Obituary: Peter Willmott, visionary leader of Willmott Dixon

John Bale remembers Peter Willmott, who led Willmott Dixon through a phase of expansion while placing a high value on the company’s responsibility towards its people and society.

Peter Willmott and Sir Ian Dixon shake hands on the creation of the
Willmott Dixon name.
Peter Willmott and Sir Ian Dixon shake hands on the creation of the Willmott Dixon name

Peter Willmott, who died in January, had been born into what was already a successful local family firm based in Hertfordshire.

As the fourth generation of the Willmott family to lead the company, he did so with great distinction, steering it on a complex journey of growth and expansion and adaptation. Encouraging necessary changes and recognising, that to flourish, family firms should attract wider talent while retaining the essential cultural qualities that had led to their success.

John Willmott & Sons, founded in 1852, had already acquired a reputation for high-quality building before that century was out. And from its roots in Hertfordshire, it was increasingly venturing further afield. In common with many children of builders all over the country, Peter grew up in the company, forming bonds with colleagues who would be important friends throughout his life. He became a director in his 30s and succeeded his father as chairman in 1966.

In 1978, he captured the essence of corporate intent, through Our Place in Society, a message to everyone in the company, that today many others still aspire to contemplate, let alone achieve.

“A group of companies, such as ours, which places very high importance on its human assets, must also recognise the responsibility that we have, through our people, to society as a whole.

“It is easy for the company to concentrate solely on its proclaimed activity, with little or no reference to the environment and society of which it forms a part.

“At Willmotts, we have, for a very long time, recognised our responsibility to help wherever the advice or services of our people can be of use. To this end we provide aid, not only in financial terms, but also in the service of our people to many organisations and communities.”

With the recruitment of Ian Dixon, the company embarked on a new phase of growth and development, becoming Willmott Dixon in 1987.

Peter and Ian worked closely, with Peter recognising the new qualities and insights that Ian had to offer. Ian Dixon’s knighthood in 1996 recognised his wider leadership role in the industry, but he and Peter continued to work closely together during their joint chairmanship of Willmott Dixon. Sadly, Sir Ian died in 2001.

Peter retired as joint chairman in 1994 after almost 50 years in the business, during which time he was instrumental in shaping the Willmott Dixon we know today. 

Rick Willmott joins the board following the retirement of his father Peter.
Rick Willmott joins the board following the retirement of his father Peter

He continued to take a close interest in Willmott Dixon throughout his long retirement, and his kindness and warmth towards people with whom he’d worked over so many years was exemplary. Outside of all that he was a family man and an unassuming friend who derived pleasure from walking in the dales with his wife Pat, and fly fishing into his 90s.

Willmott Dixon is now safely in the hands of Peter’s son Rick – the fifth generation.

John Bale is Professor Emeritus at Leeds Beckett University. He was Willmott Dixon Professor of Construction Management at Anglia Ruskin and Leeds Metropolitan Universities from 1989 to 2002, and President of CIOB from 2000 to 2001.

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