Q&A with Jamie Priest
After 28 years in the construction industry Stonewood Builders Managing Director Jamie Priest has the experience and judgement needed to navigate a way around all the obstacles the job can throw at him – but the lure of equestrianism almost had him clearing completely different types of hurdles for a living.
How did you get into the industry?
My dad was a chartered surveyor so I guess it was always in the blood. I went straight from school to a building contracting firm and did day release at Bath College while working in all aspects of the job.
Did one particular part of the job appeal to you?
I went into the industry with being a quantity surveyor in mind but I ended up working in scheduling and buying and estimating as well as spending time on site. Then I shadowed a site manager on a large hospital job in Devizes and moved into contracts management as well as quantity surveying.
Where did you progress from there?
I worked as a quantity surveyor and in site management on a very big five-year project at a country estate near Andover for the Guinness family. After that I came back to the Bath area and worked on some really high-end country houses. Many of these were in the Dorset area as well. I was going out to get the work, estimating and then doing the contract management and quantity surveying – the whole thing really because the firm I was at didn’t have separate roles. I did that for about 23 years.
How did you come to work at Stonewood?
I got to know Ben Lang (Chief Operations Officer) and Matt Aitkenhead (Chief Executive Officer) through mutual contacts and then socially. When they formed the Stonewood board in 2016 they asked me to join as an owner/director alongside Mike and Sam and it has all gone from there.
So a dream career path then?
Yes I’ve loved every minute of it, although I did a lot of show jumping when I was younger and I half thought that might have been a career path. However, I realised that although I competed to a very high standard as an amateur, I wasn’t quite good enough, nor did I have the resources, to make it professionally.
How did you get into show jumping?
I started riding when I was about seven but didn’t stick at it and then went back to it when I was 13. I began eventing to start with, but then spent time training at the late Ted and Liz Edgar’s stables, she was David Broome’s sister. They were probably the ones who persuaded me to go down the show jumping route. I competed at the bigger national shows in the South and rode on a few teams for the Somerset Area Team. It was good riding at a national level against people who do it professionally. I didn’t have the pressure of riding as a career as they did, although they all had more horses than me so could take more risks in the jump-offs against the clock.
What happened after you realised you wouldn’t be a professional rider?
I carried on with the construction but show jumping was a really serious hobby all through my 20s and early 30s. It only slowed down a little bit after I was married and the children came along because you have different priorities then. I still compete but not as much, although my youngest son, who is 11, is show jumping now so we are out at competitions with him a lot.
It must be an interesting world to be a part of
You meet some lovely people through the sport, both in competition and socially and, unintentionally, it has been very useful work-wise. It opens a lot of doors for the type of work we do and also when people want indoor or outdoor arenas, stables or yards etc. I’ve been in the position to get the business because I have got the knowledge of how they should be designed and built and which brands of fittings need to be used. It also helps when Stonewood has such a good word of mouth reputation too.
So that fits in with your role?
Yes it does because one of the things I need to do is get out and bring work in. I spend a lot of time meeting clients, architects and contracts administrators negotiating possible work and working with the estimating team to get tenders out.
What else does being a managing director involve?
I have a general overview of everything and what everyone is doing so that I can offer support and guidance where I can to the operations team on every job that’s running. It’s nice to keep a finger on the pulse of all that’s going on, making sure it is working commercially, the programmes are on schedule and on budget and the quality perfect.
What are the challenges for you?
I have to make sure that all of the work we take on is not exposing us to risk, either from rising costs or too low margins. That has certainly become more of a challenge after the last two years where our cost base has become more volatile but we have good people in place to stay on top of that. This role is also about getting the best people around you and being able to recognise talent both internally and externally.
Since you joined Stonewood six years ago you’ve seen it grow at an amazing rate. You can’t have anticipated that?
It’s quite an achievement when you sit back and look at it but we’ve not really tried to force that growth, it has happened organically. In 2016 when I joined, the business was turning over about £13 million and last year it was almost £60 million so that’s impressive. The group has four other divisions who are all doing well but the success of Stonewood Builders has been the backbone. Winning the Federation of Master Builders’ Master Builder Award last year was a real highlight.
Does it still feel like the same company you joined in spite of that growth?
I am very lucky to have the team around me that I have. We work hard but we get on and we are honest with each other. The atmosphere around the company has remained the same and that’s always been our aim – we want it to feel like a friendly family business. Growing so fast does bring its own challenges and I make it my business to ensure we maintain contact with everyone, whether they are in the main office in Castle Combe or in the newer offices in Kidlington or Castle Carey, so that they feel they have a good line of communication to the management. I have to make sure people are getting the right amount of time from me. It’s great to have one of my business partners, Mike Hopkins, running Stonewood Builders alongside me to ensure we are able to give everyone the time required and to ensure projects maintain the usual high standards.
And there are no plans to hang up your riding boots just yet?
I’m still enjoying it, although it gets tougher as you get older because it hurts more when you fall off. Listen, Nick Skelton won an Olympic gold medal at 57 so there’s probably hope for me yet – I’m only 45 and I don’t plan on finishing any time soon.