November 5, 2019
John Wood left Washington Grammar School in 1961 and joined George Wimpey as a junior civil engineer. After progressing through the ranks with Wimpey, Brims and Balfour Beatty, John decided to set up Tolent in 1983. John has been the driving force behind the construction and civil engineering company for the past 35 years and he remains a director, age 75. John was awarded a CBE in the 2019 New Year’s Honours list for services to the building and civil engineering industry
The construction industry was a great sector to be in when I started; full of spirit, characters and plenty of opportunities. I left school with O-Levels and I went on to what was then Rutherford College (now Northumbria University) to study an HNC in Civil Engineering – which I did on day release while working at George Wimpey. Much like it is today, it was never a necessity to have qualifications but it was advantageous, and definitely put me in good stead for what was to come.
In the 60s the whole country was working towards the same goal – rebuilding Britain in the post-war years. I worked on major infrastructure jobs including the Tyne Tunnel southern approach roads, and the less glamorous jobs like the Portrack sewage works. Regardless of the jobs, work was always good fun.
The construction industry is a tougher sector from when I first started. Some describe it as a low margin, high-risk business, which I can agree with, but it’s still interesting and challenging and no matter what, we’re still a ‘must-have’ industry.
The biggest qualification to have today in this industry is resilience. Construction moves with the economy, through all the highs and the lows. We feel it when the Government tighten budgets, but we’re not solely reliant on this. We’re still the ‘last outpost of social enterprise’; there’s not always a subsidised way of doing things – you have to make it happen for yourself and for those who are relying on you.
There are always opportunities to be had. Tolent had been a general contractor before an opportunity arose to bring in a house building arm into the business which, since its inception in 2015, has completely changed the dimension of the business and allowed us to capitalise on opportunities like national housing targets.
Right now, it’s good, although with Brexit, who knows what the future holds. But I always say ‘never be worried; be concerned!’
For Tolent, our ethos is what has carried us through the last 36 years and will continue to do so, which is to always look for solutions, not problems.
People and building relationships are everything. It’s a team game, and you’re only ever as good as the people around you.
If you work with good quality people and deal with good clients you will always get the business coming in. Keeping the communities where you work in your focus is always important and gives construction the right foundation to build on.
If we’re always working to improve the industry, it means we have more chances to showcase to the younger generation that construction is still that industry full of spirit and opportunities. Technology absolutely has a role to play but for me, it will always be a ‘muddy boot, hands-on’ job.
1961 – joined George Wimpey as a junior civil engineer
1965 – joined Brims as a section engineer and worked on the Tyne Tunnel south approaching roads and progressed to become a project manager
1974 – joined Balfour Beatty and worked on jobs including the Newcastle Metro, Portrack sewage works and the Steelworks at Redcar. Progressed to contracts manager for the North East.
1983 – founded Tolent Construction and became managing director of himself! First-year turnover of £300k
1987 – introduced to Kajima, which led to Tolent winning the refurbishment job on the Japanese Embassy in London – a key moment in the group’s history with annual turnover reaching £10m and the opening of a southern office.
2000 – Goldman Sachs project work continued on 120 Fleet St and Christchurch Street in London – the company’s biggest job to date at around £160m+
2002 – Sage HQ contract awarded at £60m
2004 – became Trustee of Sunderland University
2005 – Echo Buildings project starts in Sunderland at £25m
2007 – Newcastle City Library work started at £24m
2009 – Sunderland University recognised John’s outstanding achievements in civil engineering with an Honorary Doctorate of Business Administration
2011 – appointed Deputy Lieutenant for County of Tyne & Wear
2011 – became director of Wise Academies which has grown from two to now 13 academies across the region
2019 – awarded a CBE for services to the building and civil engineering industry