“You only hear the big stories or the bad stories,” says Malcolm Clarke. “People have this perception that you are either a massive Laing or Amec or Bovis, or you’re a bloke who hangs his backside out of his trousers and screws everybody.”
Clarke, 41, three months into his job as chairman of the National Federation of Builders, is trying to tell the real story. This is about the smaller firms that make up 85% of the industry, and that are well-trained, reliable, technically sophisticated professionals.
Over the past year, he has participated in a review of the Construction Confederation, the umbrella body set up in 1997 to lobby for the interests of the industry. Following this, the NFB decided that its activities had been subsumed by those of the confederation, and it resolved to forge a stronger, radically different identity, while remaining within the confederation. Clarke wants to transform the NFB from a traditional trade body to a “business solutions provider”. He wants members to use it as “a network that enables us to influence policy, to explain and understand government and European policy, tax matters, public relations and marketing, IT and environmental issues”, he says.
Clarke has the credentials to lead by example. He is managing director of Kent family firm Baxall’s Construction and, he says, “a lot of what I have put into my business, I have learned from my association over the past 14 years with the NFB”. Since Clarke joined Baxall’s from Laing 15 years ago, it has increased its turnover from £1m to £12.5m.
Clarke says the formula for the firm’s success is to be both traditional and technological. “We employ traditional craftsmen, skilled carpenters and joiners, and at the same time, we are developing a web site and an integrated computer system to communicate between sites and the office and between functions within the office. We have spent £70 000 in the past six months on IT, training, computer hardware and developing software.”
Clarke is keen to demonstrate how much more flexible and responsive small firms can be compared with the industry giants, and how this can add value for clients. “Cultural change is quicker and easier for small firms.”
Clarke also believes that government agencies such as the DETR and the NHS may be realising that the NFB is a valuable friend when it comes to policy implementation. Take the quality mark scheme. The NFB has supported it and offered free advice to its members on signing up. Its motive is enlightened self-interest: it hopes that the government will bring the scheme into line with the NFB’s own accreditation system.
“The government should not try to reinvent the wheel with the accreditation system. The NFB goes through references, does account checks and makes sure they are VAT- and Construction Industry Training Board-registered. If you are a member of the NFB, you should be able to get the quality mark, albeit you agree to a follow-up assessment in a few years’ time. It would get the quality mark kicked off much quicker.”
The impact of prime contracting on NFB members is another area of concern, and the federation has set up an action group to monitor the issue. “There is a real concern that prime contracting will distort the supply chain, drive a wedge through existing partnerships and undermine the laudable aims of best value and partnership.
“Some people just want to group contracts together to reduce admin costs. They will have to go to larger contractors and reduce the growth of the bulk of the industry.”
Clarke says the NFB is also focusing on the perennial issue of payment. Current thinking on prime contracting suggests that subcontractors should be paid before main contractors. But Clarke is sceptical about this, since under prime contracting, a small builder could end up being a main contractor or a subcontractor. “I think everyone should be paid together on a more regular basis, and it should be written into contracts,” he says.
Clarke’s reservations about prime contracting reflect his concerns about the cut-throat construction market. He believes that the UK is vulnerable to European competition. “To compete with Europe, we need to improve our image, to attract better people at top level. We only improve our image if we improve our business environment, by spreading risk, improving margins and achieving better returns for the investors.”
One way that firms do this, says Clarke, is by using key performance indicators to measure performance. “We are concerned that they are not as good as they should be, but at least it’s a start. The NFB needs to keep working at it.”
Clarke is loath to attach labels to his agenda as chairman – he is acutely aware that the industry can be confused by “initiativitis”. “We need to strip out the initiatives that are similar and group them under all under the three headings of technology, people and business. Firms just need to keep a balance between improving each of those.”
So what is Clarke’s ultimate aim for his 85% of the industry? “I would like to see the industry take a big step forward again. I would like people to say in 10 years’ time ‘look at what the construction industry has managed to do, both as individuals and organisations.’”