Off hours: Aecom chief gets adrenaline rush at Yas Marina Circuit

When he's not listening to the BBC's Test Match Special, Aecom chief executive David Barwell likes nothing more than racing around the Yas Marina circuit

David Barwell, the chief executive of Aecom Middle East, likes an open plan office for inclusive leadership. Christopher Pike / The National
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David Barwell is the Middle East and India chief executive of construction consultancy Aecom. The 50-year-old British national has lived in the UAE for seven years, but has worked for Aecom for 20 years. He is married with three children.

How do you spend your weekend?

My weekends tend to have a food focus. My family have always been interested in food and my father was in the food industry. Food to me means a number of things – most importantly it is time with my family. Meals are always together and around the table. If not with family, as we all travel a fair amount, then with friends and trying different restaurants, and associated tastes and styles.

How did you become achief executive?

I have worked for Aecom for over 20 years in a number of countries and a number of roles. My experience globally was a key attributer to my becoming chief executive of Aecom Middle East.

What is your go-to gadget?

Maybe not my go-to but certainly my favourite is my BOSE mini-bluetooth speaker that links to my smart device. I am an old fashioned radio listener. The speaker follows me around the house on the weekend and I am always listening to the radio – mainly the BBC news and current affairs channels. I am also often searching for interesting podcasts of radio documentaries. One caveat is that if England are playing cricket, then that can tend to dominate.

What was the lowest point of your career?

Working in the construction industry can be a dangerous occupation and we still have in our industry too many accidents that lead to serious harm or fatality. Whereby we have never had a fatality in Aecom Middle East, I find it tremendously sad when I hear of anyone in our industry coming to harm. We all have an obligation to make the industry, especially one so large in the Middle East, safe.

What advice would you offer others starting out in your business?

I confess to being a bit old school with my advice here, which is to try to get as much diverse experience as you can early on. I am seeing too many people thinking the way to the top is to specialise early and work your way up but this industry and a company like Aecom is so incredibly diverse that gaining different experiences means you might find something you are more passionate about and allow you to integrate projects better across disciplines. This is of great value.

What is your most indulgent habit?

Driving fast cars around Yas Marina Circuit. I love the fast-paced adrenalin rush, coupled with the tremendous amount of concentration needed to control a fast vehicle at breakneck speed. It is a complete switch-off from normal life and requires you to be 100 per cent “in the zone” while concentrating on the road ahead and controlling a wonderfully-engineered performance vehicle.

What do you have on your desk at work?

My leadership team. Our offices are open plan, something which I am very keen on. My desk holds up to eight people and many of my direct reports or visiting international colleagues sit with me so we interact regularly, sharing ideas and solving issues together. It is very interactive and suits my inclusive leadership style.

What can’t you live without?

The love and support from my wife, Sally, and my children. I work long hours and travel extensively. They are very supportive and reward me by not allowing me to control decisions, reminding me regularly that I am not the boss at home!

How do you achieve a work/life balance?

I am quite good at switching modes from work to home. This is a discipline I learnt early in life, when working on projects in many different countries. When at home, I try to make this quality time with family. In addition, I have learnt to say “no” to late night phone calls, which can be the curse of global companies if not managed.

If you could swap jobs with anyone, who would it be and why?

I hope this does not sound too cheesy but the honest answer is that I would not want to swap jobs. In this industry, we genuinely help to make our communities better. Aecom has been in the UAE for 50 years. Look around you and much of what you see will have been touched by us, whether it is smart cities, hospitals, beautiful buildings, efficient transport infrastructure, parks and gardens. It makes me proud to live here and see the difference our team is making to the great cities in the UAE.