Dennis Wilson: CMYA’s star of the show

It was a close thing, but Dennis Wilson very nearly missed the CMYA awards night last October. The Lend Lease operations director should have been somewhere in China or Japan celebrating his 50th birthday, a trip planned before he submitted his CMYA entry. But some instinct made him put back the departure date.

“My colleague, commercial director James Pearce, thought I had a good chance of reaching the finals,” he remembers. “That was enough. CMYA provided that rare opportunity of getting the team together, along with the client. Not to have experienced that evening, irrespective of winning a medal, would have been a real shame.”

What happened next was a complete surprise: Dennis not only won the new build and refurbishment million category of £30 – £60 million, but was crowned overall CMYA champion.

“People say to me, you must have known beforehand. But I genuinely didn’t have a clue. None whatsoever,” Dennis says, admitting “it felt fantastic.”

It had only been his second time of entering CMYA, having reached the finals in 2012. But Dennis acknowledges that luck played its part in his success. As project director of the fiendishly complex refurbishment of the National Theatre (NT) in London, he had the perfect opportunity to demonstrate diplomacy, attention to detail and inspirational leadership.

“In many ways it was no different to many other projects, Dennis says. “We were doing a cut and carve and had to deal with a lot of hazardous waste materials as well as a major reroute of MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) services. The extent of work was so great that when I walked around the site for the first time, I just assumed that the client would be moving out.”

That was his first shock: the stipulation that the National had to be open 364 days a year, with all three theatres fully operational during that time. The needs of 1,000 staff had to be accommodated. There were 20 different departments to liaise with and 27 trades to coordinate.

“At first I didn’t realise how iconic this job was going to be,” Dennis says. “If I’d realised that 2,500 people would arriving daily, and the Queen would be turning up quite often, I’d have been more nervous before taking it on!”

The need to keep the NT operational had a dramatic influence on the schedule. Dennis devised a staggered migration programme, helping departments vacate and re-occupy areas as the project moved into different phases. But even, then, plans had to remain fluid and flexible.

“The NT is such a dynamic organisation, it’s an atmosphere in which things keep evolving. They might decide to put on a new production in a certain way, and would suddenly require a certain space. Our programme had to accommodate that. As a team we immersed ourselves in the culture of the theatre, both socially and professionally. The more we understood them, and understood what we could and couldn’t do, the more effective we became.”

Even more challenging were the hidden surprises in the 40-year old Grade II*listed icon: Lend Lease had not been able to access the building to carry out a full survey before work began.

“It’s testimony to the team that everyone – my colleagues at Lend Lease, the client, designers and specialist subcontractors – put their individual goals to one side. We worked together to get the best result,” Dennis says.

Given this level of adversity, how did he keep motivation and energy levels up in the 350-strong workforce?

“I always lead by example. If the team had thought I was flagging, that would have set the tone. So it was important to keep people focused, and always look for the positives in a situation, which I do naturally. We began to expect at least two or three fresh problems every day. But it just became the norm that we would solve them together. The performance of the team was exceptional.”

He remembers the feeling of walking round the completed project with CMYA judges.

“At that point, the theatre was 90% occupied and in use. You could see the public inside the space, enjoying the building. It was such a good feeling,” he says, adding:

“Winning CMYA, will stay with me for the rest of my career. I feel the prize wasn’t just about this one project. It was the culmination of my 18 years at Lend Lease. All the difficult jobs, all the great people I’d ever worked with. Getting recognition from my industry peers was the most important part. That’s why CMYA means so much.”

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