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Meet The Team: Jerry Overhill

Throughout our ‘Meet the Team’ series, we have asked many of our employees to share a little bit about themselves, what their aspirations are and what they think of being part of the COEL team.  

This time, we had the pleasure of sitting down with COEL’s Operations Director, Jerry Overhill. Jerry’s story is particularly interesting as he has been with COEL since before it was the full-service fit-out and design company you know today.  

We are delighted to share with you Jerry’s journey, what his role entails, his ambitions and, most importantly, the growth that COEL has experienced. 

Let’s start with you telling us the story of how you came to be Ops Director at COEL.

I went to the Grammar School for Boys (as I was reasonably intelligent) and passed my 11+. I was destined for A-levels and then university, following in my two older brothers’ footsteps. But I was fed up with sitting behind a desk and wanted to go out and earn a living.  

I sent letters to every Cambridge builder, and I finally landed a carpentry apprenticeship. After being an apprentice for a few years, I was offered a role as a site manager for a developer/architect building one-off executive houses. I did this for about 5 years. 

By this point I had already met Neil Cook, COEL’s founder. My passion and sport was water polo – which I played for over 45 years – and it was water polo that brought Neil and I together and solidified a friendship that led to the career I have built today. 

Neil enticed me away from my site manager role to join his partitioning, ceilings and drylining company Cambridge Partitions in the summer of ‘92. My interest was piqued by a contract he had won to work inside the roof of Westminster Abbey. That’s a job I will never forget! 

There were only five of us in the company when I joined – all self-employed. Neil and I worked on the tools together, locally and in London, contracting to all sorts of builders and developers. He was working out of a Portakabin in the yard of his father’s plastering business.   

Gradually the team grew, and in 2000 we moved to Chesterton High St, and COEL (or Cambridge Office Environments Ltd) was born. I progressed from a fitter to a Site Manager, then Project Manager and, finally, Operations Director, all encouraged by Neil, and subsequently our current CEO, Alistair. 

By 2020 the company was turning over more than £20m and Neil was thinking of taking early retirement. He wanted his tried and trusted team to take the company forward. In the end, five of us bought COEL in a Management Buy Out. 

Two and a half years later and after many changes in staff and processes, we are becoming an even better company, of which I am incredibly proud. I work with some great people and still enjoy coming into the office every day. 

Can you describe a typical day at your job?

I rise between 5.30 and 6 am and drive in from Newmarket. I enjoy the ‘me time’ and listening to music!  

I am usually in the office around 7.30 am and there are always a few early bird employees in the office before me, so I don’t open up the building as I often did a few years ago.  

Here is a breakdown of my ‘normal’ day: 

  • Read my emails  
  • Check the day’s meetings in my calendar with a cup of coffee 
  • Chat with various staff 
  • Have a quick bite to eat at lunchtime when I can fit it in or if I’m not out with a client.  
  • Maybe a site visit to one of our projects or external meetings.  
  • Internal meetings, either planned or impromptu to deal with issues that may have arisen.  

I finish up around 4.30 pm – 5.30 pm, hopefully with no major dramas in the day! Then, I either go home, go swimming, go golfing, or even to the cinema and dinner out with my wife Sue. 

What are some of the challenges you must overcome in your role?

When running operations for a large organisation; there are many!  

I oversee a multi-discipline team who deal with complex projects, at multiple sites, so staff queries and management of key team members tends to be my biggest challenge. There is a myriad of things that crop up – often unexpected – and a lot of my time is spent on supporting my team in overcoming these hurdles.  

Another challenge is obviously the running of the business, and my part in this, which is critical. I see and hear things that are confined to the board, but that is part of what makes the job exciting and interesting.

Did you always want to work in construction?

No, I don’t think so. I took carpentry at ‘O Level’ in school and did quite well, but my path was always A Levels and university, like my brothers. 

I shocked my parents by announcing I was going to leave school and try to secure an apprenticeship. I wanted to work and was fed up with studying – to their credit they got over the initial shock and supported me.  

I think I chose carpentry because I liked it at schoolbut it was a pretty short-term vision at that point.

When you started at COEL you were working on the tools, for many years now you have been Operations Director, how has your role changed during that time?

It has changed hugely. I loved the early years on the tools. I worked very hard, often six days a week, to earn money for my family. I was self -employed so if I didn’t work for any reason, there was literally no money coming in. 

Then I started down the road of site-management. A totally different job again and the first time anyone had taken this role at COEL, but we were growing and the projects were getting bigger. It took a while to learn the ropes and gain the respect of the fellow guys on site. I think I did a pretty good job in the end.  

This naturally progressed to the Project Manager (PM) job – again this was a new role within COEL – managing several projects at once. I learnt on the job as usual. It was very stressful at times but also satisfying.  

Once I was invited onto the board, I continued to PM some projects, but I gradually moved away from this to enable me to oversee the Ops as a whole. So now I am very proud to be part owner and Ops Director at COEL. I help run a successful company that produces a great product for our clients, and I love the people who work for us. What’s not to like? 

What have been the trickiest things for the company to overcome through the years?

I have seen many ups and downs at COEL over the years. In the early nineties we were in the throes of a severe recession, so work was tight. Some days I didn’t know if we had work until the day itself – and I was self- employed until 2008, so no work, no money.  

We always kept everyone motivated, even if it meant doing jobs they weren’t used to. We looked after our clients, but we also looked after our staff. COEL has grown significantly since then, but we still maintain those priorities as a company.  

What is your favourite thing about COEL?

I think the overall ‘feel’ of COEL – it’s a great place to work. The office itself, and the people who work in it and on-site to create amazing results for our clients. 

What is your favourite thing about your job?

It’s got to be the people here. My job now is very different from even a few years ago. I love the fact that I have a new role in the company I have been involved with from inception, and thus another new lease of life in the twilight years of my career.  

Even better, I own part of the business. I have seen many people come and go at COEL and I’m immensely proud to work with so many great characters here. The current group are hard-working, fun and fascinating – I simply enjoy coming into the office every day! 

What do you like to do outside of work and why do you enjoy this activity so much? 

Up until a few months ago, I would have said Water Polo – I played it for 45 years until I retired recently.  

Swimming and polo have been a massive part of my life – the bug probably came from my father (a child prodigy in diving) and grandfather (who swam in the Cam every day of the year for about 60 years). I learnt to swim in the river at 3 years old by pretty much being thrown in at the deep end!  

I have made so many friends over the years through polo and that also obviously led to my role in COEL through Neil. I still swim regularly for fitness, but golf is my new passion. I only took it up seriously quite recently, but I love being on the course 

I also go skiing twice a year with two groups of mates, which I love, walking with my wife Sue either locally or on weekend breaks around the country and occasionally clay shooting (I have a licence and   my own gun). I also have a weakness for cars and own two sportscars which I love to drive. 

Do you have a personal ambition to still fulfil? 

That’s a good question. Funnily enough I told some friends earlier this year that I have had a brilliant life up to this point and everything from now on is a bonus. My three sons are all doing really well and I have two grandchildren, so that box is ticked! Travel is really big for us and we have several countries still to visit.  

I think the biggest question left for me is: ‘When do I retire and where will we live?’ Sue and I know what sort of house we want ideally and it needs to be close to the coast – probably Norfolk or Suffolk. So that is probably the big ambition! 

But as long as I continue to enjoy my work life at COEL, I’m not ready to hang up my boots just yet! 

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