Five minutes with… Jeff Birtwhistle

Jeff Birtwhistle joined Cappagh Browne more than six years ago as managing director. He has 15 years’ experience working in the South African construction industry and has spent 16 years in the UK utilities sector working in gas, telecoms, water and wastewater.

Jeff took five minutes out of his busy day to speak to us about his job, his green fingers and his love of running.

What does your role at Cappagh Browne involve?

As the managing director, I’m responsible for our 500 people and making sure we are driving forward our strategy, developing and delivering the company’s business plan, fostering client relationships, and looking after the health, welfare and safety of our employees.

What was your first ever job?

My first ever job was when I was a 13 or 14-year-old schoolboy, working in an off-licence. Customers used to give me their empty bottles and I’d give them a receipt that they then used to redeem against their purchase. It was back-breaking work and I took a lot of abuse from adults trying to con extra deposit money out of me!

My first adult job was for a civil engineering company that gave me a bursary to study. I worked in the on-site reinforcing cut and bending yard. I was responsible for distributing the prepared reinforcing to the correct area of the construction site and collecting all the left-over or un-used reinforcing after a deck was poured.

It was my first lesson in quality assurance and even though it wasn’t my job, I soon learned to read reinforcing drawings so that I could check the deck and report on where the steel had been missed. I was working on new, large shopping mall complexes – and I always felt a bit strange going to them afterwards, knowing I had helped to build them.

How did you get involved in this industry?

My father was a plumber and he used to take me to work when I was really young. I would visit him on sites and, later, while still at school, my brothers and I worked with him as labourers on some private jobs, carrying out soe excavation work.

My future father-in-law had his own house-building company, so I had lots of exposure to work and gained so much experience at an early age – something that was seriously lacking at my school. While I was doing two years military conscription in South Africa, I applied to several civil engineering companies for a bursary to study civil engineering and was successful. And that, as they say, is that!

What do you like most about your job?

I love getting onto site and talking with and learning from our great, hardworking people who are at the coal face. They’re salt of the earth and I couldn’t think of anything better than working side-by-side with them.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in the water industry?

Go for it! It’s a great industry and there are very few others that rival the opportunity you’re given to gain experience and progress your career. 

Can you share an interesting fact about yourself?

I have completed the Comrades Marathon three times – it’s an ultramarathon, which is 55 miles long, and the route is between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. It’s run every year and is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?

I’m very sporty. I do competitive mountain biking and play badminton and lawn bowls. Since the pandemic, I’ve also become a bit of a gardener, and grow my own vegetables.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given during your career?

I was told that I should think of life as being like a three-legged stool – you need to maintain a healthy balance between health, family, and work – in that order – to sustain a long career, otherwise you’ll soon fall over.

What do you consider your biggest success so far?

Being a dad to my two children – they’re both grown up now and hopefully I’ve steered them the right way, as they’ve both launched themselves well into adulthood.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

The Drakensburg mountains in the KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. There’s nowhere better!