An exciting and vibrant industry: an interview with Katy Dowding

Skanska UK President and CEO Katy Dowding talks about her long and varied career in the construction industry.

Katy Dowding’s energy, together with her lifelong passion for the construction industry, are immediately apparent when you talk to her: ”It really is such an exciting industry to work in! It touches everybody’s lives and it makes a huge contribution to society. I always love going into schools to talk about it – getting young people to recognise how important it is and how it touches their lives everyday. For example, they wouldn’t be in a classroom if wasn’t for the construction industry!”

Her 33-year career has included a diverse range of commercial, operational and strategic roles, with a solid background in project delivery. She has worked on a large number and wide variety of projects.

“One of the things that excites me the most is understanding our customers’ needs and delivering them. I think it’s really important to get close to customers – to really understand them – so you can deliver for them.”

She tells a story from early in her career that really illustrates the importance of this.

“I was on working an army barracks, and we’d spent a lot of time designing it to have the most efficient use of space, which included a big bag store in the basement. But for some reason we couldn’t get the design signed off. Each time we tried we found there was an obstacle in the way.

So, I took the time to talk to lots of soldiers. They said, ‘We don’t want a big bag store, because our stuff gets taken and then we fail on parade.

We actually want to keep our kit in our rooms, but they aren’t big enough’. So, we got rid of the basement store, redesigned their rooms and put in individual storage units. After we did this, the design was signed off!

It was a real epiphany moment. I realised that until you get a really deep understanding of your customer, you can’t give them the best possible product – and I want to give them the best possible product!”

Katy fell into the construction industry by a happy accident and quickly developed a lifelong love of it.

”I was at college, in my last year of studying my A levels, and I asked my mate Paddy what he was going to do when he left. He told me he was going to be a quantity surveyor. I asked him what that meant and he said it was to do with maths and the law and involved working on building sites. I thought ’that sounds alright!’. So, I applied for a position, and I managed to get a job with Tarmac as a trainee quantity surveyor.

My first project was brilliant! It was at a Whitbread brewery in Southampton, where we were building a warehouse and an office. In my early career, I was based with a regional team of quantity surveyors. I worked on a huge range of civil engineering and building projects from schools to shops, offices and sewage treatment works.”

As part of her traineeship, Katy’s degree course was sponsored – she got a 2:1 in quantity surveying, which enabled her to become a chartered surveyor (she is now a fellow of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors). Working as part of a regional team, she progressed through the ranks – eventually taking on a senior managerial commercial role.

It was then that Katy decided on a change of direction, to further her career.

“I always knew I wanted to run a business – even when I was at college, before I decided to become a quantity surveyor. But at the time there was nobody doing that who didn’t have an operational background of some kind. So, I decided I wanted to move into a completely operational role.

I’d already got a taste for operations. On the projects I was working on, there wasn’t a complete distinction between commercial and operational roles. For example, I would often step in as the project lead if required.”

Katy took on an operational role, working for a defence project. She led an operational delivery team for five years.

“I liked the practicality of leading an operational team and I liked the problem-solving aspect of it. I also enjoy delivering value for clients – it’s something that’s really important to me.”

In 2003, Katy decided to move to Skanska and moved back into a commercial role, this time with a major project for the Ministry of Defence to completely refurbish its main office in London, MOD Whitehall. This was a huge construction project that involved the renovation of a massive Grade II listed building.

"A lot of people I knew and trusted had joined Skanska and I’d previously had an interview with the firm for a different role. I liked Skanska’s approach and values. So I decided to join. But I was upfront that I ultimately wanted to return to an operational role in the long run.”

Once MOD Whitehall was complete, Katy joined another huge project, the redevelopment of both Barts and The Royal London Hospitals, in a key commercial role, helping to get the contract signed. At this time, Katy was also put forward for a masters degree, sponsored by Skanska, in the interdisciplinary management of projects.

“I’ve always really enjoyed studying. The masters was good in that it considered issues at a high-level perspective, from the viewpoint of the whole organisation. So it fitted very well with my desire to run a business.”

After working on the Barts and The Royal London Hospitals project for two years Katy was offered the chance of leading a corporate project. While it wasn’t an operational role, she decided to accept.

“I was asked to be the project manager for the launch our first employee engagement survey. We’d never done one before. Nowadays they’re very much part of business as usual, but back then it was quite a new thing. I had to engage with all the different parts of the business and put the systems in place so we could run the survey. It was really interesting to do, from a people and leadership perspective and I learned a lot about the principles of employee engagement."

More corporate roles followed, with Katy supporting the creation of Skanska UK’s 2010 and 2015 business plans (in 2007 and 2010 respectively). In between, she moved to wide-ranging role in Skanska’s UK’s then-telecoms utilities arm. This included a mixture of operational, strategic and business development responsibilities.

“You do need to take ownership of your career and spend time developing yourself. But you also need to recognise that there are ways of progressing that aren’t completely linear. If you look at my career, there are lots of zig-zags, but they’ve all helped me go in the direction I wanted to.”

Katy then joined Skanska’s facilities management business, supporting the development of its business plan. She then became an operations director, before being promoted to managing director.

“I really enjoyed managing the business. There was a huge amount to do, but it was great fun.”

After five years, Katy became an Executive Vice President with strategic responsibility for Skanska UK’s buildings and building services businesses. She is also part of the construction productivity task force – a group of industry leaders who are leading a joint industry and government initiative to drive greater productivity in the sector.

In May 2023, she succeeded Gregor Craig as president and CEO of Skanska UK.

“There’s a huge opportunity with digital tools to measure and improve productivity within the industry, which has been consistently lower than the rest of the UK economy. For example, greater use of digital rehearsals will help us get things right first time. Digital tools can also help to reduce wasted effort. I think greater collaboration is a really important theme, too. 

That might be better collaboration with our customers which brings benefits to both sides. Or it could be increased collaboration with the supply chain, with aim of bringing greater value to our customers. That aspect of collaboration is really important, because the supply chain brings lots of innovations and new ideas to projects."

Katy is also a strong supporter of greater inclusion and diversity in the construction industry and is the executive sponsor of Skanska UK’s Womxn’s and Pride employee networks.

“It’s about listening and understanding that people are different from one another, as well as recognising that we can benefit from other perspectives. At Skanska, we want people to feel able to bring their whole selves to work.”

She says she still enjoys every minute of working in construction industry.

“I just love it, whether it’s strategic thinking or project delivery! I’m excited by all of it! However, I get the biggest thrill when my teams get recognition for the great work they do. For example, when you’ve got a client telling us we’ve done a really good job, I could just pop with pride.”

Last updated: 23/02/2023