Unsung heroes? Profile of Bill Bolsover, chairman of the UK’s Construction Products Association

Wood Focus magazine
27 Aug 2010
Bill Bolsover

The new Chairman of the UK’s Construction Products Association, Bill
Bolsover, has never been scared to get his hands dirty, which is good as
he takes on the post at an uncertain time for the industry. This former
miner and concrete plant manager talks to Rupal Mehta about the need
for stronger Government backing for a sector that is vital to the UK
economy and covers a myriad of product areas.

On assuming power, Britain’s first coalition government since the Second World War hailed it as a new phase for politics – time to dust off old arguments, have a ‘spring clean’ and bring in ‘change’.

But there’s no doubt that the road to ‘change’ is paved with challenges, as the UK recovers from the recession and tackles its public deficit. Bill Bolsover, Chairman of the UK’s Construction Products Association (CPA) as of April, is gearing up to make sure the Government hears his sector’s voice loud and clear, particularly as it was recently announced that capital investment would be cut by £100bln over the next five years.

He insists, ‘We have to have a stable Government. We need to look forward over the next five years as a minimum to plan the future of the country. It would be a shame if this Government thinks the only way out of this is through cuts – there are also areas where we need to make investment.

‘Every pound that is invested in construction puts £2.84 back into the economy. If we make an investment in construction, that will lead to more money appearing in the economy. That is a fact. The infrastructure projects need to be planned now to roll out over the next five to 10 years.’

In his speech at the CPA’s Annual Lunch in April, he noted that, in light of the sharpest fall in construction output in 35 years, ‘companies could simply downsize their businesses and hope Government spending cuts are not as bad as we fear, [but] this is not the attitude that over many generations has led the construction industry to create some of our most impressive buildings and most valuable infrastructure.

‘Many of the things we marvel at today were conceived in a time of recession, when construction was seen as the one industry that could stimulate the economy, create employment and provide a legacy for future generations.’

However, bringing confidence to the sector will take time. The CPA has reported increased sales of construction products in the second quarter of this year, however, this follows its less optimistic trade survey at the end of quarter one. The survey revealed that overall construction activity in the UK had contracted for the seventh consecutive quarter. Manufacturers and suppliers of heavyside products had been the worst affected, with 75% reporting lower sales volumes.

Bolsover knows he has to hit the campaign trail hard to make a difference. He notes, ‘One of the things that is forgotten is that if you talk about construction, it cannot take place without construction products. And I tend to feel there is too much emphasis on what is happening to the construction companies. We are the ones producing the products that are needed to produce low-carbon housing’.

Pit stop

Bolsover’s broader understanding of the supply chain dynamics comes from having worked at all levels.

Having completed ‘A’ levels in British Constitution and Geography, he left school at 18 to enter operation services and management training, followed by a three-year sales and marketing job at coffee stalwart Maxwell House. It was during his travels, while on a break from marketing, that Bolsover ended up working in an open pit iron ore mine in Western Australia. He was hooked and never returned to Maxwell House on arriving back in the UK.

‘The interest came through because it was very much involved with the outdoors rather than indoors,’ describes Bolsover. ‘I took a huge amount [ from my time in Australia], because I was a bluecollar worker. I learnt how bluecollar workers viewed management. By the time I left, I understood that if you can get people who work for you to respect and trust you, then your job becomes easy. It was better than three years in university!’

Back in the UK, he landed a role as trainee plant manager at quarrying firm Ron Amey Ltd, and moved on to Tarmac in 1974, when they first decided to enter the ready mix concrete market. ‘We started with three concrete plants and I ended up Managing Director with 180 plants by 1989,’ says Bolsover. ‘I supplied all the concrete for Sizewell B nuclear power station at Sellafield. Now it’s being decommissioned, I realise how old I am!’

He stayed at Tarmac for 26 years. ‘I would take all my staff from the concrete plants out in the evening for a beer to understand how they worked, and they would run the plants for me.’

He adds, ‘My first job after travelling gave me direct management experience in small operation profitable units. Within a year, you could be running your own profit centre, and running your own plant by the age of 24. Being able to make decisions was important to me. If I’d stayed in a large corporate environment in marketing, it would have taken a long time to become a decision maker’.

He admits he likes a challenge and only stayed on at Tarmac for so long because the company kept expanding its portfolio of activity. When the firm was acquired by mining firm Anglo American in 2000, he ‘retired’, but was coaxed back into work by a colleague at Aggregate Industries, now part of Holcim Group, where he went on to become Chief Executive until March this year.

He says, ‘I don’t think it is healthy for anyone to be in charge for more than 10 years, whether you are a schoolmaster, politician or running a business. You can become stale’.

Dynamic delivery

Stale is something Bolsover is adamant the construction industry should not become, as he strives to represent the 500,000 employees and 30,000 companies that are members of the Construction Products Association, with a range of differing products and materials.

‘Every product has a different use – there is room for all,’ he insists. ‘Competition is not a bad thing – we need that competition to make sure everyone is innovating to produce the best low-carbon product for the marketplace.’

He praises the sector’s proactive response to a demand for sustainable products and hopes its initiative will be recognised and eventually rewarded with a public infrastructure plan that includes investment in energy, transport, as well as new housing and upgrades to existing stock ‘where we are leaking carbon all the time’.

He says, ‘I am having meetings with associations and our lead companies to make sure that we are all pointing in the right direction to be heard as one voice. We have had extremely low housing builds over the last few years, we will run out of power if we don’t build some form of power stations, [and] how are we going to deal with greater transportation within the country, and in and out of the country? Crossrail looks likely to go ahead but it will be stripped of one or two of its stations. [and] it doesn’t look like we are going to get another runway at Heathrow or Stansted’.

The concern, he outlines, is that ‘a vast amount of companies in our sector are now owned by foreign investors. [But] if we don’t get our message across then all of the parent companies will not continue to invest in the UK.

‘We hear so much said about the car industry – but that does not bring a lot of employment in this country as so much of it is manufactured outside. My objective is to get us higher up the profile line in terms of what we can do for the country’.

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