Steel and glass
Business and the military mind
Roger Howick’s outfit – and I use the word advisedly – is Space Decks, a £15m-turnover company based Somerset. He turns up for the interview in an impeccable City pinstripe suit, but you can picture him in khaki serge of the Royal Artillery, with which he served, planning an installation with precise strokes of a chinagraph pencil. “Take Baker Company and set up a blocking position in the atrium. We’ll advance with the laminated glass panels.” In fact, Howick’s main target is the client and his strategy is to overwhelm them with a total service that begins with design advice and ends with installation. “We like to get involved on a project at the concept stage. We can work with the architect and give our expert advice,” he says in clipped-off sentences. “We’ve strong engineering and design departments. And very strong project management experience.” And his battle honours? Bluewater, BA’s Waterside and Toyota’s new headquarters. Next action: a £5.5m job at Birmingham’s Bull Ring. Martin Davis
Fighting the good fight
Drake & Scull found itself tackling the project from hell a year or so ago when it landed the job of installing the electrical work on the Jubilee Line Extension. It had its work cut out racing to meet the mother, father and maiden aunt of all deadlines and everything was going wrong. This harrowing experience may have something to do with Martin Davis becoming a born-again Eganite, a kind of missionary to the heathens of UK construction. The vice-president of Emcor Drake & Scull, as it‘s now known (the £350m branch of a £3bn American tree), talks hopefully of the industry’s “changing culture”, and worries aloud about the selfishness of a fragmented industry. Luckily, there’s a shining city on the hill within our reach. “We need to integrate the supply team and we’ve got to avoid the “us and them” attitude that exists between management, staff, labour, contractors and suppliers,” he says. Hallelujah to that. Gary Sullivan
Making it happen
Meet the client’s mate. Need something moving around the site? Want to make sure none of the kit gets borrowed? Haven’t got time to manage all those traffic jams that clog your theatre of operations? You need Wilson James. In fact, the firm will do everything short of taking your dachshund for a walk and buying you a pint after work. More technically, Wilson James is a support services provider (turnover: £22m) with nice little sidelines in facilities and event management and aviation support services. And it all belongs to a smooth operator called Garry Sullivan. I say “smooth operator” because Mr Sullivan is a sleek, self-confident individual with polished client-control skills – just the sort of face that fits with blue-chip clients such as BAA and Stanhope. But doesn’t it bother him that (trying – and failing – to put this nicely) nobody really knows he exists? If it does, he’s resigned to it. “It’s an industry attitude,” he says. “Logistics is seen as a project add-on.”
Pardon the pun, but David Hill, proprietor of Hills Electricals, is well switched-on. After completing a degree in materials science, he joined his father’s company to make himself loadsa money. Since then, he has worked out exactly what clients want: they want good work at low prices. Of course, it’s not enough just to get this idea straight in your mind. You also have to set up the organisation to deliver it. And then you have to tinker with it and worry about it and hone it until you’re satisfied you’re delivering services at the lowest possible cost, with the highest possible value. In fact, Hill thinks much of this can be done by taking an enlightened approach to the client: be flexible, don’t get hung up on contracts, make sure you understand each other … nobody is going to get upset over good quality work. This approach has created fantastic growth: over 30 years, Hills Electrical has gone from nothing to a £68m-turnover firm, with more than 800 employees, and has also earned it the trust of its latest client – the Bank of England, no less. Andrew Holloway
You can be Mr Green
You know tradesmen – carpenters and plasterers and the like. They roll their own cigarettes, drink 30-40 cups of tea a day and talk about nothing but football, money and sex … and that’s just the women. Actually, you don’t know tradesmen, and Andrew Holloway can explain why. He is appalled by the industry’s attitude towards them and despairs of its lack of empathy with its own materials. We are talking craftsmanship here, but not the kind that can merely turn out a mitre joint correct to a tenth of a millimetre. Holloway (a former potter, of all things) created the Green Oak Carpentry Company – a high-tech, high-IQ business with a turnover of £1m and 25 staff – that can do incredible things with wood. The firm’s most spectacular job was the timber gridshell roof of the Weald and Downland Museum – a structure that had hardly ever been attempted, and never without something going badly wrong. Not this time: Holloway’s understanding of timber meant that the joints didn’t crack when the roof was raised, and its technical solutions were subsequently patented. And the secret of his success? “We have a higher than average competence in carpentry and expertise and craftsmanship …” And then some.
Roofing? It’s a people business
What do you say when one of your employees cocks-up a vital part of your particular package of work? Is it (a) Why did you do that, you subnormal baboon? or (b) Uh-oh, we’re in trouble now … Greg Roberts favours the second of these approaches. Perhaps that’s why EJ Roberts Roofing is the first roofing company in London to win an Investors in People award, an accolade that the boss is very proud of. On the other hand, it may have something to do with Roberts’ approach to business. He is first and last a roofer, albeit with deep roots in his East End manor. “We don’t want to diversify – when we have tried it, we’ve not exactly covered ourselves in glory,” he laughs. “I don’t want to increase turnover, but I do want better profits. In the future, I want us to be the same small roofing contractor with, hopefully, the same staff.” So, if he doesn’t lose his temper with staff who make blunders, what does get him going? Retentions. “It’s a scandal because we are covered by insurance-backed guarantees – the sooner it’s outlawed the better,” he says. “You don’t go to Sainsbury’s, pick up a box of Special K and say ‘I’ll keep 10p back until two weeks after I’ve eaten them’.” John Kieran
The impossible done now
“Hello, can I speak to John Kiernan?”
“Ah, Mr Kiernan, we’re thinking of building a stairway to heaven and I was wondering if Westcol would like to tender for the structural steelwork package.” “Yes, I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” As you may have gathered from this fictional exchange, John Kiernan’s Westcol specialises in structural steel. You will also have gleaned that Kiernan, Westcol’s business development director, stresses his firm’s “can do” attitude. A somewhat similar, but factual, conversation led to selection to build Foster and Partners’ diabolically complicated headquarters for the Greater London Authority. Westcol defanged Foster by highlighting problems at the first meetings and then coming up with solutions at the second. “We pride ourselves on being good, practical engineers,” he says. On the negative side, Kiernan is unhappy about the low margins. “We need to get away from bottom-dollar tendering and claiming back; we need to get people’s trust.” Graham Wren
Why can’t we talk about it?
Where do you see your main challenge: doing over your competitors or snuggling up to your clients? Graham Wren is clear where he stands. Competition is pointless and destructive, and so his Hampshire-based ground engineering contractor, Stent Foundations, is moving away from it. Wren, managing director of the £50m-turnover company, believes business is about building relationships – as he has been doing with Stent for the past five years. The bottom line, he says, is “negotiated work”. This allows the firm to “consider the business concerns of the clients and tailor what we have to offer them”. The strange thing is that this is a sweet response to bitter experience. “Some main contractors don’t understand subbies,” he says. “That’s why we are targeting clients to try and improve the way the industry works.” Wren may not be a hard-nosed go-getter, but that hasn’t stopped Stent from growing to 400 employees, and plucking a plum job at the £2.5m Paternoster Square project in the City of London and another for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.
Aspirations to grandeur
Hare & Humpreys specialises in restoring the decoration in historic buildings. You know, the kind owned by Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. Peter Hare, the managing director, is not bashful about his firm’s unique selling point, which he pronounces with the aplomb, if not the accent, of Brian Sewell on a posh day: “Our eye for detail distinguishes us from the other companies. We don’t just get it nearly right, but exactly right – and we can turn our hand to various aspect of decoration, from minimalist to ornamental painting and murals.” The company is also keen to glamourise construction as a career, not as a last-resort for kids who mucked about in double physics. Hare lectures at college, he says (with a hint of noblesse oblige) “to try and make kids realise they can aspire to this grandiose type of decoration”. He takes on two or three apprentices a year and improves his 30 employees’ skills with day-release training. He is convinced that “the worst thing is the invasion of unskilled people walking into the industry”. And his grand ambition is “to sift out the truly skilled from the DIY self-taught”. Stef Stefanou
The concrete godfather
Stef Stefanou does not so much chair concrete contractor John Doyle as preside over it. He has the demeanour of certain Italian-American character brought to the big screen by Marlon Brando. I should hastily add that no main contractors have so far found themselves in bed with a horse; in fact Stefanou believes the way forward for contractor–subcontractor relations centres on the Egan initiative. He serves on the Movement for Innovation board and applauds clients such as Stanhope for their progressive approach. For its part, M4I, commended John Doyle for its innovative techniques and computer modelling. On the other hand, payment is still very much an issue. “Traditional contractors are trying to squeeze every penny they can out of us,” he says. But then again, there are fewer of those than there were a while ago, and he genuinely believes that the industry has taken a giant leap in eradicating the problem. John Doyle is one of the giant specialists and Stefanou oversees 1200 employees and a group turnover of £150m. Liam Clear
Generosity and enthusiasm
Liam Clear, director at the £5m-turnover Pyramid Bricks, takes everything to heart. Kind and spirited, he is that rather rare thing: a boss who can say his company is a caring, sharing business and actually mean it. “When a new person joins, I teach them all about the business, which gives them a greater sense of involvement in it.” And they are well compensated for their troubles. At the end of each job, 6% of the company’s profit is shared between the 100 employees as a bonus on top of their regular salary. Clear’s generosity and enthusiasm is infectious. Each month, every employee donates £1 to charity. The total is matched by Pyramid. It is this sense of business ethics that makes recruiting people a breeze. “We never need to advertise, and most employees stay for many years because the company is genuinely interested in their welfare.” What do they do with all these people? Well, Pyramid’s most prestigious project will never see the light of day. For the past five years, it has been hammering away in the darkness on a £2.5m project to repair Westminster Palace’s vaults.
Do not underestimate
Imagine a cross between Norman Wisdom and your favourite uncle: that’ll give you some feel for the personal style of Gordon Cowley. OK, now forget that image, because we are dealing with an established, well respected businessmen here, the managing director of Cowley Structural Timberwork. A quiet, apparently unassertive man, Cowley is unusual in a market notorious for brash talkers. His firm does the work that others can’t. Whether it’s a £160,000 contract for the shells on the dome of the London School of Economics, or the pods for Will Alsop’s Peckham Library, Cowley knows that his competitive advantage lies in the niche market he has captured with his specialist designs. The firm has 45 employees and a turnover of £2m. Cowley says what differentiates him is that he is ready to take on the unusual and make it work. The worst thing about the industry is the mysterious paperwork. “There’s so much that most of my day is spent trying to understand difficult documents or determining which enquiries are worth proceeding with.” Ben Morris
The Eden agenda
Funny what can be achieved with a simple, common-or-garden polymerisation of ethylene and tetrafluoroethylene monomers that anyone could make in their garden shed (with the necessary equipment). The fly’s eye domes of Eden, for instance. We are talking ETFE here, the transparent foil that has become the new glass, and we are talking Vector Special Products, the building systems firm that pioneered ETFE-based technology more than 20 years ago. Ben Morris, managing director of Vector, explains the advantage of such a long (and unprofitable) lead time. “ETFE needs about a 10-year learning curve,” he says. “Others have tried to use the technology and failed. We have to put these projects right to ensure the concept is kept intact.” Morris names North West Thames Health Authority as his star client “because they roofed the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, the largest naturally ventilated atrium in the world, with ETFE – a very brave decision, as the technology had only been used in the leisure industry”. David Williams
We have the technology
Every company has to mutate to survive, but a high-tech outfit that makes the wrong investment decision is like a giraffe that swaps its hooves for roller-skates. This may account for David Williams’ intense and serious manner: his company, Colt International, has made many key investments and acquisitions and has opened offices from Switzerland to Singapore in its 70-year history. Paul Hinkin, director of architect Chetwood Associates, describes Colt as “an intelligent subbie” for his commitment to R&D and product development. Colt has constantly reinvented itself to keep ahead of the competition: it started with industrial ventilation, added smoke control and now makes intelligent solar shading systems, used for example at Tate Britain. “We brought the technical expertise and ability needed to that project. The electronics that went into it had to be very sophisticated to provide effective control and energy efficiency.” Good communication and early involvement is essential if a project is to be successful, he says. “The subcontractor’s view is important; the architect should realise what we have got to offer and not try and redesign everything.”
Perhaps Tom Flavahan suspected an elaborate trap. Would the “photo session” end in his being bundled into the back of a white van and driven to a farm in Essex for a spot of energetic interrogation? Naturally, nothing was further from our minds, but Flavahan’s carefully guarded comments showed he wasn’t a man to take chances. Well, he has a good reason to watch what he says. His company, PC Harrington, is about to challenge steel’s domination of the high-rise building market. The £70m turnover concrete specialist is forming a joint venture with an Australian outfit that will combine expertise in slip-form concrete and post-tensioned floor slabs to create a complete solution for high-rise construction. So, surely Harrington’s construction director is bullish about the prospects of this revolutionary enterprise? Yes, he says, “it’s about staying alive”. Lance Rowell
Engineers, as we know, are engineers because they were given Meccano sets as children. Which prompts the question: what did Lance Rowell play with as a child? A junior marquee erector set? He’s the managing director of Architen Landrell, the largest firm in Europe to specialise in designing, making and installing tensile fabric structures. Now he’s looking to unfurl an ambitious business plan: Rowell has set his sights on markets further afield. The merger in May this year between Architen and Landrell was a step towards this goal. “Both companies realised that a merger would help them compete more effectively overseas,” he says. With a turnover of £9m, the company already has a series of prestige projects (and the Millennium Dome) under its belt. Right now, the firm’s 110 employees are busy on the design, manufacture and installation of a series of canopies for the new Vodafone Airtouch world headquarters building at Newbury in Berkshire. Roy Neild-Dumper
Let’s make money!
Thinking of turning some bigshot architect’s whimsical doodle into a stunning landmark in flawless fairface concrete? Then don’t call Roy Neild-Dumper. He has learned a lot in his time with Composite Structures, and much of it has been about making money. The managing director cheerfully admits that his firm avoids prestigious projects – in fact, most of his company’s work relates to the design and supply of specialist structures in car parks – although he has just won a contract for the first PFI prison building in Liverpool. Working in precast concrete, Neild-Dumper claims to have limited competition and can differentiate his business because of it. With a £20m turnover and 50 employees, a typical project is a contract of about £1m lasting on site for eight to 12 weeks. On his loves and hates, Neild-Dumper says it is gratifying to work with clients, such as Frogmore Estates, that are committed to delivery even when there are problems. But he says (of course) that subcontractors are still abused by main contractors: the bane of his life is being paid too little, too late.
Mike Dawes is the chief executive of Miletrian, a £50m-turnover, 1200-employee business that covers fit-out, new build and facilities services, so, as you might expect, his main worry is horses. He loves them, and his company invests in their bloodlines. “My greatest concerns are the horses coming back sound after a morning’s work,” he says. This probably comes in useful when talking to such blue-blooded, blue-chip clients as JP Morgan, but Dawes’ main strategy for the 25-year-old multidisciplinary firm is partnering. “We’ve been doing that since day one,” he says. But will your friends stand by you when the nights turn long and cold? Dawes can feel the chill of recession in the air, and he’s been cutting spending throughout the year. So what’s the good news? Specialists are no longer bullied by contractors. He says: “Specialists abuse main contractors now – we’re cornering the market.” Michael Downing
Mr Precast Concrete
“Mixing concrete with people is what we’re all about,“ says Mike Downing, sounding disquietingly like Al Capone. “And success comes down to choosing the right mix.“ In fact, he is simply explaining, with the focus and intensity of a successful car salesman, the success of his company, Trent Concrete, which he puts down to cementing relationships early in the project. “We get on board before a contractor’s even appointed.” He says the £12m-turnover company has bought heavily into the Egan principles, and looks after its own. Single-status employment, whereby all employees have the same employment terms, is a key factor in maintaining morale, and profit shares were introduced back in 1985. “We connect customer satisfaction and job security,” he says. “Satisfied customers come back and buy more, meaning our repeat business is very high.” Barry Defalco
Playing with the team
Picture the scene: 450 ft over the Thames, an icy wind sweeping down the estuary, the city miniaturised by distance but glowing with a million lights, the increasingly desperate race to meet the millennium deadline … ”It was very cold out over the river,” says Barry Defalco, with stoical understatement. “It was very demanding. And the work was intensive. And it was made worse by the fact that it didn’t go up on time.” Quite. So what was it that got the director of TC Clarke out of bed in the morning and down to install the electrical services on the London Eye, the nightmare that became a triumph. “Team spirit,“ says Defalco. He says he is working with his dream team, and that’s what gives his £98m-turnover firm the edge over its rivals. He doesn’t believe that there will be a recession “unless we talk ourselves into one. And if we do, it will turn me into even more of a debt collector than I am already”.
Geoff Irvine is a bulldozer of a man. He likes to compare himself to a mafia boss and is not shy about throwing his weight around. But, he admits, this confrontational style gets things done. As head of £30m-turnover specialist stone and brick contractor Irvine Whitlock, Irvine feels he has to be tough and demands that all his management staff meet at his Bedford headquarters every Saturday morning to iron out problems. “I only want people here that are going to be committed, and this is a way of determining that.” Irvine takes the same head-on approach to the wider industry – which means he doesn’t have the same concerns as most specialist contractors when it comes payment problems. “I have somebody phoning and checking contractors a week before I’m due to be paid, making sure we are going to get it on time,” he says. “I only deal with good payers.” Irvine Whitlock has 45 staff and 500 paid operatives working on projects valued from about £1m to £15m, including a £12m contract for the Trafford Centre in Manchester. Mark Wilson
The wizard of Mero
“We’re a regular Pandora’s box, just full of surprises,“ boasts Mark Wilson, a senior projects manager at Mero Structures.
“We find solutions for the weird and the wonderful,” he replies, with a mysterious smile, like some grand wizard. “I guess there is an element of magic in what we do.“ Which is, he adds, spelling it out, discovering engineering solutions to complicated designs such as the Eden project. The firm has a turnover of between £12m and £15m, and business is booming, so Wilson’s not bothered about the spectre of recession. Bureaucracy, he says, is more of a worry and sometimes he feels like he is drowning in paperwork “like that character in Brazil”. “People expect you to issue pieces of paper that in terms of the progress of the job actually achieve little,” he says. He also thinks the industry is too aggressive, particularly “in some areas there is still confrontational management rather than a solving management approach”. Bill Tustin
Expect the unexpected
Give Bill Tustin half an hour in a junk yard and he’ll probably start work on a basic orbiting space station. “He knows more about steel and putting things together than any guy I’ve ever met,” says Matthew Wells, director of Techniker. This fascination for unexpected is reflected in his work. His architectural and metalwork firm, Littlehampton Welding, specialises in the design and installation of projects of an unusual nature. “We get a thrill from doing something unique,” he says with boyish enthusiasm. But that comes at a price: “the heartache before we get things right”. The biggest project with which the £9m turnover company has been involved was the construction of the movable boarding platform for the London Eye. “It was fabulous. Although, at £3.5m, it was hardest job I’ve ever worked on,” he reflects. His favourite project was the floating bridge in London’s Docklands “which was fun from beginning to end“. Gordon Stygalls
Glamour and steel
Intense and edgy, Gordon Stygalls has the type of determination you would expect from someone involved in construction. And he also pulls a mean disappearing act – as our photographer found out. “You have to have nerves of steel in this business,“ says Stygalls, managing director of Mowlem Rattee & Kett, the specialist stone and restoration contractor. The £40m-turnover firm has worked on many prestigious projects, including the Houses of Parliament. As a subsidiary of Mowlem, it employs 170 staff, with a further 90 contract tradesmen. “I get a buzz from seeing every job come to fruition and I think success comes from that feeling of inspiration,” explains Stygalls. He can see glamour in every project: “A typical job is the one we’re working on now, a £4m contract for Stowe School. It’s where Richard Branson went,” he says, beaming.