Former chairman restores name and fortunes of Bucknall Austin – and plans move into higher-value work

It is just over a year and a half since David Bucknall bought back the family silver. After five years out of the sector, he made a dramatic swoop to buy his old firm, then called Citex Project Services, back from the administrators.

The 270-strong firm, once again operating under its original name of Bucknall Austin, has announced its first set of results since the deal was struck in February 2003.

Bucknall Austin posted after-tax profit of £443,000 on a turnover of £27m for the 14 months to 30 April. Chairman Bucknall describes the achievement as “remarkable”, and is confident of improving the firm’s performance in the second year.

Here Bucknall discusses his return to the sector, and turning around the fortunes of the firm that bears his name – not forgetting the company’s brush with the tabloids as project manager on the ill-fated Diana Memorial Fountain.

Has the past year and a half gone to plan?

Broadly, yes. We moved the contracts over pretty well [98% of existing contracts transferred from Citex to Bucknall Austin]. Coming out of administration as a whole, though, was a bit more time-consuming than we thought. It took six months instead of the three to four we thought. Doing the deal itself was at breakneck speed, but refinancing and restructuring the business took a bit longer. Despite this, the business has kept its momentum – there’s a lot of credit to a lot of people for that.

How did you reduce overheads [running at about £15m a year before the buyout]?

We inherited a number of unsuitable and uneconomic premises. In the first six months, we changed every office. Since then we have invested in the business such as in IT. Nobody is moaning about the IT department, so I think that’s gone well. We’ve also reduced the churn of staff to more normal levels.

What have you tried to do at Bucknall Austin?

The focus has been on improving and being more relevant as QSs. Positive QS-ing, if you will. Ditto for project management. We want to take project management up a level. There’s a danger of project management becoming just a case of standing near the postbox. Instead it should be about project strategy and leadership. We have also reduced the markets we operate in. The firm was too diverse before.

I want to up our calibre of work, so that the top quartile of clients want to work with us

What are your aims for your second year?

We want to set our stall out a bit more now. I want us to up our calibre of work, so that the top quartile of clients want to work with us. There’s quite a bit of work to be done. We are getting a better quality of earnings already, so we are getting there. Personally I want to spend one day a month in as many offices as possible. I need to get out a bit more.

What have the past 18 months been like for you personally?

It’s been a privilege. There are frustrations but I have been impressed with the firm. I like the people I work with and it’s great to be back. I have found it quite hard work, though.

What markets are strong for you?

Residential, both social and private, has gone up significantly in the last year. It’s now 12% of our business, up from single figures before the buyout. Our regeneration work has doubled and we have seen a strengthening in heavy and specialist industry work. Public sector work is coming back for us as we are now focusing on long-term framework deals.

How do you feel about the Diana Memorial fountain, which has suffered a barrage of criticism since it opened? [Bucknall Austin was project manager on the fountain]

I must say it has been disappointing. We tried very hard to get the health and safety right. We have looked through all our procedures and reports for a number of reasons to make sure that we acted responsibly.

Bucknall's background

1963 Becomes partner at his father's QS firm, partnership Bucknall Austin 1972.
Is made senior partner. Expands the firm into Europe and Asia
1988 Floats the company in July and develops FM operation
1998 Bucknall Austin is bought by management buyout team led by Oliver Jones; renamed Citex and delisted. Bucknall leaves
1998-2003 Takes up post of managing director of Jarvis Airport Services as well as directorships of furniture and property firms. Also is chairman of West Midlands Construction Best Practice Club
2003 Leads buyout of Citex Group's QS and project management arm