Landmarks In Construction

Bovis Lend Lease builds them and Harry Thorburn is the man who runs the business. Here he gives Jane Ambrose the lowdown on his company just now – and for the future.

BBC Scotland headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow
BBC Scotland headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow

HARRY Thorburn has worked in the construction industry for more than 25 years since graduating from Strathclyde University with a degree in civil engineering. He started his career at Whatlings, where he worked for two years constructing roads, bridges and tunnels before a move to Wimpey saw Harry turn his attention from civil engineering to construction.

Harry Thorburn
Harry Thorburn

After working on projects ranging from the refurbishment of council houses in Castlemilk to the building of Britoil’s prestigious office block in Glasgow, Thorburn has never lost his interest in construction.

Construction management suits Harry. Tweaking projects till they are just right and calming anxious clients are just some of the things that make him tick.

At Wimpey, Thorburn quickly climbed the managerial ladder becoming Deputy Director for Wimpey Scotland, then Construction Director for Wimpey Europe. Then, in 1996, he opted for a move to Bovis Construction (Scotland) Ltd as Managing Director.

In 1999, Bovis Construction was bought by the Australian development company Lend Lease from the P&O; group, following a decision by the P&O; board to divest itself of its construction business.

The combined development expertise and global ambitions of Lend Lease and the international network that Bovis had built up over the previous decade helped the new company strengthen its position as a global player in the property and construction sectors.

Today the company has three main regional businesses: Asia Pacific, headquartered in Sydney, Australia; Americas, based in New York; and the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) operation which has its HQ in London.

Harry says: “I joined Bovis because of its professional approach and its reputation for tackling some of the country’s most complex and challenging projects.”

At the newly branded Bovis Lend Lease (Scotland) Ltd, which also operates in the North East of England, Harry certainly got the opportunity to work on challenging projects.

In the last 10 years, Bovis Lend Lease has built some of Scotland’s biggest landmark projects – the Museum of Scotland, Buchanan Galleries, Clyde Auditorium, Braehead Shopping Centre and, of course, the Scottish Parliament.

There has been so much written about the Scottish Parliament, the controversy of its design, its cost and the length of time it took to complete.

The Scottish Parliament’s bamboo windows
The Scottish Parliament’s
bamboo windows

None of which, to be fair, was Bovis Lend Lease’s fault, but as construction manager the company became embroiled in the politics of it all. Despite this, Bovis Lend Lease took architect Enric Miralles’ concept and over five years created the fantastic building of superior quality that it is today.

“It’s a fantastic building which I think was made very difficult by the whole furore surrounding it,” says Harry. “But it will definitely stand the test of time.

“What differentiates Bovis Lend Lease from other companies, and helped turn the Scottish Parliament from concept to reality, is our ability to deliver on complex and demanding projects. I would never say that we are ‘run-of-the-mill’ operators.”

Instead, Bovis Lend Lease is an organisation which thrives on difficult challenges and that’s where it has made a name for itself.

The debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament
The debating chamber of the
Scottish Parliament

Harry says: “Bovis Lend Lease has worked in Scotland since the 1970s and was incorporated in 1984 making this our 21st birthday year. In that period we have been responsible for constructing some of the biggest landmark buildings across the length and breadth of Scotland. The latest example is the new BBC Scotland headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow.

“It’s a tricky building made all the more complex because of the technical fit out of broadcasting studios. We are also building for the BBC in London so we already have a track record in this kind of complicated building.”

However, it’s not only landmark buildings that Bovis Lend Lease constructs. The company operates in a number of specialist sectors including healthcare, education, defence, commercial and retail.

Harry says: “Our expertise is now wider than purely construction and our involvement in healthcare and schools PFIs, retail management with Lend Lease, Prime contracting in the defence sector, together with our traditional building skills, greatly enhances our in-house capability.

“The retail sector has probably been our biggest business in the past 10 years. In Scotland we have been involved in the construction of the Overgate Centre in Dundee, Ocean Terminal in Leith, Braehead, Buchanan Galleries, and the refurbishment of the St Enoch Centre in Glasgow.

“Nationally, healthcare is an ever-growing part of our business and under the PFI procurement route Bovis Lend Lease contributes as an equity partner in the Catalyst Healthcare consortium. In this way we build the hospitals we own and operate them for up to 30 years.

“Across the country our healthcare interests include Manchester Joint Hospitals , Leeds Oncology, Roehampton, Havering, Burnley, Calderdale, Worcester, and lastly Hexham which we managed from the Scottish business.”

Fifteen years ago PFI simply wasn’t a procurement route that the construction industry used. These days, with the Government’s approach to using the private sector for the funding and the management of these facilities, businesses have grown to huge scales with companies like Bovis Lend Lease being major investors as well as builders.

Education is another sector where PFI is playing a large role in creating new schools. With the Government continuing it’s spend on education this sector has remained a focus for the Scottish business.

From the Glasgow office the company is now nearing completion of its sixth PFI school in Newcastle and the quality of what is being provided now – as opposed to say 20 years ago – is light years ahead. The facilities are quite remarkable and it is all being done through the PFI route.

A recent win for Bovis Lend Lease, which will see the company build 10 primary schools in South Lanarkshire, is being carried out under a new partnership form which is not PFI but a PPC 2000 form of contract. To many people this is a new approach and a new form of contract but it fits well with the Government’s vision for “Building schools for the future”.

The future of Bovis Lend Lease is something that Harry is confident about. He says: “Our future workload will develop from the strengths and relationships that currently exist. We are not all things to all people but we are very good at what we do.

“In Scotland and the North East of England there are some great opportunities coming up which we are confident will sustain our continued growth and success. Glasgow in particular has some exciting projects which Bovis Lend Lease is, and will continue to be, involved in.”

So what is Harry’s role in all of this?

“My job is to develop the team,” he says. “We have very capable people and that’s what makes us successful – especially when others are relying on us to solve their problems. As a business, we sell ourselves with that type of expertise.”

Getting his employees to operate as part of a team is of paramount importance to Harry because, in effect, the business is all about bringing the best people to the clients and allowing them to develop the projects.

“I am not going to be the one who’s building them – I’m the one who has to ensure that the people who are, are the best quality people for the job, that they’re properly trained, and have got the right approach. I’m here to support them. It’s about team leadership.”

In his private life, Harry doesn’t have too much time for relaxing. For the record he’s married to Jean, has twins, Christopher and Danielle, and drives a BMW. When he is not chauffering his children around, he enjoys watching the occasional game of football. He also recently enjoyed a charity trek in the mountains of Peru and has been talking to his wife about cross-country running, which he admits is possibly the beginning a mid-life crisis.

“Even when you have a challenging worklife, which I do, you need some challenges of a different kind when you’re not at work,” he says.

As for predicting Harry’s future, it’s difficult to ‘crystal ball’ his life, but continuing to run and grow a successful construction company, based in Scotland is a good start. Scotland is where Harry Thorburn lives and where he has been working in the construction industry since 1979. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

He says: “I’m happy here in Scotland – for the next five years anyway. After that? We’ll wait and see.”