Setting the stage for the greatest show on earth

23 July 2012
By Nick Smith
Sir John Armitt HonFIET, Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority

IET Honorary Fellow Sir John Armitt is chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, charged with building the stage for the UK’s greatest sporting event. It’s all about building confidence, he says.

Sitting in his 23rd floor office in Canary Wharf, with aerial views of London’s Olympic Park, Sir John Armitt admits that he knows less about sport than he does project management. This makes sense, because Armitt is the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), the body charged with putting together the Games’ infrastructure or, as Armitt describes it “building the stage for the show.” If it’s to do with construction of the built environment for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, then it’s under Armitt’s watchful eye. Before the Games even begin, Britain has figuratively speaking already one gold medal on the board. This is because the Olympic ‘Big Build’ has been successfully delivered on time and within budget.

Armitt has been in post since 2007. A tall, authoritative and yet friendly man, he tells me that when he arrived at the ODA, he found an executive team – led by chief executive David Higgins – which was “well on top of what they had to do.” Armitt already knew Higgins from dealings in his previous post in Network Rail and so found it “easy to slot in and focus on what was really my responsibility here. That was to be the more outward-facing part of the Olympic Delivery Authority, dealing with the various stakeholders, particularly the main financial ones: the Government, the Lottery and the Mayor of London’s office.” This left Higgins free to focus on the day-to-day functions of the executive and the activities in the Park. “Part of my job has been to make sure that everyone understands what it is we are doing in the Olympic Park, what progress we’re making and what the challenges are.”

The Olympic ‘Big Build’ is one of the largest construction projects in Europe, ranking alongside Crossrail. The site is around 600 acres – the size of Hyde Park – that Armitt describes as “a big chunk of London”. The area was “extremely rundown and derelict with hundreds of small businesses operating on it.” He explains that it was a bit of a “no-go area”, the sort of place you find in East End detective TV programmes, not helped by railway lines and canals running through it, making it a difficult area to get around. In 2007 the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, saw the Olympics as an opportunity for regeneration. “I think for me and many other people, this opportunity was one where we could build a series of Olympic venues, but really what was more interesting was what was going to happen afterwards – what legacy the Games would leave.” This meant it was a case of Armitt not merely asking how the project would work for the Games, “but how it would work in legacy. This is because people in the long-term are not going to judge us simply by how the Games went, but whether the investment of £7 billion produced a real lasting benefit to Londoners.”

For Armitt the challenges of putting on a show such as the Olympics are less stressful than running a big company. It’s more like running the Apollo project than Rolls-Royce, he says, where the big ‘one-off’ is in fact to deliver than the on-going management of a large corporation. “In the former case you have the president saying that in ten years we’re going to have a man on the Moon. Likewise, in our situation we were told that in five years the 2012 Olympics are going to take place. That focuses the mind entirely on meeting that date and physically creating what is necessary to create.”

The presence of this immovable deadline “enables you to garner the people and resources to concentrate on the straightforward process of getting there. We’ve got the resources, so how do we break that down?” This is achieved by describing a series of separate projects, with separate timeframes. “So we thought about what the stadium had to be. The International Olympic Committee tells us that we’re probably going to need 80,000 seats with a 400m track. We know we’ve got to have changing rooms and a doping room. From that you build up the specification of what you’ve got to create for the stadium.”

Front and centre in the mind of the ODA was that so many previous Olympic stadia have ended up as white elephants. The ODA’s challenge was to imagine a future where there is a long-term use for an 80,000-seat sports centre in the East End of London. “You go around the houses for a few months debating that, talking to different people and asking them if they’ll be interested after the Games. You get to the point where you then say to Government “here are your choices” and please can we have a quick decision? And that’s how we finished up with a demountable stadium, so that after the Games we could take it from being 80,000 seats to 25,000 seats.”

Armitt says at this point it falls into the hands of the designers to develop a way of delivering the idea. “You then take it to the contracting community and agree a price. In our case, we always agreed a target price because the design was never sufficiently developed for the contractor to know exactly what he was building. So you agree a target and share the risk around that target with the contractor. And then you move on to the Aquatics Centre, the Velodrome and so on. And in each case you treat these as a separate project. For the people involved, it’s what they’ve spent the last two decades of their careers preparing for. So it’s familiar ground.”

The key to success in a project such as this is to keep the individual teams motivated and aligned, making sure that critical decisions come through at the right pace, understanding that budgetary constraints are being recognised: “all standard stuff, but the beauty of a project such as the Olympics is that everybody can see what they are trying to achieve. They get a real buzz from seeing it start to take shape.”

Project pressure

If the Olympics are all about pressure on the track and field, there’s a fair amount of that same pressure behind the scenes. The Games are a publicly owned event under huge media scrutiny, and the preparation for them has to go meticulously to plan. Everything has to be in place on time, to a standard that reflects well on the host nation. It’s simply a matter of national pride that the Olympics are a showcase for everything that is good about Great Britain and there’s no room for failure. When it comes to appointing the chairman of the company charged with making it happen, it makes sense to bring in an old hand, a real professional at project management. And a quick glance at his CV shows that Armitt has a wealth of experience in this area. His knowledge of infrastructure projects – he was chief executive of Costain and chief executive of Network Rail – means that he’s already on familiar territory. But, isn’t the Olympic Delivery Authority a case where a professional manager could do the job just as well as a seasoned engineering manager?

“We could talk about the role of the professional manager all day. But the older I get the more I believe you can be a more effective manager if you’ve been in the business you’re trying to make sense of.” Armitt says that the idea that he could go off and be the chairman or chief executive of an industry “I have no background in whatsoever is very questionable.”

The first day he went out on site as chairman of the ODA, Armitt met the project manager of a company he worked with four decades previously. “So you’ve instantly got that link. You can talk to him openly and easily about what he’s doing, any issues he might have.” What Armitt brings to a project like the Olympic ‘Big Build’ is simply “45 years of being in the industry. This means you understand the technical and managerial challenges on all the different aspects of the project that the guys are tackling.”

At this point Armitt reflects on the idea that, for all his experience, it is important that he doesn’t try to resolve those challenges himself. “That is the role of the executive team. My role is to be there to provide assurance to the people out there saying: “gosh, this all looks horribly difficult.” To a large extent, as chairman, you have to create an air of credibility, and that credibility is of course dependent on how good your executive team is at doing what they do. Here we have a strong team, because a lot of people saw once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to be a part of something that would never happen again. They gave up good jobs elsewhere to be a part of the Olympic games.”

Legacy for London

The engineering legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games is not simply a bequest of pioneering technology. In some respects it’s more about the image Britain presents on the international stage: a case of the British engineering community “slaying the dragon of not being able to do major projects well.” Armitt says that 90 per cent of what Britain does “goes well.” He says you only read about when it doesn’t, such as the opening night of the Millennium Dome, “which had nothing to do with the Dome, but the argument about what was put inside it.”

“What we have shown is that if you want complex engineering projects done well then you can have every confidence in turning to British companies and British engineers to deliver that for you.” This is because the Olympic infrastructure project has been achieved within budget and within the timetable. As Armitt says, it’s not the most complex engineering project on the planet. “A nuclear power station is a much more challenging thing to build, but there have been challenges. Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre is a classic case of having been built with design aesthetics first and foremost in mind, with the engineers afterwards having to make it work. Sydney Opera House is another example of that from recent history.”

For Armitt, London 2012 is about the reputation of the UK and the regeneration of a neglected region of London. He has high hopes that this will be achieved when the billion-plus viewers watch the Games on their screens. The big question is will Armitt be able to enjoy the Games? “When people ask me what I’m looking forward to most, I always say the closing ceremony. By that point I’m hoping I’ll be able to let out a deep breath, knowing that it’s all gone off successfully.”

Armitt’s message is clear. The lasting engineering legacy of London 2012 is simply that big infrastructure projects delivered properly and with public approval create confidence and a better image for the country. “It’s as simple as that”, says Sir John Armitt, shuffling his papers together. With that, he apologises for bringing the interview to a close. He’s got a tight schedule, a big show to put on, and it’s got to go smoothly.
For more information visit www.london2012.com

CV: Sir John Armitt CBE HonFIET FREng FICE
Current position: chairman, Olympic Delivery Authority

IET Honorary Fellow, Sir John Armitt was appointed chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority on 1 September 2007. He was previously chief executive of Network Rail from October 2002 and chief executive of Railtrack plc from December 2001.
Armitt has extensive experience in the building, civil engineering and industrial construction markets. He is a civil engineer and joined John Laing in 1966 as a graduate engineer. During the next 27 years he worked on major construction projects in the UK and overseas, spending the last seven as chairman of Laing International and Civil Engineering Divisions.
From 1993 to 1997 he was chief executive of Union Railways, the company responsible for the development of the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link. In 1997 he went back to construction as chief executive of Costain, a position he held until 2001 when he joined Railtrack just after it had been put into administration.
Armitt was, until 31 March 2012, chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a non-executive director of the Berkeley Group and an advisory board member of PWC.
Armitt became Sir John when he received his knighthood in the 2012 New Year Honours List for services to engineering and construction. He was also awarded the CBE in 1996 for his contribution to the rail industry. A Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Civil Engineers, he has received honorary doctorates from the universities of Portsmouth, Birmingham, Reading and Warwick.

The numbers Games

• 8,000+ subcontracting opportunities were created by the ODA’s construction programme
• 98% of materials from demolition were reused or recycled in the Olympic Park
• 122 archaeological ‘evaluation trenches’ were excavated across the Park
• 2,000+ workers were seen each month by the health teams on the Park and in the Village
• In 2007 the ODA submitted one of the UK’s largest ever planning applications
• The Park hosts the largest non-potable water network in the UK
• More than 1.4 million cubic metres of soil has been cleaned in the UK’s largest clean-up of contaminated land
• The project will have created more than 100 hectares of open space and enriched biodiversity in legacy
• The ODA has invested more than £400 million in transport improvements such as the upgrade of the Northern Line
• The ODA has achieved an accident frequency rate of less than 1.7 reportable accidents per one million working hours.

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