Reflecting on 35 Years with Mark Thompson

The closing of 2023 not only marked 70 years of Ryder, but also 35 years that managing partner Mark Thompson has been part of Ryder.

Ryder has existed in some shape or form for seventy years, and Mark Thompson has been part of the practice for half of them.  We asked him to reflect on his Ryder journey to date.

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Let’s go back to 1988 when you joined Ryder Nicklin, how did you find your way here?
The first time I came into Ryder was as a window cleaner in the summer of 1988!  I was working for British Shipbuilders and redundancy was on the cards.  To tide me over, I’d started working for a friend who had a cleaning company and I ended up cleaning the windows of Ryder Nicklin’s office.

After being made redundant in the October, I saw an advert in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle for architects, technicians and engineers at Ryder offering CAD training.  I applied on the basis I was from an engineering background with CAD experience and after a couple of interviews I was offered a job.

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Your role at Ryder changed significantly over the five year period after 1988, what stands out as the main drive at that time?
A number of things. Gordon Ryder retired, there were some significant projects coming in, we were a multidisciplinary firm and the advent of CAD opened opportunities for people who were using that to take more of a lead role in coordinating design information.

Myself, Ian Drummond and Dave Starkey were the three technicians and virtually all project information went through us.  I recognised an opportunity to take more of a lead role in this process, which is now more commonly referred to as design management.

Gordon retired in 1990, shortly followed by the announcement of Ted Nicklin’s retirement, who then contracted cancer.  Peter Buchan, a director at the time, and I had been talking about doing something different for a while because we weren’t sure what was going to happen with Ryder.  We decided to stay and take on what was left.  The turnover was about £400,000 and the overdraft was £75,000 and at the limit – we underwrote the overdraft and took the reins.

We took a different approach and set Ryder up on more of a business footing rather than a professional services firm.  We went from 26 to 14 people and wrote our first Blueprint in 1994 – a business plan of sorts.

This was very different for the time, things like profit share and sabbaticals were pretty much unheard of in the UK.  We took inspiration from Tom Peters’, American management guru, 1994 book tour talk with the core message, ‘it’s all about the team’.  Our aim was to keep people motivated and ease the understandable job security worries they had.  We gave people pay rises, profit shares, and said stick with us and here we are, 30 years down the line.

Marking 70 years of Ryder this year, how does the strategy in 1994 compare to today’s?
Others may say differently, but I think it compares very closely.

Ryder evolved at various stages; 1994 to 1997 we were establishing regional credibility; 1997 to 2007 saw us develop the breadth of sectors, education and healthcare, and national capability.  Prior to this, our work was one hundred percent private sector; we wanted to balance the private sector 50:50 if we could.  I remember one year, 2006, it was 49:51, which was great.

This provided resilience and confidence which led to our joint venture with US firm HKS in 2001 to break into the healthcare sector.  However, by the mid 2000s, there was a realisation that we had probably grown too quickly, and lost sight of the culture.  We reset our vision in 2007 which resulted in our pillars of excellence – people, clients, and architecture.

Our Everything architecture ethos has developed since the second Blueprint in 1997.  However, the strategy has always been the same – to attract and nurture the best people to provide the best client experience.  If you nail that, you can design great buildings in collaboration with clients.  It’s a snowball effect.

There have been points in time, like 2006, where we’ve taken a step back and reset.  At the size we’re at now – of c340 people – it’s right that we take stock because as we grow, there are different things to consider.  I’ve made a conscious effort over the last ten years to delegate more and bring other people into leadership decisions – the ownership of the firm has expanded quite a bit in that time too.

Considering Ryder’s portfolio, is there a project that stands out to you as your favourite?
Novocastra Laboratories as it was the first significant project that I was responsible for bringing into the practice.  It isn’t that significant by today’s standards but a £5m project in the 1990s was huge.

Similarly, Royal Stoke University Hospital established us in the healthcare sector and I was responsible for establishing the joint venture with HKS.

Newcastle Central Station is also significant because so many people pass through it.  I think we tend to take things for granted, but the positive comments we receive on that project speak volumes as it’s such a poignant landmark in the city.

The first project for a new client, in a new sector or new location is always exciting; I could go on but, for different reasons, the three above stand out.

Ryder has experienced significant growth between each decade, does one stand out as most impactful to you?
Each decade has brought its own challenges and successes for different reasons.  The 1990s was a challenging decade as it was the start of the business footing of Ryder.  I’ve often said that Ryder, the architectural practice, was established in the 1950s and Ryder, the business, was established in 1994 – they are two subtly different things.

The 2000s was impactful through learning.  We made mistakes where we grew too quickly, work was plentiful then it came crashing down with the financial crisis at the end of that decade.

The past decade has been one of huge uncertainty – recovering from the financial crisis, the coalition government, Brexit, and everything that’s come since with the pandemic.  That in itself brought a number of challenges, but by whichever metric we use – people, clients, finance, projects, profile – we’re now in a very strong position and ready to capitalise on what’s gone before.

Ryder exists to leave the world in a better position than we found it in, what do you think is the most important way to do this?
It sounds very grand doesn’t it, but I think the work that Ryder’s done both as an architectural practice on the buildings we’ve designed and as professionals giving back to the communities in which we work, we’ve directly enhanced not only the built environment, but also people’s lives.

I really dislike the ESG jargon and the way ‘social value’ has became a tick box exercise during procurement.  Our commitment to community impact is in our DNA and I’d say it’s unique to Ryder, ever since we made a donation to the book club of a local primary school in the early 1990s.  We’ve continued to find new ways to engage with the communities in which we work and not just jump on the bandwagon because of its fashionable status in recent years.  Looking back at the past year, the way our people have rolled up their sleeves and exceeded our targets through fundraising and volunteering when times are hard, is testament to how deep it is within our culture.  It’s something that we should all be very proud of.

The phrase ‘career defining moment’ can mean different things to different people; it could be a realisation, a diversion onto a new path, or something out of our control.  Do you have one?
The most poignant is probably in my early days at Ryder in a conversation with Ted Nicklin.

We were chasing the next big project which happened to be in Glasgow.  It was a busy day in the office preparing the pitch – if we didn’t get this project, it was inevitably going to result in redundancies.  Ted was in a meeting room, probably mulling over contracts – he was meticulous on the contractual side of work – and I remember plucking up the courage to go in and ask for a chat.  I asked how we were going to deploy CAD in the project, as I thought it was a great opportunity to be pioneering and use it for everything, at the time the structural and MEP engineers didn’t use it.  We chatted for a while, and he agreed.

At the time I was 25 and pretty new to the industry.  For Ted to give me his backing was great, and so my approach influenced the way the project was managed and delivered.  If Ted hadn’t backed me, I wouldn’t have got the exposure and responsibility that gave me the confidence to take Ryder on with Peter not too far down the line.

We’ve picked your brains up to the present day, Mark!  If you could leave us with a message about what’s in store for the next decade at Ryder, how would you summarise it?
A lot of people have contributed to where we are today – it’s all about the team.  We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can achieve through our projects, people, and our community impact work.  Continuing to inspire new people into the industry and provide new opportunities for them to grow in a culture where they are empowered to make things happen – I suppose, like I did with Ted Nicklin – will continue to be a cornerstone of Ryder.

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