Surveyor pointing into distance / Image: Dalcour Maclaren
Image: Dalcour Maclaren

“People are the most important thing in our company”: an interview with the Managing Director of Dalcour Maclaren

When lockdown hit the UK back in March, there were multiple responses from businesses and people alike. Some were hopeful it would all pass in a couple of weeks, others more sceptical, but no-one could have comprehended quite how drastically our lives would change in the coming months. It seemed things went from bad to worse for students and recent graduates, first with university terms cancelled, then graduation, then graduate jobs. Like people stocking up on pasta and toilet roll, businesses panicked and dropped graduate contracts and put staff on furlough when it became available.

However, in the midst of crisis, Dalcour Maclaren were one of few companies to keep their staff on full pay, maintain their graduate schemes, and even create one of the biggest recruitment drives they’d ever had. I spoke to Managing Director James Neil about how staying calm and sticking to their core company values has benefited their staff and their company as a whole.

Dalcour Maclaren are a company of Chartered Surveyors who work in a variety of sectors across the UK, working on utility and infrastructure projects. However, James is keen to point out that “we have always set ourselves up as a different company – we are very focused on people, people are the most important thing in our company (…) A lot of companies have values, but we live our values.” It is these core beliefs that led them to keep on all of their staff and maintain their graduate schemes, despite the pandemic.

This team spirit is definitely reflected within those kept on under the graduate schemes

However, that didn’t mean it was easy. What happens when a pandemic hits and you find out that everything will be going into lockdown? Like any normal person, James’ first thought was “what the hell does this mean?” But, Dalcour Maclaren quickly realised that they “need(ed) to make the best out of this” and that as a business, “clients are going to need us and perhaps they’ll need us even more.”

As a people orientated business, James praises those working at Dalcour Maclaren, saying “people really grabbed (the changes) and said, right we’re going to make this work.” Like clapping for the NHS, there’s this real feeling that with people being at the core of this company, despite the circumstances, there is a sense of community and being all in it together, to succeed against the odds.

This team spirit is definitely reflected within those kept on under the graduate schemes. When I asked a handful of employees currently on the Dalcour Maclaren graduate scheme, they all said that in the next five to ten years, they see themselves within the company – whether that’s in a slightly different focused role with more management responsibility or building up their portfolio as qualified surveyors.

James has been vocal on LinkedIn about companies abusing furlough – he mentions to me hearing horror stories of staff on furlough, expected to still be doing almost an average day at work

Similarly, one graduate employee, Abbey Read, said that whilst working at home could have been quite lonely at times, instead “our team had regular catchups, quizzes and activities throughout the week to keep spirits up and we are now back in the office once a week to have a proper catchup.” Training and work for graduates was not impacted as everything moved online, and when I asked Abbey why she chose Dalcour Maclaren, she told me that “they seemed to offer a well-rounded package with a real team, friendly feel” and that “this has certainly turned out to be true”.

As a student, and knowing graduates who have had jobs cancelled due to Covid-19, I press James on his thoughts about other affluent businesses who have furloughed staff and cancelled grad schemes. He notes that he has been vocal on LinkedIn about companies abusing furlough – he mentions to me hearing horror stories of staff on furlough, expected to still be doing almost an average day at work. James tells me he feels “a lot of graduates were let down” and that he “thinks that it’s appalling really to back track on a contractual arrangement.”

Likewise, whilst he felt “the furlough scheme was great” and “has probably helped some companies survive” he found some businesses use of it annoying.

“Particularly what annoys me about these furlough schemes is that these companies were only months before singing to the world about how much profiting they’ve made and you kind of think, hang on a minute, is this an easy get out of jail free card to you? And if your company is that fragile that you have to do this immediate reaction overnight, it would be a worry.”

There are some companies that, for whatever reasons, can’t survive (…) but honesty is the best policy (…) if you’re employing someone, and then six months down the line, you’ve gone down the tube and you knew it was going to happen then that’s really not good behaviour

–James Neil

It’s a well-known trope that in situations of economic difficulty, graduates are often last hired, first fired.

I wondered whether there should be any protection in place in the future for graduates signing for graduate scheme jobs but James is somewhat ambivalent on the topic – he believes it’s impossible for there to be legislation in place, but that it’s a matter of moral obligation.

“In terms of the graduate thing, every company has a different scenario, I get that but I think that you should really be trying your hardest to really go with what you said, but equally you don’t want a grad turning up to a failing company.”

James does acknowledge that “there are some companies that, for whatever reasons, can’t survive (…) but honesty is the best policy (…) if you’re employing someone, and then six months down the line, you’ve gone down the tube and you knew it was going to happen then that’s really not good behaviour.”

The graduate employees had similar feelings to James on this topic, with Abbey Read saying “It’s a difficult one because business needs probably do take priority in these situations, so whilst it’s a rubbish situation for a graduate to be in and one which none of us want to experience, if you’re not needed and there isn’t the work for you, it saves the company making you start to then just let you go through no fault of your own after starting and this then gives you that opportunity to find something else or apply again at a later date.” However, Stuart Kay also mentions that he feels “companies should clarify any conditions that their offers are subject to when they make them.”

Things don’t happen overnight and, despite a pandemic, there is work to be done

Unlike some businesses, Dalcour Maclaren were lucky enough that most of their business was relatively unaffected by coronavirus and this helped them be able to work on as (somewhat) usual. James reminds me that “one of the things that gets forgotten about in this panic about corona is the UK is also exiting Europe and one of the things the UK’s got to do is get itself ready to be attractive to the outside world.” He explains that this requires a lot of “long term investment” and, as such, halting large projects can be costly to the tax payer. In a situation such as this, it’s actually beneficial to continue with these projects, if they can be done safely. Not only this, but Dalcour Maclaren work on “The Green Agenda” where the government have set them requirements to be zero carbon by 2050. These things don’t happen overnight and, despite a pandemic, there is work to be done.

With all the new rules and safety concerns coming into place and changing frequently, James jokes that those things aren’t as much of an issue for them. As a business that works on construction, filling out health and safety forms are the norm. There have been challenges, of course, but Delcour Maclaren have taken them in their stride.

Finally, I asked James and some of those on the graduate scheme at Dalcour Maclaren whether they had any advice for students and graduates, who have had jobs cancelled or are looking for jobs and really struggling.

James said: “It’s ultra difficult at the moment, I realise that for those who haven’t got jobs at the moment, and I think you’ve got to look at wider fields then you probably thought you were going to. Look for a company that you think you fit in to. That doesn’t necessarily mean they do exactly what you thought you were going to but it’s more about their values and more about you being a team fit then about what the company actually does. (…) I’d be brave and think outside the box, you might find something you never expected that you land on and, to be honest, any experience is good experience. You’ve got to keep trying.”

Dalcour Maclaren are a great example of how staying calm can help you navigate difficult situations and can lead to prosperous results

James himself tried to get a job back in 1993 in a recession and started doing work voluntarily to try and get a bit of experience and tells me that can help to build your CV. Although he acknowledges that “you can’t do that forever from a monetary perspective”, he also notes that volunteering can sometimes open doors as well, but that it’s important to be careful not to end up being abused when working for free.

Stuart Kay is on the graduate scheme and doesn’t come from a surveying background, despite working at Dalcour Maclaren now. He agrees with James that you should “keep persevering and don’t limit yourself in what jobs you apply for. I had no prior knowledge or experience in the field of surveying but I had transferrable skills that I have been able to incorporate into my role here at Dalcour Maclaren. Do not limit yourself by what your degree is in and just go for it.”

Likewise, Emma Byron recommends applying “to as many places as possible so if you are fortunate enough to receive numerous offers you have some options when it comes to choosing what is best for you.”

Being a graduate comes with so many challenges and a lot of pressure to be straight into a career for the rest of your life, but right now it is even more difficult. Dalcour Maclaren are a great example of how staying calm can help you navigate difficult situations and can lead to prosperous results. For recent graduates and students looking for jobs during this difficult time, James leaves us on this note: “It is tough, but be brave and try other avenues you may not have thought of before.”

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