As WT Parker’s chief executive reveals his plans to lead the family firm into a brighter future, Tracy Edwards plays nosy Parker herself…

If you needed any convincing that WT Parker is a group with time-honoured family values, a quick glance at the lower arm of chief executive Sean Smyth, who has been with the company for 35 years, should do the trick.

“What?” I hear you cry. “Do you mean to say that Smyth sustained some ghastly injury during his younger days on site, yet has steadfastly battled on despite the odds and worked his way up to the top?”

Well, fortunately, no. But he does give his 18-carat gold wrist watch, presented to him by the company in recognition of 25 years’ service, an airing on special occasions.

“We’ve awarded the watches to well over 100 workers. It’s a bit unusual. But people do stay with WT Parker,” says Smyth with some pride.

Based in Burton-upon-Trent, the business was started in 1922 by the late WT Parker and has been handed down through three generations of the Parker family.

Smyth started his career with the firm as an electrical apprentice back in 1973. A self-confessed workaholic, he rose up the ranks to become managing director of m&e contracting arm WT Parker Ltd in 1997, and he was then appointed overall group chief executive for WT Parker 18 months ago.

The group’s other two firms consist of T Musk, a provider of process engineering solutions, and Pandelco, which manufactures and installs low-voltage switchgear, motor control centres and process control panels.

Smyth puts his long-running loyalty down to the business’ long-standing ethos of following with tradition. Evidence of this can be found in the group’s steadfast commitment to directly employed labour.

“We find that our profits are maintained by adhering to quality. Some 90% of our business is repeat business, and with many of the larger projects we undertake, we’re still there 10 years later carrying out facilities works. Our policy on employing direct operatives has been part of the success of Parker’s,” he says.

“I’m not saying there aren’t good agencies out there, but it can be too hit and miss,” he continues. “In the past, retaining staff until the completion of the project has been very, very difficult. As soon as there’s another job down the road for 50p more, you lose your better people.”

WT Parker has also always been a firm believer in training its own workforce. As a former apprentice, this is a fact of which Smyth is especially proud. While he admits numbers may be down slightly because of the recession, he is determined WT Parker carries on nurturing fresh talent.

“We’ve trained from the year dot. Over the past three years we’ve won the MK Apprentice of the Year at the Building Services Awards, because we run our own independent training organisation called BTOL in Burton,” he says.

“It was set up in the mid-1990s, because we weren’t happy with the quality of the training that was being delivered by JTL. The success rate has been unbelievable. It certainly exceeds the average of the industry and is far in excess of the JTL pass rate.

“We train independent electrical contractors in areas such as the 17th Edition, as well as our own apprentices.”

It is easy to paint a picture of a benevolent family group, comfortable with its steady growth, substantial turnover of £50m and 3-4% net margin. To put it bluntly, for a business that’s been up and running for close to 90 years, it’s no NG Bailey.

When asked why this is, Smyth is unfazed.

“I don’t think we’ve been as adventurous. We’ve been happy with the steady growth and we haven’t spread our wings. I always think we’re the best secret in the industry. In the past, however, the vision hasn’t been there. But it is now,” he says.

So, is this a change that he has been engineering personally since becoming top dog in the group?

“Yes, and in the next three years, we’re looking to hit £70m,” he responds firmly.

The business has already gone through significant structural changes under Smyth’s leadership. Before March this year, the WT Parker Group actually consisted of four firms. WT Parker Ltd specialised in m&e, including repair and maintenance and specialist building services in automation and network communications. WT Parker (Grantham) focused on specialist services in high-voltage and low-voltage power distribution and airport ground lighting and control systems, as well as providing general m&e services.

We find that our profits are maintained by adhering to quality. Some 90% of our business is repeat business. Our policy on employing direct operatives has been part of the success of Parker’s

The two have now been integrated to create a more powerful brand. Turnover for the combined m&e factions is in excess of £40m, with a workforce of more than 300 skilled engineers and operatives.

Smyth’s vision includes a multitude of strong growth opportunities, some of which the group has already been busy putting in place.

“We’ve been growing in the facilities management department over the past three years via framework contracts with end-user clients,” he says.

“Now we’re also looking to grow our data network communication division, which we have inside WT Parker Ltd. Within this, we work for specific clients such as the Royal Palaces and the National Grid.

“Also, we’re now a Nacoss Gold-approved alarm installer, and we intend to really grow the alarm installations side of things, doing more within the business, rather than outsourcing it.”

The firm is also preparing for the future as part of its training culture, with proficiency in sustainable services on the cards.

“We’ve entered that specific market and we’ve had guys on BREEAM and Part L courses so that we totally understand the targets that we have to meet,” says Smyth enthusiastically.

So, how are the order books stacking up for the future now that the recession has hit?

“We’re currently sitting on £13m worth of prospective tenders that we’re very close to securing in the next few weeks.

“The downturn has hit us in small pockets, like retail distribution. In the past nine months, across the business, we’ve had more peaks and troughs than in the past 14 years, but we have been able to find some new customers. I believe that if you work hard enough, you find them out there.

“For the next 12 months, however, I expect our turnover to remain flat. Then possibly in 2010 we’ll see 5-7% growth, and something similar the following year.”

Smyth does see some bright spots in the current market. T Musk has achieved a 7% net margin this financial year.

“They’ve had their best year, ending this March, since we acquired them 13 years ago. There has been so much investment in the food and process industries.”

Smyth plays his own part in disseminating advice on the economy. He is serving his second term as ECA East Midlands regional chairman and was appointed the region’s representative on the ECA Council last month.

“We recently organised for the ECA to come along to the region and put on a very good presentation on surviving the recession. They talked about redundancies and also about how to improve your marketing – which we are doing now. For those who missed it, they have produced a disk that is available to members.”

With all Smyth has already taken on with the WT Parker Group, it certainly begs the question, why is he intent on rising up the ranks within the ECA too?

“It means I can take a balanced view, and it also adds value to WT Parker.

“On top of that, I’ve enjoyed the industry and very much want to give something back,” he avows.

And do you know what? It would be difficult to summon an iota of doubt when Smyth offers up his response. Bloodline or no bloodline, he’s a vital part of the family.

Parker penned

Where do you live?
In a lovely small village called Yoxall. It’s 20 minutes from head office so it’s my little bit of a rest away from work. But I still tend to come in on a Sunday when it suits.

Who’s in your family?
I have had two daughters with my wife Jane. It’s our 30th wedding anniversary this September.

What car do you drive?
A BMW 5 series 3.0 litre. My ideal car would be an Aston Martin.

Where’s your favourite get-away?
Mauritius. I just thought it was like being in heaven.

If you had to go back in time and choose another career path, what would it be?
I’d be a professional footballer, looking at the money they get. I’m a Derby County fan myself. They’ve just survived relegation.

Who would play you in a film about your life?
Errm…Somebody reasonably tough.

What music do you listen to?
I enjoy Motown, but I go go to a lot of different live concerts. Simply Red even.

What personality trait do you like least in others?
People who seem less interested in work than I do. I like dedicated people who are willing to live the job. At WT Parker we’ve got more than 50% of people who are like that. I wouldn’t say everybody is, though.

What is your own worst trait?
Not taking enough rest. I work too hard.

Tell me a secret about yourself that most of your colleagues don’t know.
My middle name – it’s Tracy!