Allison was there to celebrate the opening of the firm's first timber-frame plant south of the border. The Aberdeen-based business is the UK's largest supplier of timber systems to housebuilders and the capacity of the £12m plant at Witney, near Oxford, will increase its turnover to £2m a month.
The factory is part of an aggressive expansion that Allison has embarked on. In addition to making timber-frame systems, the firm builds about 1000 private residential homes a year in Scotland. Once its Oxfordshire factory is established, it plans to attack the English market with the launch, or acquisition, of an English housebuilder. "The plan over the next three years is to get ourselves into the English market," explains the diminutive Allison, speaking quickly with a soft Dundee lilt.
Dressed in a mustard shirt, his top button undone, tie loosened (and hurriedly done up when the photographer arrives), and jacket slung over the back of his chair, he looks incongruous beside the loud, pinstriped businessmen at the other tables. But his demeanour is deceptive: in the 13 years since he joined the group, the former accountant has raised its turnover from £15m to £180m.
With such a commitment to timber frame, he must be concerned that another World in Action programme could jeopardise his investment? After all, the one broadcast in 1983 – which attacked the quality of timber-frame housing – virtually wiped out the industry in England. "That was an issue about workmanship," he says. "It's an issue for our whole industry to get improved standards – whatever form of construction you are using," he adds, generalising the problem.
In fact, Allison makes an art of dodging criticism of timber frame. Which is curious, given that he asked for this meeting after Building revealed shoddy workmanship was increasing the fire risk to timber-frame houses (19 July, pages 26-29). And it was at the TF2000 research project, in which Stewart Milne Group was involved, that evidence of the problems came to light.
On the problem of combustible cavity liners being ignited, his response is that things are fine, so why change them? "We've been involved with timber frame for a long time and it's a proven method," is all he will say.
In another quick sidestep, he shimmies past the issue of cavity barriers being damaged by brickwork contractors – creating a potential fire risk – after the timber-frame contractor has finished on site. On Allison's utopian site, everybody works together for the good of the housebuilder, so the problem simply does not exist. "You are working in partnership with the housebuilder, so you've got to understand and accommodate each other to deliver the end product". But enough of problems: Allison is keen to get the conversation back to his agenda, and the company's history … A petroleum byproduct
Stewart Milne, the current chairman, started the business in Aberdeen 27 years ago when the city was becoming the focus of the North Sea oil boom and there was a brisk trade in converting tenements into flats for the swarm of workers descending on the city. Conversions were taking up to three months, so Milne assembled a team to do them in a week. From conversion work the firm moved into general contracting and housebuilding, where Milne spotted a gap in the market for timber-frame systems. A year later the business was born.
When Allison joined the group in 1989, it was still based on contracting, a small amount of residential development and timber-frame making. "We've shifted the company totally so now it is primarily a housebuilder and timber-frame manufacturer," Allison says.
The group's turnover for the year emphasises the transformation: £110m of housebuilding, £45m of timber-frame manufacturing and erection, £20m of contracting and "a little bit of commercial development".
The firm's expansion, particularly of its housebuilding arm, has taken the group steadily southward. The acquisition of Glasgow housebuilder Ambion six years ago gave the firm access to the Edinburgh and Glasgow markets. "To grow organically is a slow process, but through acquisition we got hold of a landbank and a management team that allowed us to reach the next stage quicker," he says. This business is now bigger than the firm's original Aberdeen operation.
Parallel with the development of the housebuilding arm has been the expansion of the firm's timber-frame operation. "To begin with we were selling a lot of individual timber frames to people who wanted to build their own homes as well as to our own housebuilding operation," Allison recalls.
"Then, 10 years ago, we targeted other Scottish housebuilders and in the past five years we've been expanding into the English market."
The battle plan
The Witney factory is the next stage in the plan. The English timber-frame market has been expanding with housing providers in the private and social sectors moving to more systematic forms of construction. "It is very costly to transport timber frames from Aberdeen to the south of England so we took the decision three years ago that we needed to have a facility in England to make frames," he explains. The firm's Oxfordshire bridgehead has put the markets of London, Wales, Bristol and Birmingham within striking distance.
So how will the firm develop in the future? "We are looking to expand our housebuilding operation, and I'm not sure it will be slowly," says Allison, adding mischievously: "And I think the opportunities are there to do so now." Better put the coffee back on the stove – there might be another late night celebration on the way for Allison.