Rennie Chadwick, former Chief Operating Officer at Osborne, joined PCSG as Major Projects Director in November 2019.
He is supporting projects including HS2, where our team is helping to deliver the ‘visualisation and integration hub’ – interactive, integrated access to the vast volume of project and asset data being managed and procured on the rail programme.
Here he talks about lockdown life, the family connection to hit TV show Killing Eve – and what’s next for the construction sector.
Q: Your PhD was in “The Corrosion of Steel in Concrete” – sounds like a fairly intense three years?
I had a great time – in retrospect – making things out of concrete and steel in the lab and then subjecting them to extreme environments, measuring how they performed and then working out why.
It was in the days before simulation, modelling and even data logging were readily available, so I had to develop a high boredom threshold to deal with all of the manual measurement.
It also taught me a lot about understanding data, both long term trends and discrete episodes within trends.
Q: You graduated in civil engineering – a childhood dream?
Not really – I always enjoyed Lego, Meccano and building dams in streams as a child but I didn’t know what civil engineering was until it popped up as a career option in secondary school.
The other alternative was forestry management! Civil Engineering held out the opportunity for foreign travel and better financial rewards so it won!
Q: Was there any key figure of influence in your childhood / student years?
Like many of us, my Dad. He left school at 16, became professionally qualified as a Management Accountant through night school and then left corporate life to run his own business, where all of us were employed at some stage or another, making bags for bikes (www.carradice.co.uk) .
One of my brothers runs that business now and has expanded it to include a natty line in bags made from recycled lorry tarpaulins www.upsobags.co.uk. Our claim to fame is that they have been featured in series 2 and 3 of Killing Eve.
Q: How were the student years?
I didn’t work hard enough in my first year at Portsmouth, to the point where I had to re-sit my first year exams. My attitude was properly adjusted when I returned and I had a great time – working and playing hard. I met my wife and made a set of friendships that are still alive and well 30+ years on.
Q: Your career has spanned roles at Taylor Woodrow (Technical Director), Vinci (Managing Director, Technology Division) and Osborne (Director, Innovation and Performance and then COO). Innovation seems to have been a constant thread – had you a natural ability for identifying new ways of working / better approaches to executing tasks?
I don’t think of myself as being particularly innovative, but I have spent much of my career developing and delivering solutions that are novel. I think that I have a knack for spotting good ideas and supporting them.
I learnt very early on in my career that people will tend to avoid doing things that they don’t understand. Having an enquiring mind and being open to learn and apply that learning quickly will get you a long way in most circumstances.
Q: What counted as “innovative” during your early career must have been very different from what we regard as innovative now?
Yes – most of the focus in the 80’s was on innovation in plant and materials, the 90’s was more of a focus on process and then into technology.
Q: Did you encounter first-hand resistance to introducing technology and digital ways of working into the construction sector? What was the driver for that resistance?
Yes – mainly ‘not invented here’, combined with ‘we haven’t got the time or money to try something new, we’re in the middle of delivering this project’, but, like many things in life, timing is important. So you have to pick your moment to pitch an idea. It needs to be relevant to the situation at hand.
Q: What was the change / innovation that most stands out now in retrospect? Was there a clear tipping point in terms of the move to digital in the sector or has it been more of a gradual progression?
I don’t think that there has been a clear tipping point (although Covid19 might be one).
I think that probably the biggest change has been the availability of personal devices (smart phones and tablets) combined with cloud computing. These have enabled new ways of working and also changed the mindsets of lots of people in the sector.
Q: After Vinci you moved to Osborne – what were the cultural differences between those two?
I was at VINCI because they bought Taylor Woodrow Construction, that was a culture change in itself. The culture within VINCI, at a global level, was great. Engineering was highly valued, and invested in, which was very consistent with the way we worked at Taylor Woodrow.
Osborne is a family owned business and a bit smaller, so it was easier to take decisions for the longer term. It was quite agile, relatively speaking and we introduced some great technological improvements in my time there, including moving from paper based to mobile devices for site management, site comms ‘in a box’ for rapid site set up, our own app for collecting improvement opportunities, real time performance analysis from BI data cubes and a move from ‘on prem’ to infrastructure as a service and then to the Azure cloud.
Q: What was the biggest draw of PCSG for you?
The opportunity to work with great people in a values-driven business developing and delivering solutions for our clients on projects that have national and international impact.
Q: HS2 – What does it feel like to be at the coalface of such a high-profile project and helping to make it a reality?
Q: You’ve jumped on to other major projects in addition to HS2 – are you able to apply learning from one to the others? Are there many parallels in what those clients are trying to achieve?
Yes – there is almost always something that can be applied/adapted/adopted from one project to the next. The obvious one for many of the projects we deliver is to keep the WIFM (what’s in it for me?) from the client’s perspective at the centre of our decision making and actions.
Q: How easy has it been to continue on with projects like HS2 in this lockdown?
The team has just got on with life. We had a fair amount of remote working anyway, so it has been a case of extending it. The hardest part is ensuring that communications are effective. We have a range of channels at our disposal, the trick is to use them in the right way for maximum effect and understanding that this varies from person to person.
Q: Has lockdown life taught you anything about you work / different ways of doing things?
There are five of us at home, my wife and our three children (although they are too old to be referred to as children, 24, 21 and 16). Three of us are working, one finishing her final year of university and the youngest dealing with not having to sit his GCSE’s
I think that my ‘E’ is slightly stronger than my ‘I’ (Myers Briggs Type Indicators, E= extroversion, I = introversion). Removing commuting time has enabled me to introduce some time for regular exercise (a good thing). People are inherently kind and generous, especially when the opportunity to be so is made obvious. Broadband/wi-fi is seen as a fundamental requirement by many.
Q: What do you consider the biggest achievements of your career to date?
I have had the good fortune to work on a wide range of projects, in a number of different countries, but all of them relied on teamwork.
The best achievement for me has been getting to know and work with a tremendous range of different and very talented people to deliver projects and solutions that have stood the test of time. If I had to pick one moment that stands out, it would be when I managed to negotiate with the Saudi Border Force to keep one of my team out of prison and get him on a plane home instead.
Q: Where are we headed for next in the world of construction?
A world where we have to work out how to satisfy the demands of societies and economies for things to be new and better with the need to use natural resources in ways that are truly sustainable – we only have one planet and at the moment we are consuming it.
In four questions:
Best business book? I am a sucker for a business book and I could recommend loads – depending on the context – but ’50 ways to Yes’ and ‘Bounce – the Myth of Talent’ are two that I found particularly helpful at broadening my ways of thinking and doing.
Business muse? I don’t really have an ‘idol’ in the business world. Pretty much everyone is flawed, as we are all human, so I try and pick out the best bits and adapt them to my circumstances.
Exercise regime? I don’t have a regime as such. Pre-lockdown I would typically do Parkrun on a Saturday and then try and get out for a ride on my bike on Sunday (on or off road, I like both). I am now ‘Zwifting’ every morning before I start work – hopefully I will see the benefit when restrictions ease.
Best tech? My wife refers to me as ‘gadget man’ (it’s all relative 😊) so my best tech is hopefully always my most recent acquisition.
My most recent was the Bluetooth headphones I bought so that my colleague, Dan, would stop complaining about my audio quality when on a Teams call.