As you may know, the chief executive of Rok turned his contractor from a £7m minnow into a £100m tiger shark in four years. What you may not know about is his 15-year struggle to get the chance to do it.

Garvis Snook

Garvis Snook
Garvis Snook

On hearing that garvis snook hadn’t set foot on a site for nine months, Building decided do the interview at his firm’s residential development in Barling Court in Stockwell, south London. After five minutes watching him wandering around in photogenic cufflinks, silk tie and high-visibility vest, it’s clear we made a good call. It just takes a glimpse of a mini-excavator to bring an unfocused look to his eyes. It seems he spent much of his youth behind the wheels of such machines … but alas, the past is another country. “Me coming on this site today,” he sighs, adjusting his oversized hard hat, “there’s not a lot I can add. I’m not up to speed any more. I’ll learn more from these guys,” he says, pointing at the site manager and his team, “than they will from me.”

Snook has long since abandoned physical labour for financial engineering. For the past four years he has overseen the transformation of the UK’s smallest listed contractor, EBC, into one of the sector’s fastest growing empires, ROK. Over four summers, the group’s market value has grown from £7m to more than £100m. Snook now intends to turn the company into the nation’s premier local builder, increasing its number of branches from 21 today to about 100 in three to five years’ time. This means that it will have a turnover in excess of £1bn – possibly even more than £2bn – and will be one of the UK’s major contractors.

Size isn’t everything
Yet all this talk of size upsets Snook.

The use of the word “turnover” is a particular no-no: “We’ve got to destroy the testosterone that drives this industry. We’re very male-dominated. It’s the old ‘my one is bigger than yours’ routine.”

Rok is not sexy, that’s for sure. It eschews the notion of big, prestigious projects.

As Snook freely – proudly – admits, the company will not be building an erotic gherkin any time soon. “We’re not into the sort of projects that would be featured in Building magazine.” This is not quite true – the site of the four-storey apartment block he is walking around was featured last month owing to its unusual prefabrication design. But his point is that Rok wants to be the brand of choice to build a local factory or maintain a civic building.

This philosophy is not for everyone.

Many people join the industry because they want to built big landmark projects, and Snook has lost staff members as a result. Towards the end of last year Snook – who pursues an extraordinarily aggressive acquisition strategy – snapped up the northern offices of failed contractor Ballast for £2m. With the purchase came Ballast director Nigel Brook. The local builder model was not for him and he has since left for Amec: “It’s true that I wanted to work on bigger projects,” says Brook. “Bigger projects suit Amec very well. It’s horses for courses.”

But given the industry’s skills shortages, the question is too serious to shrug off. Snook himself points out that, 10 years ago, the average age of a construction worker was 40; now is it 50. Many firms seek to win glamour projects to attract the best of the shrinking pool of talented graduates. For example Peter Vince, the managing director of consultant AYH, told Building in January that the group wanted to win more projects like the Arsenal stadium for this very purpose.

While people such as Vince try to attract their staff by flashing a bit of thigh, Snook offers security and a sense of equality as the keys to a long-lasting relationship. From next month, every Rok employee from Snook downwards will be employed on the same terms, be it holiday pay or sickness provision.

Snook’s past
Snook may describe the pay deal as “a hard-nosed business decision” to incentivise people to stay at Rok, but there seems to be a little more to it when he refers to his past. “As an industry we have treated people very poorly. My dad worked for a scaffolder in the winter of ’63 when it snowed for months. The snow was 18 inches thick and my dad was laid off. There was no money coming into the house.”

We’re not into the sort of projects that would be featured in Building


His dad rebuilt, though, eventually running his own demolition firm in Somerset. At this stage it did not seem that Snook would follow in his footsteps, choosing instead to read a degree in education and history at York University. After a couple of terms, however, boredom set in and he decided academia was not for him. His next move was to work for his dad for a few months to raise the cash to travel around Europe. He never went – every little boy’s dream of demolition had him hooked.

After a stint running his own financially unsuccessful steel frame business in London, Snook moved back to the West Country in 1984 as a small works manager at Taunton-based contractor Stansell. By the end of the 1980s he had progressed to construction director, and his days mixing with the drivers of mini-excavators were already behind him. Snook tells of one predecessor, who had done the job in

the early 1980s, and wasn’t impressed. “Snooky, when I was in the job I used to visit every site every week, so I knew exactly what was going on everywhere,” he told the 39-year-old whippersnapper. Cheeky young Snook retorted: “In your day there were only half a dozen sites, all within a 10-minute drive of the office. With what we’ve got going on now, it would take me three days.”

By this stage of his career, Snook had become more intrigued by management techniques and the corporate world. He tried to lead a management buyout of Stansell’s building arm in 1996, but was beaten to the punch by Morgan Sindall.

Snook’s future looked bleak. Morgan Sindall boss John Morgan was wary of him and sent him for psychometric testing. Unfortunately, neither Morgan nor Snook will discuss the results, although the two went through them “very carefully”. The upshot was that he was kept on. Morgan says: “He was great fun to work with. He had true leadership qualities.” What’s more, Snook and Morgan have similar business models, and they share the same philosophy of empowering staff – both huff at a rival chief executive’s insistence of signing off every invoice for capital expenditure of £25 and above.

But Snook grew restless at Morgan Sindall. He craved a top job at a major plc: “I wanted a great deal of control. A private company is often owned by a family; it is often stuck in the past. You can’t control a private firm unless you own it.”

An offer to head the southern operations of Mowlem arose and, thinking that he needed greater experience at a public company before he became top dog, Snook decided to take it up. At the last minute he changed his mind: not only had the scale of the job been reduced but he had received a rival offer as boss of the UK’s smallest listed contractor: Exeter-based EBC – which would later become Rok (see below left).

The next step
Snook admits that he cannot stay in his current role forever, but he will not move to the less powerful role of chairman when Bob Carlton-Porter retires next year. His ambition remains to oversee the three-to-five year growth strategy. This campaign is likely to be waged by continued acquisition – Snook’s major buys so far have included the £15m purchase of Rockeagle in 2001 and the South-east-based contractor Llewellyn the following year, which doubled the size of the business.

This strategy has been very much Snook’s and despite his concern with empowering employees, he is ruthless with his senior staff.

Last year he replaced long-serving finance director Michael Bailey with Ashley Martin from media communications group Tempus. He says: “Sadly it was one of those tough decisions. We wanted someone with the knowledge of working at big firms.” And he halved EBC’s backroom staff to 100 when he started at the firm.

The people Garvis roots for in his empowerment philosophy are the workers on site, earning the company’s corn. That said, root for them he may do, but one of them he is not. Asked whether he had enjoyed his experience on site today, he is less than wholehearted in his response:
“In my day, a site was somewhat different to this experience. I probably knew what I was doing more in those days.”

How EBC snapped up Snook

By 1999, Snook had been at regional contractor Stansell for 15 years, and he was looking for a move. So, when a headhunter approached him in the summer and told him about a job running Mowlem’s construction work in the South, he expressed an interest.

Over Christmas, Snook wrestled with the decision: should he stay or should he go? Morgan Sindall made several counter offers, but it soon became clear that Snook was not motivated by money and John Morgan withdrew the offers. “If people are well paid it’s not money that motivates them – certainly not with someone like Garvis,” Morgan recalls. Snook decided to go.

Then, while on gardening leave, things suddenly changed. Mowlem’s Brian May phoned Snook one Sunday morning to tell him he had decided to leave Mowlem. His replacement was Steve Bowcott. Bowcott says: “When I succeeded Brian May as managing director of building I wanted to restructure the division, and that meant a different role for Garvis.”

As the terms of Mowlem deal had changed, Snook was free to pursue other offers. And it turned out that these were not in short supply. “People had thought that I was Stansell through and through, but once they saw I was willing to leave, the offers started coming.” In the end he took the one that gave him the greatest control: the top job at Exeter-based EBC.

Rok solid: Why EBC rebranded

To pursue his acquisition strategy at EBC in 2001, Snook needed to raise cash from the market. But EBC’s name was mud in the City, being such a small firm and having posted losses in 2000, so Snook knew the market would not be willing to hand over funds to buy Rockeagle. Snook needed to change EBC’s name.

“I put a team on the task of coming up with a new name - it had to be one syllable, no more than four letters and it had to stand for strength.” Two days later his team admitted they were struggling. One pointed out that the “Rock” part of Rockeagle was exactly what Snook was after, but loads of companies used that as a prefix. Snook’s personal assistant muttered “Why not just drop the ’c’?” and a new identity was born.