People Profile: Phil Urwin, Director

Meet Phil Urwin, Director. He started his career as a labourer for a local builder in the UK. He’s now a Director at HKA, splitting time between Tampa, Florida and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania US offices, working on some of the world’s most iconic projects and mentoring the next generation of delay experts.

Tell me about your background.

After school I had decided higher education was not for me at that time, and my neighbour let me know there was a job going with a local builder. For the next few years I worked locally as a labourer, apprentice builder and eventually as a window fitter.

After a few years, working in winter outside in the UK, I looked around and decided I needed a new direction. I knew I wanted to learn more about the construction industry so I signed up for a Construction Management degree. During my degree I continued to work part time as a window fitter as well as doing a summer internship at Carillion. I did my sandwich year at Balfour Beatty who then sponsored the final years of my degree. I joined Balfour Beatty as a site engineer after graduating.

Later I moved to Shepherd Construction, where I specialised in planning and scheduling. From there, I came across the opportunity with HKA, which was Hill International at the time. I was attracted by that opportunity because I had developed an interest in construction law and I was interested to work in other parts of the world.

I joined the Leeds office as a consultant but quickly got a chance to collaborate with teams in other regions – I worked with various UK regional teams on projects across the world and on secondment with David Merritt’s Middle East team on a large airport project.

Hill International then gave me the opportunity to make a trans-Atlantic move and so I emigrated to the USA. Initially I worked with Hill’s Tampa office in Florida, which had a three-minute commute to the office and was only ten minutes from the beach! I later moved to the Philadelphia office, which is where I am based now and is the city that I am proud to call my home.

What made you make the change from working with contractors to claims?

I developed an interest in construction law and construction claims after working with contractors on larger projects. I came to learn the importance of the construction contracts in contentious situations and I found that people didn’t always read or understand the contract they were working with. There was often a lot of erroneous assumptions and dogma on what the rights and obligations were under a given contract. I tried to ensure I read the contracts of the jobs I was on, and I developed an interest from there.

HKA gave me the opportunity to become dual qualified by funding a PgDip in Construction Law and Arbitration at Robert Gordon University. For me that was much more than just gaining a credential – I wanted to properly understand how law is applied in construction contracts and the processes through which disputes are resolved.

What inspires you in your job?

The strive to do the job well and deliver results for our clients. I have an inquisitive mind and I relish the challenge of untangling complex problems.

I also enjoy seeing the development of our teams and individuals. It’s great to see others grow into experts themselves, especially in delay analysis which is my specialisation. Here in the US region we’re developing a system for mentoring, so I’m glad I will continue to see this happen.

The types of projects we get involved in inspire me, too. We work on a diverse mix from the small to the mega, and nearly every project has something unique. It is difficult not be inspired when working on once-in-a-lifetime projects like the Panama Canal expansion.

Describe a typical day in your role.

There really isn’t a typical day. Recently I was meeting an attorney to finalise and issue a contractor’s claim document. The next day I was planning scope and establishing tasks for our team to provide an analysis in a very short turn around. The next, I was training a person on a specialist piece of analytics software. The week before I was at a planning workshop for a local project where we created and managed the CPM schedule. Next week I will be doing delay and disruption analyses on a large oil and gas project. Other days I may be attending mediations or arbitration hearings, writing expert reports or attending industry conferences on behalf of the company.

I find this is a positive thing – it’s certainly not a boring role!

What do you think has been the reason for your success?

I think living through the experience of working as the guy with the sweeping brush outside in all weathers through to working in construction management and dispute resolution. This has given me a deeper understanding of the mindset, needs and demands of different stakeholders in our clients’ industries.

Moreover, I couldn’t be where I am without the people around me and the teams I’ve worked with. Especially now as I direct and manage more work, the people that work for me are the root of my success. They really deliver and put together great products and results for our clients.

How did you find the experience moving from the UK to the US?

Overall, a great experience, and I have zero regrets taking the plunge!

It went a lot easier than I expected in terms of the work. I expected more difference in terms of culture, terminology and process. There are of course some differences, but having worked with HKA in various locations, I’ve come to learn there is a lot of commonality in construction and engineering, regardless of where it is in the world.

In the areas where I did need to build new knowledge and understanding, I was able to do that rapidly thanks to lots of support from those around me. I did my own research and reading, but more importantly I was given opportunities to get stuck into a range of projects very quickly, which allowed me to develop my regional knowledge through practical experience.

The most surprising challenge was the visa and immigration process! It’s more difficult and lengthy than I imagined it would be. I’m a green card holder now and in the process of converting to citizenship.

Oh, and people made a little fun of my accent and pronunciation along the way. I can say from experience that sometimes the United States and Great Britain really are two countries separated by a common language!

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"I think living through the experience of working as the guy with the sweeping brush outside in all weathers through to working in construction management and dispute resolution. This has given me a deeper understanding of the mindset, needs and demands of different stakeholders in our clients’ industries.

Moreover, I couldn’t be where I am without the people around me and the teams I’ve worked with. Especially now as I direct and manage more work, the people that work for me are the root of my success. They really deliver and put together great products and results for our clients."
Phil Urwin, Director
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