James has worked in the construction industry all his life. He read Estate Management at college after which he joined Wates Construction as a management trainee in 1983, progressing through line management to running sites, before taking on a General Manager role in 1989. He joined the Wates Construction Board as Marketing Director in 1994. He was appointed to the Wates Group Board in 1997 and became Chairman in 2013.
Outside the Group James is involved with several industry bodies. He is Chairman of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), Chairman of the BRE Trust (the largest single funder of education and research for the built environment), Co-Chairman of Build UK (which represents construction clients, main contractors and the leading trade associations representing over 11,500 specialist contractors), Past President of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), a Member of the business organisation CBI, a Member of the government’s Apprenticeship Delivery Board (ADB), a Trustee of The University College of Estate Management, and a Non-Executive Board Director of Argent Services LLP.
James is also Chairman of the think tank Tomorrow’s Company, Chairman of the Prince's Trust Built Environment Leadership Group, Vice Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation for Disabled People, a Governor of the Emanuel School, a Governor of the University of Westminster and a Patron of the Wates Family Enterprise Trust. In January 2012 James was awarded the CBE for services to Construction and the Charitable sector. In 2019, he was honoured with a Knighthood in the Queen's Birthday Honours in recognition for his services to business and charity.