A game of squash against a friend at university set young student and now Executive Vice President Thomas Faulkner on the path to a career in construction with Skanska.
Struggling to obtain the experience needed via two summer work placements to get onto his dream Masters course in Paris, Thomas was given a tip by one of his Southampton University friends over a game of squash. “It was back in the mid-nineties,” he recalls. “I’d written to 47 organisations for paid work placements, got 12 rejections and the rest didn’t reply.
“It showed how tough it was to get into the industry at that time during a recession. My friend suggested that I try Trafalgar House, so I got in contact and hit success! It then all happened really fast and, before I knew it, I was on my way up to work on my first project, the M11/A12 link road.”
“One of the first people I met was Bill Hocking, who back then was a Senior Project Manager and was destined for even greater things. Bill took the time to drive me all round the site and help me settle in. What really impressed me was that a senior manager took the time out of his day to help a young graduate. Even in those early days, the values that we live by today were evident then.”
Before heading off to university to study civil engineering, Thomas had some tough choices to make. A career in the family surveying business beckoned, but he wasn’t sure it was for him. “Going into a family business presents challenges of its own. I discussed it at length with my parents and they were supportive of me going to university and doing something else.”
It led him to Southampton, followed by a year in Paris and finally in September 1997 to a full-time job with Kvaerner. By then, Kvaerner had taken over Trafalgar House, which in turn was acquired by Skanska in 2001.
“I joined on the Graduate Civil Engineering programme and was placed on the Dartford East Tunnel replacement project. This involved replacing the road deck, cutting sections out in night-time closures, and replacing them with pre-cast sections made in an adjacent yard. The motorway had to be open ready for morning traffic and the penalty for getting it wrong was massive. We successfully re-opened the tunnel every day. It was a fantastic experience, which lasted around 18 months.”
“By this time, I’d been working quite a lot with Bill, and he asked if I’d be interested in a project that Skanska was doing in Zimbabwe. It involved a job swap with a graduate engineer and led to an eight-month assignment on a sewage treatment works in Harare. They had a couple of excavators that only worked occasionally! It meant planning and method statements centred on manual labour, which involved lots of digging by hand, with 50 or so people outside the gates every morning hoping to get a job that day.
“The health and safety standards were worlds apart from what I was used to in the UK. I remember people wearing shorts and T-shirts, they might have had a hard hat – it was a bit optional back then – and the proximity of people and plant was shocking.
“It was a massive learning experience and serious escalation in responsibility. I went from being a technical engineer to being a project manager looking after two sites. I reviewed designs, planned procurement and was responsible for overseeing safe delivery of the project.”
In 2001 Thomas worked on a project to widen and strengthen the Tamar bridge that links Devon and Cornwall. He recalls this job as a challenge, for many reasons. “From an engineering perspective it was fascinating. Our job was to turn it from a three-lane concrete deck to a five-lane steel deck, meaning it retained the same weight – all while keeping it open to traffic. The bridge was a terrorist target, so the works had to be completed under tight security measures.”
By this time, Thomas had spent his time building his career – combining it with studies to achieve his Chartership in Civil Engineering.
“Even back then it was an excellent programme where, in addition to technical competencies, it taught me about management and leadership. It’s hard work doing both, so I know how our graduates feel today. It’s well worth it though, and I secured my Chartership while I was on the Tamar bridge project in 2001.”
Thomas’ next job, on the Saltash tunnel refurbishment project on the border of Devon and Cornwall was very nearly his last. “By this time, I’d spent four years in the industry, successfully gained my Chartership and was beginning to build my career.
“On the Saltash project, there was a traditional style leadership, it was not inclusive and there were poor communications. From a technical perspective it was a great project, from a cultural perspective I didn’t enjoy it. The relationship with the client was adversarial and, with everything combined, the tunnel was effectively re-built twice.
"My feeling was that if this is the kind of industry I’m going to be part of, I don’t really want to be in it. A poor work environment can affect all aspects of your life and happiness. It shows why it is so important today that we have inclusive work environments where people can bring their whole selves to work.”
Fortunately, Thomas stayed. His next job being for Anglian Water as part of the @OneAlliance, recognised as a forerunner for collaborative, integrated working which has helped shape industry today.
“It was a million miles apart from Saltash,” says Thomas. “I joined as part of AMP3 (Asset Management Programme) in 2002, where innovation was embedded and there was a real drive to reduce carbon.
"There was a keen awareness that reducing carbon could also reduce cost and that was a new way of thinking. The project really forged my views on the benefits of collaboration, inclusivity and digital ways of working.”
One of the biggest changes that Thomas has experienced is in the world of digital. “People today would laugh at how we did things 25 years ago. I remember days sitting in the site office, cutting out scale-sized drawings of cranes, excavators and dump trucks and putting them on the construction plans to try and map out logistics and the safe construction sequence, only for it to change as soon as we got out on to site.
“We've come on light years since then. Now we’ve embedded tools like BIM and we’re developing new digital tools, processes and systems that improve productivity and lead to multiple benefits in terms of the quality of data, construction sequencing, safety, carbon reduction and all-round productivity and efficiency. It’s a massive step-change, all of which is helping to deliver better outcomes for our customers.”
Thomas’s time on Anglian Water really helped to shape his career. Projects on the Olympic Park and London Power Tunnels followed, before he was made an Operations Director and then Managing Director of Skanska’s Infrastructure business. Thomas was promoted to his current role on Skanska UK’s Executive Management Team in 2015. In between all of this, he even found time to study for his MBA.
“It’s been an amazing journey, during which time Naomi and I married and had two children. Recent years have presented their own challenges, with Brexit, Covid and now the war in Ukraine.
"I’ve seen the good and bad sides of this industry but looking back over 25 years I can definitely say it’s improved a lot, with much more focus on helping and supporting people to work in an exciting but at times pretty tough sector.
“It’s now much more welcoming of people from all walks of life, more open – particularly in terms of mental health and wellbeing – and there is more focus on delivering benefits for society outside of the physical legacy we leave behind.
“I’m proud to work for Skanska in this industry and I’m very pleased to have had that conversation on the squash court all those years ago!”