen as a potential candidate to take charge of the entire business, following the recent decision by group executive chairman Greg Fitzgerald to retire by the end of next year.

Although he is keen to avoid any talk about leadership succession, Gillespie notes that he and Fitzgerald have “not too dissimilar stories”, as both climbed up through the ranks after starting in the industry as apprentices.

Broxburn-born Gillespie began his career at housebuilder Wimpey, and while he admits to leaving school with no particular occupation in mind, he was brought up in an environment with a strong work ethic.

“I wanted to educate myself to degree level while working so I could pay my way,” he says, adding that Wimpey ­allowed him the opportunity to study part-time for a degree in quantity ­surveying at what is now Edinburgh Napier University. “I liked numbers at school and the concept of making money.”

And he adds: “Lots of kids leave school, go to university and then look for a job, but one of my missions in life is to get government to line up the forecasts of employment with school leavers and universities, so we’re actually educating people for work.”

Galliford – which posted a 28 per cent jump in annual pre-tax profits to a record £95.2m in September – is involved in the £1 billion-plus Queensferry Crossing over the Firth of Forth and part of a consortium behind the controversial Aberdeen bypass, which is due for completion by winter 2017.

In July, the group acquired the construction arm of Edinburgh-based builder Miller Group in a deal worth almost £17m. That move was soon followed by Miller’s announcement that it was planning to float its housebuilding arm, which would have been valued at more than £450m – but the private equity-backed group cancelled the initial public offering in October, blaming turbulent market conditions.

The purchase of Miller Construction has seen the workforce at Gillespie’s division swell to more than 4,000. However, he says he and Fitzgerald try to run the group as a small business, and admits it can be painful to visit a building site and not recognise the workers.

“What I like most is getting back on to the projects and getting round the sites – although I’m not sure my teams enjoy that all the time,” he laughs.

“What a lot of corporate organisations forget is that where we satisfy our customers and make profit is on our projects. We should all be getting out there, telling our people they’re doing a great job and identifying how we can make their jobs easier.”

There is, he believes, a “huge tradition” of long-serving people who have worked for the various family businesses that have combined over the years to create Galliford Try and says it was a “very strange” experience to sit across the table from Keith Miller when acquiring his construction business.

“The great thing about the organisation is we have people with 45 years’ service. I easily do a dozen personal letters a week to our long-servers, and it’s that background and family history that gives us a strong base of people.”

Gillespie says he used to encounter a mindset among human resources departments that employing friends and relations was a bad idea, “but I always remember coming into Morrison and sitting down with Fraser and he had the opposite philosophy, because you knew those people would come in to work on time and put in the effort so they wouldn’t embarrass their family”.

Describing himself as “naturally hands-on”, Gillespie says he often has to make a conscious effort to take a step back and let his staff get on with the job without undue interference.

“Everything we do relies on the quality, capability and drive of our people on the sites. To deliver a construction project, you need a range of skills that need to come together and share knowledge to get the right outcome. A large part of what makes a construction business successful is whether we can create strong teams.”

30-second CV

Job: Construction division chief executive, Galliford Try

Born: Broxburn, 1965

Education: Craigmount High School, Edinburgh; Napier (degree in quantity surveying)

Car: Land Rover Freelander, mainly because we have a dog. I have a Jaguar XK for working in England

Favourite mode of transport: Rail, because you can get lots of work done on the move

Music: The Jam, The Beatles and The Who, but my last concert was McBusted with my sons

Can’t live without: My wife and family, followed by football

Favourite place: Lagos, Portugal

What makes you angry? When people don’t make an effort to get their full potential

Best thing about your job: The fact that every day is different

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