In a world where engineering firms are vying for pole position in the race to become digitised, how does Breheny, a traditional civils firm, shape up for the future?
Suffolk-based contractor Breheny, a family-owned firm established in 1963, is one of the businesses which built Britain. Over the decades it has undertaken a steady stream of construction projects including roads and rail.
But the traditional façade belies a firm adept at combating its challenges and gearing up to take opportunities where it sees them.
The challenge the firm faces is its rural location, with its headquarters in a small town in Suffolk. Many of its other offices are in similar rural locations. So, it invests heavily in training and development to attract and retain staff.
“There aren’t lots of people around, so the good people you get you need to retain as best you can and training is a key part of that,” says group business development manager Steve Dighton.
More than 10% of the firm’s staff are professionally qualified, and Breheny runs an ICE-approved training scheme that develops engineering technicians along with incorporated and chartered engineers. The firm has 49 EngTech qualified professionals, and says this puts it in the top 10 companies in the UK ranked on volume of staff with this qualification. It runs training schemes from apprentices straight from school at 16 to post-graduate degrees. This year it is working with Anglia Ruskin University on degree apprenticeships in civil engineering. It also employs most of its staff directly, ensuring that the training goes right through the workforce.
There aren’t lots of people around, so the good people you get you need to retain as best you can
“We are a family business that is more traditional in the way we build things, by using our own guys on the ground, with our own plant where possible, we’re not particularly a management contractor,” says pre-contracts director Simon Burnside.
The investment in training certainly seems to have paid off in terms of staff retention. Of its 425 staff, 168 have been with the firm more than 10 years, 79 more than 20 years and 19 more than 30 years.
It is this commitment to training that won Breheny the NCE100’s Talent Champion Award this year.
The firm is currently in the process of setting up a new training facility, in conjunction with client developer Urban & Civic, at Alconbury Weald. Alconbury is a 575ha Cambridgeshire Cold War airfield currently being redeveloped to accommodate 5,000 new homes and associated infrastructure, including a railway station and schools.
Breheny 020 cropped
Breheny is supporting the set up of a training centre, to be run by Urban & Civic, alongside an educational provider and housebuilders. All parties will use it for their training, with Breheny using it for skills such as drainage and kerb laying. Students will work on real sites such as open trenches and manholes.
“When you are working on a site and you are under pressure to deliver that scheme for your client it is not always easy to get a newly formed gang and put them on that job because you have got to get it done. Whereas if you have a custom-built training centre where they can be in the right environment, it’s a much better approach,” says Burnside.
The experience gained at Alconbury could also offer the contractor another opportunity to grow and tap into the house building market.
Burnside explains: “For a long time, we’ve had clients saying they would like us to deliver other aspects of their work for them, particularly some of the major residential guys. Can we deliver their plots? Can we build their houses for them up until groundworks? Because if you’re putting all the infrastructure in, all the roads, all the drains, all the bridges, the residential guys, their main focus is ‘when is my show home going up?’”
Off the back of this demand, Breheny has set up a new business called Terrasite, which delivers housing and residential plots. It has also set up a business called Networx Utilities, so that it can put utilities into developments, eliminating the need to wait for utility companies to do this work.
Dighton says: “We can effectively offer a one-stop-shop to housing developers in two to three years’ time. We can put in the highways, drainage, structural infrastructure; we can build plots up to slab level, and put in utilities as well.”
These two new business arms are also part of Breheny’s strategy to tap into the growth opportunities around its offices in Bicester and Huntingdon. Last year the government announced that up to 1M new homes will be built in the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor by 2050.
With our guys we know their capability, because we have invested so much training in them
“We see that as being a major part of our growth strategy. We’re really well placed with an office in Bicester, and an office in Huntingdon – almost one at either end, and are ready to jump in,” says Burnside.
If all goes to plan, the firm could repeat the recent growth spurt it has seen – increasing turnover from £53M in 2013 to £115M in 2017.
Breheny has also set its sights on frameworks as a way to grow. Although many in civil engineering see the plethora of different frameworks as a bit of a lottery in terms of how much work they gain, this firm believes they are still worth the effort in terms of giving a steady pipeline of work.
Burnside says: “We are very selective about what framework we pursue because we’ve got to be confident that we can get on that framework, but also get some work out of it, because you can be on every framework going but get very little work due to what you can offer clients and what work they have got coming through.
Good for frameworks
“The actual clients that are putting frameworks together are looking for contractors of our size. They are much more embracing, trying to get us involved, encouraging us to get involved. Three or four years ago, there wasn’t quite that culture, it has changed.”
He adds: “You have got your tier ones and your tier twos and we sit in between.
“When we are up against tier ones in terms of quality of submission and bid teams, we know can provide and have the advantage financially with our own inhouse plant, our own direct staff,” says Burnside.
“With our guys we know their capability, and because we have invested so much training in them, they are very good at what they do and, again, that comes down to training and long service.”
And that is where Breheny is hoping its increasing investment in training will pay off.