Thomas Vale has acquired the reputation of being Britain’s best small contractor. This is of course wrong. It’s really pretty big – and getting bigger. We met the man behind it; Mikael Gothage took his photo

Thomas Vale
Thomas Vale

Tony Hyde is not a vain man. He is reluctant to leave the bar of the Hilton Hotel to find a spot to have his photograph taken (appropriately enough, it’s Hyde Park). And when he returns 20 minutes later, carrying his jacket and tie, he looks a little flustered: “I’m not used to that,” he laughs.

On the face of it, this is a surprising statement. Hyde is often to be seen on stages shaking the hands of celebrities and accepting prizes on behalf of his firm. Thomas Vale has won a first prize at the Building Awards in 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2003. The rest of the time it was a close runner-up. Now it is attracting more public attention for a business strategy that aims to set new standards for the rest of the UK industry.

Not bad for a man who started at his present employer in 1971 as a 17-year-old engineer earning £8 a week. At the same time he was raking in £100 a week moonlighting as a DJ in the northern soul clubs of Bolton, Blackburn and Wigan. However, he chose construction in the end. After spells at Laing, Wimpey and Westbury, he returned to Thomas Vale in 1981.

His career really took off when he was part of a management buyout in 1992. Back then, Thomas Vale was a long-established firm in the Midlands – it was founded in 1869 – but it turned over a mere £7m a year. In the ensuing 11 years, that has grown to £120m. Hyde, who became managing director in 2001, has big plans to build on that success.

His ambitions include improving health and safety training and creating a better gender balance. The board has adopted a five-year plan to build turnover to £200m, and to improve margins from 1.5% to 2.5%. He believes that the only healthy contractor is an evolving contractor: “Seventy per cent of the industry is slow to change. You can’t stand still in this industry; the companies that do are going to die in a few years.”

His determination has been fired by a recent illness. Just before Christmas, he was on holiday with his family. After engaging in a tequila-slammer-drinking session with his daughter, he was seized by violent stomach pains. This led to a diagnosis of cancer, and an operation that nipped it in the bud – but the experience concentrated Hyde’s mind.

Another influence on his thinking was a trip he took to the USA 18 months ago on behalf of the DTI in search of ideas for raising standards in the UK construction industry. “It opens your mind to what is happening in the wider world,” he says. Hyde has since worked to transplant America’s can-do culture into Thomas Vale. Most recently, it has opened a training centre in Stourport, Worcestershire, modelled on one run by US contractor Aldinger in Detroit.

Seventy per cent of the industry is slow to change. You can’t stand still in this industry; the companies that do are going to die in a few years

Another idea borrowed from Detroit is to adopt targets for women on site. Aldinger aims for 20% of its on-site staff to be women, and, according to Hyde, it has surpassed that target. Thomas Vale is part of a scheme that sponsors four women, including a former solicitor, to train as site workers. “There are very few physical barriers now, and in the USA I saw women outperforming men,” he says.

Hyde is also keen on the way some states in the USA run the equivalent of our CSCS card scheme. Employers there adopt similar tactics to the DVLA’s approach of adding penalty points to driving licences. For example, if a worker is caught without a hard hat, a hole is punched in their card. With three holes, they are not allowed to work on site again.

On health and safety, he’s got a head start. Thomas Vale’s record is better than the industry average, with five full-time staff working specifically to improve standards further, and the training centre in Stourport will include health and safety courses. All Thomas Vale staff are CSCS cardholders, and, as of this month, the company will not use labour-only subcontractors. “You’re only as good as the guy on that site,” Hyde says. “There should be more individual ownership of risk.”

Making more money seems to be a knack Thomas Vale has already acquired. About eight years ago, the board realised it would have to bulk up to survive. “If you think about PFI and Procure21 for example, these make it difficult for smaller contractors. We saw a real threat that we’d get squeezed out of the market. We needed to grow to compete for some of those big contracts in the Midlands, although we are not looking to chase work on a national basis.”

Hyde believes that if the company had not achieved critical mass, it would have failed to secure its partnership with the likes of Birmingham council. “Even before Latham and Egan, clients were saying they wanted partners, but it wasn’t formalised then. I have to look five years ahead all the time.”

Despite its successes, Thomas Vale does not believe that PFI is right for the company, after having been stung twice in the past when it was preferred bidder on schemes that were called off. “The first didn’t happen because it didn’t meet Treasury guidelines and the second scheme couldn’t secure planning.” The company had spent £100,000 bidding for each contract – a big hit for a regional contractor.

So Thomas Vale will look to the future while sticking to its roots as a regional player and respecting its own traditions. And if anyone can pull this off, you feel it is down-to-earth, affable Hyde. “The business is 130 years old. As long as I hand it over in a better condition than when I started, that’s all that matters.”

Thomas Vale at a glance

Aim To grow the business 20% a year
Turnover £120m
Profit £1.7m
Staff 600
Public sector 70% of work
Strength Low staff turnover
Failing to pre-qualify on large schemes because it is considered too small
Opportunity Social housing, new build and regeneration in the Midlands and the Black Country
Threat Hyde fears a change of government could lead to a reduction in capital projects

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family? Cheryl’s my wife. My children are Aimee, 22, Sasha, 21, and Adam 19
Who’s your favourite Northern Soul star? Frank Wilson – his rarest record sold for £15,000
Favourite Northern Soul club? Wigan Casino, Catacombes, Wolverhampton
Favourite food? Liver and onions, or black pudding from Dudley
Best thing to do in Birmingham? Watching Wolves beat West Bromwich Albion and going shopping in the Bullring with my wife and daughters
Last place you DJ-ed? Glades, Kidderminster in 2004