When Gary Fowler was a boy growing up in Bury St Edmunds, all he wanted to do was become a professional footballer.
Ruptured ankle ligaments crushed Gary’s dream at the age of 18. It was a bitter blow for someone with great potential who’d already caught the eye of several league club scouts. But football’s loss was emphatically construction’s gain: ten years after hanging up his boots and then starting as a trench digger with a local firm he was named Overall Winner of The Duke of Gloucester’s Young Achievers Scheme 2014. The awards are organized by Construction Youth Trust to celebrate young professionals who have overcome barriers to get to where they are now in construction. It was a wonderful surprise, and a “complete shock”, says Gary, who also won the Construction Delivery category that night in front of his partner and family and the managing director of Breheny Civil Engineering, the firm that has employed and encouraged him from the start.
For the judges, what marked Gary out from the other very strong candidates was his determination. For most of the past decade he has been studying for construction qualifications while holding down demanding jobs on site. During the first two years of a National Certificate in Construction Management course, his fellow students were already in management roles. “As I was still working on the tools and getting little management experience from my job, it meant I had to study a lot harder to catch up with the other students,” he recalls.
It didn’t stop him getting a distinction, and winning the Student of the Year award – a feat he repeated at his next college when he embarked on the Foundation degree in Construction Management and won the CIOB Best Professional Construction Student award.
When that course finishes next year - he’s predicted to get a first – he plans to study for four years for full professional civil engineering status as a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Now a site agent on his biggest job to date, a £7m infrastructure project in Swindon for main contractor Crest Nicholson which he took on recently, Gary is quietly proud of his progress since departing the football fields of his youth.
“This new role is the chance I’ve been waiting for and working so hard to achieve. I hope to be successful on the project and keep learning and gaining valuable experience to help further my career.”
Gary has always worked hard. Even while he was pursuing his football goals as schoolboy with Ipswich FC and Charlton FC, he still found time to study, gaining a string of GCSEs and 3 A levels. When his damaged ligaments forced him to consider a new career path his dad, who used to work for Breheny as a bricklayer, introduced him to an ex-colleague at the firm and Gary started as a junior groundworker.
Inspired by the example of a young site engineer he worked for, Gary stayed on and pushed for promotion. Breheny saw something in him that persuaded them to give him a chance. They put him on the National Certificate in Construction Management course, allowing day release, and he began his way up the career ladder, with roles as foreman, sub-agent and then agent.
He’s been working all over the country in the past three or four years with long hours, sometimes seven days a week. At one stage, he was in the final year of his foundation degree while simultaneously doing a Level 6 NVQ in Construction Management. “Managing work and studying at the same time has been very challenging,” says Gary. “But the satisfaction I’ve got from completing all my work and study projects meant it’s always been worth all the hard work.”
Completing his first project in a management role was one of the proudest moments of his career. He had started as holiday cover for a £600,000 chicken farm near Mansfield, building roads, sewers, and large concrete raft foundations, and did well. He was asked to manage the project’s completion, which he achieved despite limited support. “The project was financially successful for the company and was a great stepping stone in my career.”
Conscious of how he was helped and encouraged in his early days, Gary always looks to share as much of his knowledge as possible with any juniors he’s working with. “If my seniors had not done the same for me, then I’d have found it much harder to progress the way I have.
“I try to show young engineers and especially young ground workers who I believe have the potential to progress their careers that it can be done. I also recommend training courses that would help improve juniors as I believe everyone deserves the same chances that I got. Though I do also stress that they need to prove how much they want to progress – and that it’s not easy; a lot of hard work, motivation and effort is needed.”