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Dwyer gets down to business

An engineer, manager and businessman - Joe Dwyer is set to continue his quiet revolution as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Antony Oliver finds out what's driving him.

Whenever you meet Joe Dwyer, it is hard to imagine him running a multi-billion construction plc like George Wimpey, battling with Sir Alastair Morton during construction of the Channel Tunnel or negotiating a shock £700M assetswap deal with Sir Neville Simms. Until he speaks.

His self-confessed 'unassuming and mild' manner is the perfect foil for the contracting man-of-steel beneath. A listener by nature, Dwyer's contributions are considered, to the point and always powerfully persuasive.

'People have often suggested that to have got to the top of a big company I must be ruthless, ' he says. 'I have a determination but I wouldn't like to define that as being ruthless - but it must get close at times.'

Without doubt, the Institution's next President is a serious minded person. Something of an enigma, who seems rarely to be in the same city two days in a row, this straight-talking Liverpudlian is a strategist.

He thrives on the 'big picture' and has a reputation for reading heavyweight books on management theory while on holiday.But he is also down to earth.

His listening skills allow him to soak up information during meetings. When he is ready, he speaks. The wise listen.

His message is reform and modernisation. Since becoming a vice-president in 1998 this has been his theme, culminating in last month's single member decision by Council and the issue of widening corporate status before that.

'All professional institutions have the same problem, ' he explains. 'They have successful histories which they continue to celebrate but they often fail to recognise that the world goes on.

All of our members are at the leading edge of technological advance. If we don't recognise that and reflect it in the services that we provide then we are going to become irrelevant and fall behind.'

The future is what it is all about for Dwyer, otherwise he feels that he, and the ICE, are wasting time. Perhaps it is his contracting background that makes him so passionate. Certainly he is aware that he needs to convince the 'cohort of traditionalists who would accuse me of being an upstart' of his intentions.

A visible sign of his modernising is his decision not to commission a traditional Presidential portrait. Instead he has opted for a more contemporary digital photographic likeness to grace the reception and be stored for all time on compact disc.

'It's a signal that we live in a modern world. I'm not antihistory but we consistently dwell on it and I don't think that that is healthy, ' he says. 'We should learn our lessons from the past and apply them in a more modern context.'

He doesn't like to dwell on the past and is characteristically self effacing about his hugely successful career in construction.

This began at Liverpool's John Moores University before he joined George Wimpey as a junior engineer in 1955. His 44 years with the firm saw him work on the reconstruction of Cammell Laird Shipyard on the Mersey before travelling the world on to work on industrial, mining and infrastructure projects in the Far and Middle East, North America, Europe and the UK.

The Channel Tunnel was his highest profile project, where he sat on the board of BritishFrench contracting consortium Transmanche Link and was chairman of the British Contractors Shareholder Assembly. This role brought him notoriety, particularly the high-profile spats with Eurotunnel boss Sir Alastair Morton.

He remains fiercely proud of the Channel Tunnel as a technical achievement and maintains that the excessive attention given to these contractual disputes distracted from the scale of the work completed.

His success on this project followed by the massive Hibernian offshore drilling platform in North Eastern Canada, secured him the chief executive job at Wimpey in 1991. Four years later he pulled off a shock deal with Tarmac boss Sir Neville Simms to swap Tarmac's housing assets for Wimpey's construction business - at that time run by current ICE executive Mike Casebourne.

The deal took Wimpey out of civil engineering contracting for the first time in its 100 year history.

This radical strategy caused an outcry among traditionalists but proved a success as the new house-building and development group, with Dwyer as chairman and chief executive, ramped up profitability and secured its future.

'My experience as a business person is probably as big as you can get in the UK, in terms of what you have to do and know, ' he says. 'I have become just as knowledgeable about financing businesses as I did about engineering.'

It is this level of contracting business experience which sets him apart from most at the ICE - except perhaps Sir Alan Cockshaw. But they are skills that he fully intends to use to continue reforms at the ICE.

'The biggest driver of change today is technology. The internet is already the principal method of getting information. You ignore it at your peril, ' he says citing the recent agreement with the American Society of Civil Engineers to form a web-based knowledge exchange as a good example of forward thinking at the ICE.

'People join the ICE for a qualification and the majority of our members do just that. But we also have a duty to spread the practice of civil engineering as a whole. You can do that as a UK exercise or more widely as a global exercise. Our growing relationship with the ASCE is exactly that.'

The bigger issues at the ICE are his priority. The current debates at Council on single membership and professional recognition, for example, he describes as 'quite minor in the sense that they are only about trying to get simplicity into the ways that people can become members'.

For him the debate is over and he has no doubts that the right decision was made in the right way. 'Unhealthy exclusiveness in an organisation is just not acceptable. It's like a golf club not accepting women members.' As far as dealing with dissenting voices in Council he is equally clear.

'I don't have any problems keeping order. If you chair a public company with differing people of high intelligence then you have got to be on your toes, ' he explains, promising to elevate the level of discussion at Council to the issues that really matter.

'Council depends on its agenda. If you put in an anodyne agenda then it becomes a rubber stamping exercise. I intend to discuss real issues, not the administration of the ICE, ' says Dwyer. 'There will be no easy ride in Council - no sleeping in the corners. If I see people not contributing then I will pick them out.'

Of course he learnt a great deal about institutional affairs during his year as president of the Chartered Institute of Building in 1998. CIOB, he says, had an advantage of being younger and so had less history weighing it down. But he says the experience made him 'more alive to members issues'.

One of the key issues for CIOB under his presidency was the attempted name change to the more inclusive Chartered Institute of Construction. This was eventually vetoed by the Privy Council, not least after representation from the ICE against the proposal. And while he accepts that, with hindsight, it was perhaps not the right move, Dwyer is adamant that all the institutions must work more closely together and take better advantage of synergies.

Since retiring from Wimpey in 1999, Dwyer has been tempted back to work leading Liverpool Vision, the city's urban regeneration company. It is a job he initially declined until friend and past ICE president Sir Alan Cockshaw twisted his arm. But it has taken him back to his home town for the first time in 17 years and into an environment he had not experienced before.

'I had not worked in the same way with the public sector before so it is fascinating, ' he says. 'But in Liverpool there is an empathy with the city from everyone involved. They want to see the city succeed. I know that it has shot itself in the foot so many times in the past. But after going there and speaking to people there is a awful lot of good will finally being built up.'

He does see similarities between this job and his task at the ICE - the politics, the underdevelopment, the history holding it back. But he points out: 'In the ICE's case it has simply become too comfortable - in Liverpool it is too inefficient.'

Getting the membership behind the ICE with the kind of empathy and support that Dwyer has witnessed in Liverpool is his aim. Helping the small band of volunteers that keep the ICE functioning - particularly in the regions - is central to his plan.

'All institutions rely on volunteer services and it is becoming more difficult for people to take time, ' he says. 'We must provide permanent staff to take pressure off the volunteers. I hope this and the increased relevance of the ICE will encourage members, and particularly graduates, to get involved.'

Encouraging younger members back to the ICE will indeed require it to become more relevant to their lives. But if this can be done then it will enable the ICE to spread its message more widely.

Dwyer is particularly keen to help industry tackle the longterm decline in civil engineering graduates by targeting the fifth and six formers at school. Being relevant means addressing these issues to tackle the problems that people face at their workplaces.

'We have done too little external and internal communication in the past. Most people don't know what a civil engineer is, ' he explains. 'We have to expose civil engineering in a much more detailed and user friendly way. Which other professionals can stand back from a piece of infrastructure and say: 'I participated in that'?'

As a figurehead, Dwyer would seem the perfect inspiration for the challenge ahead. He has progressed from the bottom rung to run one of the biggest civil engineering firms in the UK - and had fun doing it. And he has a careerfull of anecdotes about an industry he loves.

Dwyer himself is much more understated, but accepts that his background perhaps makes him more accessible. 'I am someone who has dealt with the whole spectrum of the business and been successful, ' he says. 'We have to find forums and opportunities to spread the message. Getting into schools will make a big difference.'

After such a high profile career he is genuinely as excited about his new challenges. He spent 44 years in one company and claims to have not missed it since leaving - perhaps because leading a plc is a pretty stressful task. But he will not go about his ICE job any differently - the quiet revolution will continue.

'You can never alter people's personalities, ' he says. 'You gain experience and apply yourself accordingly - I will never be other than an unassuming and mild person but hopefully be a more experienced one, better able to address the presidency.'

But he adds, with a smile: 'I think it will be a very frustrating job - as a chief executive you can make things happen - and generally fairly quickly. But in an organisation based on the essence of democracy you can't - you have to bite your tongue and grit your teeth, and use persuasive talents more effectively.'

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