Gary Hughes

From urban peaks to rural retreats
It’s fair to say that the new Technical Manager for Strategic Estates at RCHT, Gary Hughes, has had a high-flying international career, spanning three continents. For one stand-out project, he had no fewer than 2,800 people working in this team. We caught up with him at the MacMillan Cove café to find out what brought him to Cornwall and what he enjoys most about his new rural lifestyle.

Your Scottish accent is a giveaway! Tell us what brought you to Cornwall

You’re right, I am Scottish, born and bred in Fife to Scottish parents. They decided to emigrate to South Africa when I was 13 years old to enjoy the better climate. I went with them and continued my education there. Then I worked as an apprentice electrician with Durban Metro and, alongside, went to college to get some more project and engineering qualifications.

I’ve worked in many, many places in the last 25+ years, mostly abroad but also in London, which is where I was when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK back in March 2020. By November last year, I had had enough of the big city pandemic and, like many people, I re-evaluated a few things in my life.

My daughter was looking to emigrate from South Africa, so I needed a place for her here in the UK. Around the same time, I was approached by the recruitment agency, Hayes, and asked if I had thought about moving to Cornwall. The two needs fell neatly into place, and so I made the move.

It would seem there are a lot of opportunities in the construction sector in Cornwall, in particular here at the hospital.

So where in the world have you worked?

I first went abroad from South Africa in 2001. I took what I thought was a dream job to work on the new sports stadium in Abuja in Nigeria. The contract was for 14 months and, in many ways, it was a dream job living and working as a young expatriate. But it was also very hard living amongst the immense poverty – poverty like I have never seen before – especially working on a multi-million-dollar project.

I then moved from Nigeria to London, where I worked for Transport for London, before heading out to the Middle East in 2008. I moved around the region, initially working on the Dubai Metro, followed by the Cleveland Clinic Project in Abu Dhabi before moving again to Saudi Arabia to work on the new Monorail project in Riyadh, and the Automated People Mover at Jeddah Airport.

Finally, I headed to Doha for two years working on the Doha Metro before returning to London in 2016 to work for Transport for London, Network Rail and Crossrail. So that brings me full circle to November 2020 when I made my move to Cornwall.

What do you love about your career so far?

I just love buildings and construction. It’s amazing to see plans on a piece of paper and then see those plans coming out of the ground to create fantastic buildings or structures. Being in the Middle East was a defining time in my life.

The projects I worked on there were truly mega: high profile, high value, and very technical with tight timeframes. It was a real eye opener. I worked 18-hour days, 6 days a week, because that was what was expected, and the projects simply could not be late.

The Dubai Metro, for example, was technically very complicated. My station was the deepest underground station on the system but, no matter what, the Metro would officially open at 9 minutes past 9pm on the 9th September 2009, with a VIP ceremony led by the Sheik of Dubai. And it did. However, to make that happen, we had a project team of more than 2,800 people working in shifts 24/7. It was immense.

Cornwall must seem so different, and your Strategic Estates job too?

Yes, Cornwall is very different, but in a good way; especially after the fast pace at which we were working in the Middle East and, more recently, in London, where I was enduring long commutes to and from work and working on quite complicated projects.

In the last year, I have enjoyed seeing more of my daughter and taking a bit more time for myself. I used to play quite a lot of rugby but now it’s mostly enjoying Cornwall’s countryside, beaches, and the odd pub!

My role as the Technical Manager was newly created within the Strategic Estates team. I enjoy that I get to work across all the projects. I look after the Clerks of Works on-site, and I am also part of the forthcoming digital BIM project – BIM meaning Building Information Modelling

This will become more important as we digitise across the NHS and include our new construction projects and the existing estates portfolio.

I live close to the hospital too, so it’s an easy commute on foot, and the hours are much more manageable.

Given the opportunity to have your career again, would you do anything differently?

I have absolutely no regrets in terms of my career – it’s been amazing, even if I have learnt much of what I do on the job.

I am a “jack of all trades” having taught myself a lot along the way. Going to college to get my HV/LV Electrical qualification, and latterly my engineering, technical and project management certificates, have enabled me to progress, as well as given me the skills to ask the right questions on site. However, if I had my time again, I think I would formalise my education with a degree or two. Inevitably, this would have opened doors a little sooner in my career.

That said, there is little substitute for experience, and my experience over the years has been extremely beneficial, especially for the work I do today.

Thanks Gary, great talking to you.

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