Fresh from success at this year’s Building Awards, CPC Project Services’ managing partner tells Building about his vision for growth – and where he sees the firm operating in 10 years’ time
The first thing that strikes you about Steve Mole is his height. At 6ft 4in, he cuts an imposing, almost gangly figure as he leads us into a meeting room to talk about CPC Project Services, the firm for whom he has worked for three decades and now largely owns.
The lean, tall Mole has the physique of a goalkeeper, and funnily enough that is exactly what he used to be, turning out for Leyton Orient schoolboys in the 1980s. “I would have had a good career if I had turned pro,” he says, confidently.
Mole did not pursue his professional footballing ambitions. He was put off by the brevity of most sporting careers and opted to go to university instead. It is easy to forget how, in the 1980s, footballers’ salaries were nowhere near the astronomical levels they are today, especially in the lower divisions.
So, instead of making saves and claiming crosses in the six-yard box, he eventually gave up the amateur game for good after two concussions in the space of three weeks. Mole enrolled at Sussex University to study engineering and business management as he “knew he wanted to do something practical”.
He carried out work placements with London Underground. “That’s why I got involved in delivering projects. I liked the concept of projects because you’ve got a beginning and an end.”
Fast forward a few decades and, several thousand projects later, 52-year-old Mole is eyeing growth for CPC Project Services, the project management consultancy he started working for in 1993 which now ranks ninth among Building’s Top 50 Project Managers 2023. He may have tripled the size of the business over the past six years but can still see plenty of potential for expansion.
Mole bullishly starts explaining his vision. He wants to grow CPC, which in its last published annual accounts turned over £29m, to £50m within five years and £100m in 10 years. He says the firm is set to post £35m in turnover in the current year.
“I thought, ‘what am I going to do for the last decade [before retirement] and think £50m in five is very conservative… We are already looking at different ways to bring people in to support that sort of growth.”
Under the development strategy, CPC will open four new offices, in Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge and Edinburgh, to complement its existing seven offices, including a headquarters in London.
CPC IN NUMBERS
£35m estimated turnover in 2022/23
£29m turnover in 2021/22
£50m targeted turnover within five years
£100m targeted turnover within 10 years
350 projects worked on in 2022/23
“We want to make sure that we can emulate the business that we’ve got in London across the regional offices. So that means making sure that we’re diversifying in the right sectors,” says Mole.
He says the plan will be to expand its property and construction businesses in the South and North, which turn over £8m and £5m respectively, to rival its £11m transport and infrastructure arm.
The focus on property and construction has seen CPC draft in new partners in recent years, including Mark Cleverly, who heads up property and construction in the South, Tom Barnes, who focuses on residential and Allen Beever, who focuses on cost and management consultancy services in health, education, science and technology.
CPC is also on the verge of hiring another partner “based between Liverpool and Manchester” to try and get the regional “footprint” right, says Mole.
A large part of the regional growth in the South meanwhile is in residential. “Residential was always big for us in the North, we are currently delivering more than 16,500 homes across the UK, 9,000 in the North.
“But we’ve upped our footprint in the South to 7,500 homes,” he says, pointing out that CPC has recently won contracts on two build-to-rent schemes, in Woolwich and Abbey Wood, adding another 400 homes to the total.
We’ve got big clients like British Land, Land Securities, Crosstree. We are trying to disrupt the London commercial office market as well - and we are
Another area of potential growth in the property and construction space is in commercial offices. “We’ve got big clients like British Land, Land Securities, Crosstree. We are trying to disrupt the London commercial office market as well – and we are,” says Mole.
According to Mole, a large part of CPC’s unique selling point is its expertise in transport infrastructure and the way it interacts with office space. He certainly stresses that the firm is not looking to shrink its transport arm, just that “other aspects of the business will grow at a faster rate”.
“We secured a major project at Kings Cross to build a pharmaceutical office which will house Merck. Our key USP was because it had a connection to the Underground station, because of our expertise in London Underground and our understanding of how that interface between property and transport infrastructure works.”
For the Belgrove House scheme, CPC understood the station’s operational systems and CCTV and how to get the building operational and connected to the station underneath Euston Road. Such “transport interface expertise” has helped CPC to secure a 12-year project to upgrade Bank station.
It is clear that Mole reserves particular affection for his transport roots. “We’ve just secured a place on the Network Rail framework for north-west and central regions. That opens up the whole North-west for us from a transport perspective.
“With a new partner joining up there and new people, we are going to go for Mersey Travel, Transport for Greater Manchester, the trans-Pennine upgrade – all of those types of schemes in that area, so we are gearing up for real expansion.”
Then there is what Mole terms “building complex facilities for tomorrow”. In recent years the firm has worked on such facilities as the National Quantum Computing Centre at Harwell in Oxfordshire and life sciences laboratories in Oxford.
So, the strategy is to boost its regional arms, work on residential projects in the South, continue to use its transport nous to win project management work and to branch out more into life sciences and other “modern” markets.
The firm’s willingness to extend into new markets was recognised at the Building Awards this month. CPC won the construction consultant (100 staff or over) category. (See box below).
CPC Project Services won Construction Consultant of the Year (over 100 staff) at the Building Awards on Tuesday night.
Judges comments: “The judges felt CPC has expanded into an impressively wide range of services. They said CPC transformed what it offers clients in recent years, working on complicated projects that are difficult to deliver.
“They also liked its client satisfaction reporting process which provides real-time KPI data.”
But what barriers are there in the operating environment to doing more of this?
“The biggest problem in our industry is, whether you are a project manager or a QS, an architect or a contractor, we are all going through the various procurement processes and it’s a race to the bottom,” Mole says. “So, whoever secures it [the job], are they the right organisations across the piece? Have they got the A-team on it? Or is it just on price?”
He adds: “The government has got to become a little bit more confident about not going with the cheapest tenders. What happens is that you go cheap and then, through change, it costs far more.”
If I were to sell out to another company, I think like any other business of our size, we would just get absorbed into a bigger brand
When it comes to housing, Mole believes the affordable housing requirements imposed on private developers often constrain development in London. He says a rethink is needed to deliver much-needed affordable homes.
“We’ve got to be a bit realistic, rather than play to the political or what the public wants. Sometimes we need to look at these things economically,” he says.
However, Mole stresses that affordable housing is needed. He grew up in the traditonally working-class suburb of Walthamstow, north-east London. “We’ve got to look at a different way of doing it,” he says. “Maybe local councils have got to be given the funding to be able to deliver their own housing.”
But what about the future for CPC and its ownership? Mole is the principal shareholder with 85% of the business. At the age of 52, is he looking at selling up soon?
The biggest problem in our industry is, whether you are a project manager or a QS, an architect or a contractor, we are all going through the various procurement processes and it’s a race to the bottom
He stresses that he does not see himself ever selling the firm to a larger company, but stresses that no firm plans are yet in place for his succession, which in any case is unlikely to be for a decade or so yet. He is tight-lipped about his thinking.
“I’ve attracted people to the business with the vision of what we can achieve over the next five to 10 years. If I were to sell out to another company, I think, like any other business of our size, we would just get absorbed into a bigger brand.
“We are attracting people who, when they look back at their careers, enjoy working for businesses that are this size and growing,” he says.
Mole may have missed out on a football career, but he can surely take comfort from the fact that he is taking CPC towards promotion and the prospect of competing in a higher division. So the question is what happens next, and when and how might he take his money out of the business? We must watch this space…