Martin Coles is Director and Cost Centre Lead for the South West and Wales Cost and Commercial Team at Turner and Townsend.
For Procurement Heads‘ latest Head2Head, he spoke with James Dobbin.
Could you explain your role at Turner and Townsend?
South West and Wales for us is a very large region. There is a clue in the title but is as far as Southampton and Portsmouth, all the way down to the south west tip of the UK, all of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon, up through Gloucestershire and a chunk of South Wales as well, so a really large geographic area which is home to nearly 500 of our team members now.
It is a big area with lots of different disciplines in it as well, so not just my team.
Roughly a third of the region’s headcount is our cost and commercial team, based out of Cardiff, Bristol and Plymouth.
Listen to our Head2Head podcast with Martin.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I am a southern lad from Brighton originally, and I’ve travelled around the UK for work and other reasons but now I find myself in the South West. Today I live in North Somerset.
It is a very beautiful part of the world and I am very fortunate and lucky to live there.
Professionally, I have been working for 32 years, which feels like a very long time, and I have been in the construction industry for the entirety of my career.
I started when I was 18. My background is in heavy civil engineering and I spent 18 years of my career as a contractor delivering programmes.
I have worked through organisations from photocopying to tendering, from site engineering to site management and on to contract management, so a full suite of experience which has been brilliant and I must say I have enjoyed every moment of that.
I decided then to move into consultancy and ended up working for nearly 10 years in a consultancy that was an expert in estimating – and highways estimating at that – so I spent 10 years working for this organisation in Manchester and had a really great time helping the Highways Agency, as they were, to enable them to really run their cost and commercial management efficiently and I am pleased to say that is still really strong and continues to this day.
That brings me to Turner and Townsend.
I was given one of the best opportunities at the time and that was to come and work on the Heathrow expansion programme.
Turner and Townsend was one of the partners for that project and my background in highways estimating – working with tricky numbers and moving significant roads, including the M25 – made it a really great opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
I moved again within T&T from my specialism working in that estimating role and I now run a team of 120 Commercial and Procurement Managers in region.
Could you tell us a bit about the business model here, the organisational and also some of the exciting projects you’re working on at the moment?
T&T shares this professional consultancy space with some other excellent organisations.
We are in a really good position in the market and our business success is absolutely down to our great customers and the quality of people that work here.
Our expertise and capabilities are what sets us apart and certainly our attitude to what we deliver our customers is a big part of that.
Our organisational structure is pretty flat and gives great opportunities at all levels.
T&T doesn’t feel like a huge business and it is very much structured that way to help our people grow and develop.
What we find is great opportunities for people to develop and progress through the ranks of the organisation quickly and nimbly.
That flat structure really helps us to react to markets and push on with good new ideas as well.
People talk about us as being quite entrepreneurial and I think again that is a good and apt description.
We see opportunities and ways we can help our customers and we act upon them and put our best foot forward to see what we can do.
How would you describe the culture at Turner & Townsend?
My job is to lead the team and developing our culture is part of my responsibility.
A big part of that is to inspire and support people in their individual career progression.
I think those things really support how we define our culture at T&T which is underpinned by some fantastic values within the organisation.
It’s great to have feedback from our new starters who’ve had experience of other companies’ values, but it is lovely to hear people turn around and observe that we actually live out those values.
That is an important part of our culture of encouraging everybody to do their best and focusing on customers’ outcomes primarily.
It is a great culture, very supportive and very progressive.
Can you tell us about some of the profiles you are looking for on your team and some for the wider business as you expand?
We need motivated, passionate, professional people.
Our cost management team is looking for cost managers, so quantity surveying backgrounds.
It is great to have industry experience and good NEC contract experience.
I also run a team of commercial and procurement managers and I understand that is a very broad subject!
We are looking for people with great industry experience who bring the wealth of knowledge that they’ve had from those experiences. Whether from outside of the construction industry or even outside of the defence industry our team bring a richness of understanding and knowledge that our customers love.
We also are always keen to talk to people who are looking for estimating opportunities, again back to my original heartbeat and passion – and also run a team of people in cost and commercial assurance which is more forensic.
The latter involves reviewing and helping our customers understand how they could do things better next time and reviewing where things might have strayed from the plan and how they can learn from those experiences to improve the next time.
That commercial team you alluded to there will really resonate well with our network of Procurement professionals, what kind of projects would they be working on, could you give us a flavour of what they might be doing?
With our commercial team, predominantly our work is with the Ministry of Defence dealing with significant and large stakeholder challenges and sizeable amounts of public money.
It is a huge responsibility.
It is difficult to talk specifically about our projects within the MoD but what I can tell you is they are all unique, whether it is a single source procurement, restricted frameworks of delivery or even transforming a customer’s space and mindset to move within more current and contemporary views, they all are fascinating.
Most of our projects roll for 6-12 months and we are really looking for people who are looking to enhance their experience within the commercial lifecycle or looking to fine-tune specific skill sets while getting great experience around some of these programmes for the MoD.
Hopefully, that gives a flavour of some of the work, it is predominantly in the defence sector, but we do still do some commercial procurement outside of that too.
For instance, Heathrow but this is not within our region.
What is your view on the working office policy and Turner and Townsend, how often do you think they’ll be in the office versus working from home versus on client site?
It is very varied and our employee wellbeing is of our utmost importance.
We are in tune with future ways of working and believe that bringing the best out of our people is about them operating in a comfortable space around their work, colleagues, and life.
Covid has set a tone around the art of the possible.
The opportunities that do exist around working remotely have fast-forwarded 15 years of industry thinking to the point of people now successfully working from home.
As an organisation, we love people coming into the office, we love using our facilities, and we love that excitement and buzz you get when you’re around colleagues and friends.
Interaction and integration are a really important part of what we believe is a good factor of a successful career with us and we really see the benefit of a person’s contribution when they’re in the office, but it isn’t a prerequisite.
Our team would also spend time in the client space as well.
That is very varied depending on the customer.
We have some teams where we are operating in a customer office as a team so there might be five or 10 of us working together in a space.
Again, we organise a drumbeat around that, so people are in the client space working together, maybe not all on the same project but located together.
But then we also have many people that are working in single or small numbers within our client organisations too.
Again, that is around fitting in with that customer’s requirements and that generally is still only 2-3 days a week tops, in some instances depending on where the project is and its intensity just as it would be in any project.
But, overall, we are not seeing a huge drive back in the office and are definitely hybrid here, but really want people to be thinking about their own wellbeing and enjoying getting back into office space.
To someone who has perhaps only ever worked in industry and is thinking about management consultancy, what do you think makes Turner and Townsend different?
It is always good to surround yourself with the best, isn’t it?
That, for me, is something that is apparent as a recruiter of a lot of people.
I get a lot of people who think they’re really good and they join our team, and they look around and go, actually, there are some really good people here!
The impact of being surrounded by great people inspires those that are up for a challenge and up to develop themselves personally and professionally.
This should be a really important part of the decision-making process when you’re thinking of joining us.
Can you talk us through some of the success stories and what the career path might look like for someone joining?
I guess one of our crowning success stories must be our UK infrastructure managing director David Whysall.
David wouldn’t thank me but is in his early 40s and joined as a graduate 18 years ago.
David is the epitome of the success that people can have within T&T.
He looks after 3,000 people and has a budget and bottom line to go with it.
That is the extreme end of the spectrum, but there is a great opportunity for everybody.
As an organisation, we recognise that growing our talent is something we need to invest in all the time, so training and developing people and leading them through is key.
One of our directors here joined us as a senior professional so he has stepped through senior and associate levels and now he is a director and that was in six years.
He joined from a non-affiliated industry as well so to pick up and go into that space is a further demonstration of his capability and ambition.
There are some tremendous opportunities for people who are up for the challenge.
The reality is that from a professional services organisation, most people will get to the point where they will know their own professional service and it will be a different point for some people depending on their experiences, but what we really focus on here is giving you the extra life and business skills and capabilities to take you on the next step once you have got to know it all.
That is where the fun starts.
When I look at my own career, I am leading people, I am inspiring people, and I am shaping people’s careers now.
It is certainly not what I started doing – bashing pegs in all those years ago on muddy construction sites!
But there is that point where you plateau professionally in many other organisations and it is about those extra nuggets that take you to the next realm and make you the future leader and that is what we want more of at Turner & Townsend.