‘Let’s make clients a force for positive change’

New CIOB president Mike Foy has a client background – and he believes that’s where construction’s biggest challenges will be solved. Will Mann spoke to him

“Clients are key to all our big challenges as an industry and an institute: net zero, building safety and quality, digital technology, training and apprenticeships, social value, diversity and inclusion, procurement practices, to name a few. The CIOB has a lot of ‘client side’ members – so can we help clients be a force for positive change?”

Mike Foy is talking enthusiastically about one of the main themes of his CIOB presidency, which starts in July. And through his career working in local government and at the Department for Education (DfE), he can speak with considerable authority about the client role in construction.

“The client role is frequently under-valued within the industry,” believes Foy, a CIOB member for 51 years, who received an OBE in 2017 for services to education.

Mike Foy, CIOB president

CV: Mike Foy

Since September 2018 Regional head, assisting with initiatives including MMC, DfE
2012-18 Regional head, free schools (Midlands and north-west), DfE
2011-12 Project director, free schools, DfE
2007-11 Assistant CEO/BSF project director, St Helens Council
1987-2007 Various St Helens Council roles

Education: Liverpool Polytechnic (College of Building); Open University MBA, 1990-92

Became CIOB member in July 1970, now a fellow and trustee since 2011

Awarded OBE for services to education, 2017

“Clients have challenges around skills, knowledge and resources – but this is where there is a role for the CIOB, because we have members in clients and down through the supply chain,” he says.

Working with CEO Caroline Gumble, Foy has already helped set up and will chair a new CIOB group developing a client strategy and roadmap, with the ambition to be the “professional body of choice for construction clients globally”.

“It’s a bold headline, and there’s a vast amount of work to be done,” says Foy. The CIOB has engaged a consultant to add fresh perspective.

A hurdle, Foy admits, is that many clients perceive CIOB members as site managers.

“The DfE has few CIOB members, with other professional bodies more prominent,” he says. “But CIOB members work with the whole project team – client, architect, surveyor, engineer – from project inception through to demolition, recycling and possibly reuse: the whole life cycle. They have the skills, knowledge and experience to represent the client through the whole process.

“One of our challenges is to define construction management more clearly and the role of CIOB members, so clients understand that better.

“Eleven years ago, CIOB past presidents John Bale and the late Li Shirong, defined it as ‘embracing the entire construction value stream, from inception to recycling, with a commitment to sustainable construction’. That’s still the case today.”

Through the CIOB client strategy group, Foy hopes more clients will recognise the benefits of a collaborative culture.

“I am still a passionate fan of Latham and Egan, and parts of the Construction Playbook repeat points they made,” he says. “We implemented those principles of teamwork and collaboration 20 years ago when I worked at St Helens Council.

Foy on…

Equality, diversity and inclusion
“There are clear business benefits and construction could learn from public sector clients on this. HS2 has set diversity criteria. But with some exceptions, construction sees it as a negative or a cost.”

Industry recruitment
“Some employers tend to recruit people in their own mould – usually the extroverts, the people who shout the loudest. But tap into the introverts, and who knows
what brilliance you might find.”

Societal value
“What bigger example of societal value is there than a construction project, which people will live in and work in? Construction has a huge impact on society, but not a great image; we need to change that.”

“During that era, we worked on projects with Willmott Dixon with an emphasis on collaboration. We agreed overheads and profit, which meant the whole project team was then focused on agreeing a fair price, delivery, quality and problem solving.

“There may be a view in some clients that the private sector is there to rip them off. That they run two sets of books. I advised the council at the time ‘you have to recognise, private contractors have overheads, and yes they will make a profit’. That understanding enabled us to build collaborative relationships which served us well with contractors.

“Let’s get away from the blame culture. If there’s a problem, and it will cost more money, let’s tackle it together and find a compromise that works. Value engineering is not a well-regarded term these days – some see it as simply cost-cutting – but used as intended it has a role.”

With collaboration comes innovation, and at the DfE Foy has helped with MMC adoption. He praises clients including Heathrow Airport and Highways England, among others, for their commitments to MMC and feels a tipping point may be approaching.

“We are seeing the housing sector setting up MMC factories and Laing O’Rourke has a great manufacturing facility which I was privileged to
visit,” Foy says.

“The Construction Playbook talks about MMC, including the ‘platforms’ concept, which is a very sensible idea; having standardised components is more efficient, saves money and means a better quality product because operatives are doing the same thing over and over again. That in turn helps the client becoming more trusting because they know what they’re going to get.

“There is still a perception of bad ‘prefab’ schools that lingers among clients, but is misleading. Current MMC school buildings are designed with a minimum 60-year life, just like any other school that’s built. And they aren’t ‘identikit’; you can’t tell the design difference compared to traditional buildings, but you would hopefully recognise the
quality difference.”

While praising leading clients, Foy notes that some are “less informed”.

“They are less inclined to collaborate and look at innovations like MMC,” he says. “This can be circumstantial. Councils have had their technical departments slashed over the years.”

But this is where CIOB members can come in, Foy says.

“CIOB can help clients create a collaborative environment for delivering projects and address their major challenges. Thanks to the work of my predecessors as president and the work currently underway at CIOB, we are well placed to guide them on issues such as quality and building safety.”

Foy’s presidency will be marked by two new CIOB award categories which reflect his passion areas: client and team.

“There is a lot of work ahead on our client strategy, but I’ll be happy if I can kickstart it by developing a strategy and start implementing the roadmap during the next 12 months,” he says. “Hopefully that will foster a culture of greater collaboration and teamwork in our industry.”

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