The new chair of ACE’s north west group, Sean Keyes, is a strong advocate of the SME sector in his region and the valuable role such firms play in the construction sector. Andy Walker
caught up with him recently for a chat.
ean Keyes, managing director of civil and structural engineering firm Sutcliffe, has a no nonsense, straightforward approach that you sense will stand him in good stead in his new role as chair of the north west group of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE). He’s passionate about ensuring that SME firms like his own have a voice in the industry – a voice that is too often ignored according to Keyes.
“Most business is undertaken in this country by SMEs and we are the companies that are supporting the bigger companies. I wanted to make sure that the SME companies have a say at the party,” said Keyes who is also keen to speak up for his region. “In my mind, the north west is probably the second biggest economy outside of London which makes it very important for UK plc. Construction in the north west is a fundamental part of the economy as we build hospitals, roads, schools, houses and the general infrastructure that goes around it. It’s engineers and ACE members who are undertaking those projects,” he said.
Keyes has been a vocal advocate for a number of years about the levelling up agenda and it’s clear that under his leadership ACE members in the north west will have a strong voice. “ACE is a fantastic lobby group, working with others to ensure that the construction agenda is being pushed in a professional way and having a group of people who are representing us at the top table is vital,” he says.
I ask Keyes if he thinks that the government is taking the north west seriously as befits a regional economic powerhouse with the potential to be a regional economic driver. “There’s still more movement that needs to be made in this area,” he says. “On a positive note, I have felt that the current prime minister has been more supportive of the north west than maybe other leaders have been in the past and I hope that this continues,” says Keyes, who also thinks that there is a particular responsibility on the region’s political leaders to listen and to deliver.
We need to go back to the schools, improve our profile, work on the brand of construction and promote it as a clean industry and one where you can build a steady career with opportunities for travel Sean Keyes, chair ACE North West
Another area that Keyes is keen to see progress on is attracting new people into the industry, particularly women, who remain underrepresented in the construction sector. “We need to get more young people into our industry and encourage more women in particular,” he says. “That has been happening, but the rate isn’t as fast as I would like. There is no reason why, for the majority of positions in the construction industry, that there shouldn’t be a 50-50 split between men and women,” says Keyes, who wants to see more women who are figureheads across the industry. “We need to go back to the schools, improve our profile, work on the brand of construction and promote it as a clean industry and one where you can build a steady career with opportunities for travel. We need to push all these things,” Keyes says.
Getting more firms involved with ACE will also be a key priority for Keyes. “Being a member of ACE in the north west gives firms access to up-to-date information about what’s happening in our industry. During the Covid period, we have had close contacts with other members from across the UK, so even though we are typically a north west based organisation I was getting a perspective of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and people from the south east and the south coast,” he says. This rounded overview of the industry is a key benefit of involvement in the north west group that Keyes hopes more firms will tap into going forward.
“All this information is accessible to our members here in the north west and can help people to improve their organisations. We also get feedback on what is happening at the top of the industry, some of which hasn’t even been made public yet,” he says.
As we finish our interview, Keyes reflects on the fact that Sutcliffe is 35 years old this year – “a momentous year that we will never forget,” he says. The firm is working on a number of flagship projects, including the Royal Liverpool Hospital, a billion pounds worth of homes on Merseyside and a 450-home apartment scheme in Liverpool docks. “There is plenty of work,” he says. “Another real positive is that during this period we’ve seen turnover and profitability remain at close to pre-Covid levels. So, we have managed to keep a very steady ship during the difficult period,” says Keyes.
Finally, I ask him what one thing he would change about the industry. “I think it would probably be how we pay each other and work with each other,” he says. “Many people are paying promptly but there are still some of the larger organisations who slow payments down – not all of them – and how the industry works with each other by making sure the money moves round the circle fast is important. If you have one person in that chain who is slowing the payments down, then that has a negative impact right the way round to everyone,” says Keyes.
Working together better for the benefit of all is a good way to sum up Sean Keyes’s approach to business. It’s clear that ACE North West will benefit from his leadership over the coming year.
This interview originally appeared in the latest edition of Infrastructure Intelligence.