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Business: Mabey Hire interview

Mabey Hire’s acting CEO Steve Farmer is predicting big growth for the firm in the next five years, with hire sales forecast to shoot up by 50% on the back of strong service support. He tells Jon Masters how innovative equipment and data gathering technology is helping the company stand out in the market.

Steve Farmer

Farmer: Wants to shift away from a product sales mentality towards early involvement in the design of schemes

Likely escalation of major projects in the building and infrastructure sectors may prove a serious test for the construction industry’s design capacity. But leading subcontractors are well placed to plug any gaps, while at the same time injecting innovative approaches from their vantage point in the supply chain.

That’s according to Mabey Hire’s acting CEO Steve Farmer, who joined from Harsco Infrastructure UK earlier this year. Mabey is on a steep growth path; the company, best known for groundworks equipment hire services, has grown turnover by 50% over the past four years.

“Investment in the business has taken it to 450 people, including more than 40 sales reps, serving a vast customer base,” says Farmer.

The business also has a sizeable design team, with a head count of 60, including CAD design technicians and civil and structural engineers. According to Farmer, seven are chartered and the rest are signed up to training agreements.

“When I joined the company, I was a little surprised to find this excellent design resource here. In recent years, quite a lot of large construction companies have reduced their engineering design capability. We want to partner with principal contractors, to be seen as an extension of their design teams,” he says.

“Getting us involved in the design of schemes at an early stage can enable better planning and coordination of services”

Steve Farmer, Mabey Hire

The majority of Mabey Hire’s turnover, “the company’s bread and butter”, says Farmer, comes from hire of temporary works and groundworks shoring equipment. Steel falsework, sheet piling, propping, shoring and matting for temporary roads are all in the company’s product portfolio.

Mabey Hire has also been involved in a number of major projects of late, which Farmer is unable to disclose. But he can say that these schemes have entailed some heavy duty shoring equipment in very big holes in the ground, as well as the latest in real-time monitoring technology.

“Traditionally, this company has supplied its equipment to projects for a limited time, to shore up an excavation or basement, without leaving anything permanent behind,” says Farmer. “What this has driven is a mentality focused on product sales.

“Getting us involved in the design of schemes at an early stage, at the front end of projects, can enable better planning and coordination of services. We can bring innovative products and design them into schemes, to help contractors build a better, safer job, by designing systems that don’t get in the way of other trades, for example.”

Opportunities

Farmer is eyeing many opportunities ahead. Mabey Hire claims roughly one third of the total business for UK temporary groundworks, he says. This is likely to expand significantly over the coming five years and beyond.

High Speed 2, in particular, and the infrastructure upgrades planned by Network Rail and the Highways Agency in general, will require a lot of earthworks support.

“The contractors involved in these programmes of work will usually know what they need from us in terms of equipment and systems for the projects they are working on. That currently represents the vast majority of our sales,” he says.

“But where we can differentiate ourselves is in situations where a customer has an engineering problem. We can be a solutions provider - designing a cost-effective solution that makes innovative use of our equipment.”

The principle extends to real-time monitoring, Farmer adds. Mabey Hire’s contract work on high profile projects in London has opened his eyes to how the company could be helping Network Rail, the Highways Agency and others with infrastructure maintenance programmes.

“We can help with the retrofitting of remote monitoring onto existing infrastructure, which can relay data back to the customer”

Steve Farmer, Mabey Hire

While capital investment is generally on an upward trajectory, maintenance budgets are under increasing pressure. At a fairly senior level, infrastructure operators are aware that they have a number of problematic structures, Farmer says.

“We can help with the retrofitting of remote monitoring onto existing infrastructure, which can relay data back to the customer. It is through services such as these that we can break into the smart infrastructure market,” he says.

“We are working on integrating load monitoring cells into our equipment. There is no shortage of companies providing remote strain monitoring, but what we’ve got is all this shoring and falsework equipment, which can provide live data feeds with loadings and alerts to back office systems or mobile apps.”

Mabey Hire’s aspiration is for 50% further growth in hire sales up to 2017. Crucial to achieving this, Farmer says, is the embedding of a performance-driven culture in the business to meet the challenges of the marketplace

Performance driven objectives

“The company has already achieved significant growth,” he says. “To ensure it can push for more, we have to create performance-driven objectives and tough growth targets for employees. Staff have to be offered attractive incentives and rewards.”

The company is also investing significantly in its vehicles. This is partly to keep the fleet up to date and working efficiently, but is also one element of a strategy aimed at ensuring excellent customer service.

Farmer wants deliveries turning up on a modern, branded vehicle, driven by an employee with good product knowledge, to ensure a correct delivery or collection.

“There’s a fair amount of training needed for this, but it’s a wise investment, good from a customer-facing point of view and the company image,” he says. “We’re going to train some of our depot staff to become HGV drivers. We’ve also trained a few into sales managers, because we’ve found some people would be better off plying their talents in these roles.”

There are currently two main “frontiers” in the company’s growth plans. One is targeting more opportunities for temporary road matting, which is proving popular, says Farmer. Plus there is expansion of Mabey Hire Sales, an offshoot offering supplementary products, such as harnesses and other safety products that aren’t available through the firm’s hire business.

Early stage help

“Further conversations with our clients over how we can help at early stages of project planning is a big part of it as well,” he adds. “Essentially, we have a whole arsenal of products and designers.

Once we get that early involvement with our clients, we can come up with lots of innovations and solutions that will make their life a whole lot easier.

“Understandably, once a set of architects’ drawings come through, the focus tends to be on the end product; but the thing has to come out of the ground properly if it’s going to be delivered on time and within budget. Involving groundworks specialists early has got to be the right way to go.”

Major projects to come include the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. When this project gets going, given all the other infrastructure work likely to be under way, Hinkley C could potentially suck in much, if not all, of the formwork capability available.

“This is going to be one massive project that everyone is going to want to be involved in,” Farmer says.

“Overall, there is going to be a big drain on resources and more capacity needed. The industry will not be able to ramp up immediately, nor will contractors be able to pick up the phone and have everything they need on site within a few weeks. It will be a case of book early to secure the resources needed.”

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