From a whisky boom and an oil rush to a raid across the borders, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that George Hood has seen it all in a 40-year career in Scottish construction.
Hood, who retires as managing director for North Scotland from Balfour Beatty’s Aberdeen office this month, has worked through booms and busts and also seen seismic change in construction: clients and contractors working in collaborative partnership; computer modelling; family firms absorbed into national and international groups.
As a working-class boy, Hood won a scholarship to the local private school then started studying mechanical engineering at Robert Gordon in Aberdeen. In 1975, aged 19, he took his first steps into the construction world when he successfully applied to be a trainee quantity surveyor at Alexander Hall. The family firm later became Hall & Tawse, and later still was bought by Mansell, the Scottish construction firm that ended up in Balfour Beatty’s ranks in 2003.
“My starting salary was £1,301,” Hood says, chuckling at the modesty of his pay.
His first ever site visit was to the new air traffic control tower in Aberdeen. Health and safety would be horrified to hear there were no hard hats or safety boots.
Hood could see that there was potential in this industry for an ambitious young man. “Business was booming. We were putting up lots of multi-storey flats for the council.”
There was wine, whisky, cigars – that’s how business was doneGeorge Hood
Even before the discovery of oil in the North Sea, Scottish construction was thriving, building bonded warehouses for the whisky industry, which employed more than 23,000 people directly in the 1970s.
Then the oil boom hit Aberdeen in September 1979, triggering another construction frenzy.
“All of a sudden Aberdeen was flooded with Yanks – high rollers. We were busy busy, building all the sort of stuff you would get in a frontier-style town,” he says.
Office blocks and hotels went up for the oil industry executives and workers, followed by a boom in pubs, nightclubs and restaurants. Within eight years of starting in the industry, Hood was project surveyor on large Aberdeen office developments that would easily be worth £50 million in today’s money. He worked on the Hill of Rubislaw office developments for ConocoPhilips, Marathon Oil and Britoil.
At the age of 29, he was the project manager for the Bon Accord shopping centre construction and oversaw the demolition of George Street. During 1990 he also participated in what he fondly refers to as “a raid across the border”.
Hood worked on office developments at Stockton-on-Tees, at the former steel works site which was one of the country’s first ever enterprise zones. When Michael Heseltine, then the secretary of state for the environment, came to “top out” the site, the Hall & Tawse team had a Scottish flag and piper there to greet him.
One of the ironies of his career was building a hospitality suite at Ibrox Stadium, despite being a life-long Celtic fan. He also landed the framework contract for work at RAF Lossiemouth for many years, constructing hangars for the Eurofighter Typhoons that are based there to protect UK airspace.
Hood recalls how different things were in the old days. “Directors were always Mister… they were never called by their first name. That formality has long since disappeared. Also, the boardroom lunches. There was wine, whisky, cigars – that’s how business was done,” he remembers.
The industry was full of larger-than-life characters. The first quantity surveyor who mentored him was an older gentleman, about 60, called Lindsay Young. “When I had to get his coffee, he would rustle up his loose change and press it in my hand, along with his glass eye,” he recalls.
Construction now suffers from a deep skills crisis and increasingly has had to rely on foreign workers. Hood says that it would now be impossible to complete a large-scale infrastructure project without bringing in overseas workers, many from eastern Europe.
“It’s hard to attract people into the trades in our industry now. Perhaps it’s for the same reason we don’t have a good footie team. The kids don’t want to do physical work. They’re happier to sit behind a computer,” he says. Schools also are pushing computing and IT skills, neglecting established trades.
But Hood and Balfour Beatty are working hard to reverse misconceptions of the industry. “Kids need to be inspired and encouraged and that’s what we are doing by giving them work experience and working with local school pupils to generate their interest,” he says. “You have to recruit for attitude and train for skills.”
Construction is still a people business and team spirit is still vitally important, adds Hood, who will be succeeded as managing director for Balfour Beatty’s regional North Scotland business by Iain Lumsden.
Also the industry can still provide a very good career, he reckons, and lots of scope for interesting work, which suits the people he sees coming through. “Many young people today are keen to move on and gain experience somewhere else. They don’t want to stay with one firm forever.”
Having joined a family company and now working for a firm that has been built up through multiple acquisitions, he has also seen many changes in the way daily work is conducted.
“In the old days people were probably less controlled. There weren’t the systems and procedures to comply with. They relied on self-determination and hard work to get somewhere,” he says.
Looking forward, he believes that technology will drive change in the construction sector in the next decade. “We are still not innovative enough, we’re still building walls on site! We’ll certainly see more modular building and off-site assembly, as well as better design solutions as software becomes more intuitive. Modular building will reduce costs and improve safety.”
One thing that concerns him as he steps back is work-life balance. Young people leaving colleges now will have to work until they are 70, which will not be easy in construction. “Businesses will have to better appreciate the value of experience and knowledge, while still leaving room for young people to start their careers. We’re going to need more flexible working, which can work for older staff too, especially if they are mentoring others,” Hood says.
Hood survived the peaks and troughs of construction cycles over recent years, but knows many people that did not. There has never been a better time to resolve this perennial problem.
Hood’s view is that the public sector can help smooth out the cycles by planning its own work flow better. “You do not get best value for the public purse if projects are bid in a busy market,” he says, pointing out that with oil prices near historic lows and a consequent downturn in Aberdeen, the industry could do with public projects to be fast-tracked.
Cancelled and delayed infrastructure projects are costing Scotland’s economy nearly £8m a day, according to a report out last week.
The new Queensferry Crossing across the Firth of Forth, which opens next year, has been a huge boon to Scots construction, but Hood worries that there is not a sufficient pipeline of infrastructure work coming behind it. He expects many construction workers will move south to begin working on HS2, when the £1.4 billion project completes.
As for Hood, he will be putting his ideas on flexible working to the test as he continues to work a few days a week on a consultancy basis. Aside from his on-going work with Balfour Beatty, he is aiming to support Balfour Beatty’s 5% Club commitments by mentoring new trainees setting out on their career paths.
With more free time on his hands, he plans to put in the miles on his bike, out cycling the Deeside Way with his wife. There may even be time for a few drams.