Q&A – Keith Aldis Chief Executive of the BDA

Clay Technology magazine
13 Feb 2017

Natalie Daniels talks to Keith Aldis, the new chief executive of the BDA, about his plans for the organisation and why brick is favourable in the construction industry.

Tell me about your background and career to date.

I am qualified as an electrical engineer having completed an apprenticeship after school and, following this, further education. Having completed training with the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) I went on to work in industrial relations. I was asked by the electrical contracting industry to help it to come out of the CITB by setting up its own training body for apprentices. I went from there into a training job within the Construction Confederation – the contractors responsible for building work on sites, covering all aspects of training within the industry from housebuilding to civil engineering. In 2005, I became Chief Executive of the IT service management forum, ITSMF, UK, growing the company from eight locations around the globe to 53, with a further 30 coming online. I attempted to retire in 2010 and set myself up as a consultant. I then became CEO of a number of trade associations before being appointed CEO of the BDA. I am really enjoying it – the brick industry is hard working and it seems to be pretty successful.

What key lessons have you learnt from your experience running trade associations?  

I try and turn these cottage-type organisations into corporates. They generally tend to act like civil service-type bodies and forget the commercial basis on which all business must operate. Firstly, you need to have patience because they are full of high-powered, well-motivated people who tend to volunteer. Trade associations could and should operate commercially – even though they are run as not for profits, they must invest back into other activities. We have now got to try and commercialise what the BDA is doing.

What BDA successes do you plan to build on and what initial actions have you taken?

There are some clear successes at the BDA – the Brick Awards is one. I first went to a brick awards event around 25 years ago and it was a tiny affair. Having recently attended the awards in November 2016, I couldn’t believe there were more than 650 people attending. The architecture on display is exceptional and showed me how successful brick is. I also need to strengthen BDA’s lobbying – it has always been pretty good, but it can be improved on. It’s time to get into Parliament and speak to Government about what they are thinking about in terms of housing policy and sustainability. We need to engage with our members and lobby better than we have ever done before. 

Your predecessor, Andrew Eagles, spoke of the talk of brick heritage damagaging visibility of ongoing innovation. Will this remain a focus for your tenure as CEO?

I totally disagree. One only has to consider this year’s Supreme Winner of the Brick Awards, Newport Street Gallery, which was also the winner of RIBA’s Stirling prize, or the Whitworth in Manchester, to see creative, modern application of this well established material. The last thing I would want to do is denigrate the tradition, warmth and reputation of bricks and play that down because it gets in the way of modernisation – it doesn’t. I want to push our traditions and strengths and show you can innovate with this material. 

How do you think brick is competing with other building materials?

It is dominating – it is still the cladding material of choice. But that isn’t to say we should forget that we are in competition with glass and steel. I believe the vast majority of people prefer brick because of its longevity and warmth and, when compared with other materials, holds greater promise. Part of my job is to try and maintain its reputation. If you look at St Pancras and the British Museum they are great examples of brickwork in the UK.

How can brick companies continue to develop? 

By doing what they do best, focusing on quality of product and service, and investing in innovation. Stories such as the new Ibstock factory in Leicestershire are a hugely encouraging sign, as are members’ involvement in some of the most prominent architectural features such as the London School of Economics’ Saw Swee Hock student centre.

What do you like most about brick?

One thing I like most about brick, which is most difficult to quantify, is its warmth. It’s the combination of pleasing aesthetics, the certainty we associate with it and feeling of safety that they last a lifetime. The combination of these characteristics gives it the warmth. Incidentally, there is nothing more satisfying than taking a lump of wet clay and throwing it into a mould, drying it out and firing it up to produce a tactile and lovely product that actually performs as it should. 

Do you expect to see an increase in brick manufacture off the back of the Government’s big housing pledge?

We don’t really know. I get the feeling it is the usual, short-term solution. My view is that we could see some significant growth but I am going to be quietly cautious and say that until Government presses the big red button, it won’t happen. I can’t see any significant growth for at least the next year. Government needs to understand that prefabs are not necessarily the silver bullet they are looking for, and we can build just as innovatively and as fast with clay bricks. I don’t see any downturn. Brick is the desired material from the public perspective and when Government recognises this, then we may see some steady growth.

How do you foresee Brexit affecting the brick industry?

I don’t think anyone knows at the moment. I don’t think it will affect our market – industry would like to see trade barriers down and free trade across Europe – even if that means that brick imports from and exports to Europe continue. A cautious approach is needed until we know more. Everyone knows there was no plan at the time and it was a big mistake to pull out a referendum without one in place. Now we are going to live with it. Thankfully, I think the construction industry is wise and sage enough to get past this. We will have to respond and react accordingly – steady as we go. 

What other challenges are facing the brick industry?

The biggest problem is the short-term thinking solution by the Government. Whatever happens, we have the capacity to scale up production. One of the challenges we face is unfirm orders. It could be that someone orders five million bricks for a particular housing development and someone will let them down and they withdraw the order. Yet, industry has ramped up production to deliver this order. I would like to see a system in place so we can get rid of this non-firm order. As the building of public housing falls year-on-year it is clear that the Government needs to get a better grip on the housing market and their plans for development. We should be ramping up demand because more and more people need affordable housing. 

What other issues outside the industry will be significant? 

Planners and funders. We have got to try and stop them accepting prefabricated construction without question – perpetuating the myth that it is the answer to all problems in terms of so-called quick build and fulfilment of targets. Low-quality construction is not the solution. We have to remove this quick-fix attitude in order to tackle the housing crisis and move them back to sustainable brick-based buildings. 

How can the skills base be improved in the UK? What can be done to encourage more people into the heavy clay industry? 

There are some significant skills gaps right now because training funding has been and continues to be cut by Government. The Association of Brickwork contractors are struggling to get sufficient bricklayers through the educational system. We have this never-ending problem in the British education system – it is a two-tier educational system – unlike Germany where they value vocational skills. The UK’s two-tier system promotes academia and denigrates vocational training. For years I have been trying to change that. I am one of the people who have proved this to be incorrect, having started as an apprentice electrician and then moved on to academia. I feel it really benefitted me in terms of practical work and skills. 

It is important to stress that vocational training is of equal value to academic education. The work is still there, but the people aren’t. We currently train around 3,000 bricklayers every year in our further educational system – it is nowhere near enough – it should be treble that if we are going to cope. The skills and training available need to be pushed through schools to give children the opportunity to go and try these skills. Parents, academic institutions and Government all have their part to play in encouraging young people to consider a wide range of career options and not being afraid to acknowledge that one size does not fit all.