In 1995 Maccaferri, or River & Sea Gabions as it was then known, was synonymous with - well you guessed it - gabions. The company secured 100% of its business from their design and supply.
But in that year the company moved its main office from Birmingham to Oxford, took the identity of its Italian parent Maccaferri, and acquired a new managing director Richard Greenford.
He had previously managed Maccaferri's interests in Asia and New Zealand on a seven year tour of duty.
By 1999 the company had manoeuvred a radical change in the marketplace. It had become one of the top players in the UK geosynthetic industry as distributor for Terram, and was at the leading edge of design technology on embankment basal reinforcement platforms and in the emerging field of soil bioengineering. The gabion market had not declined, but now accounted for less than half of the company's activity.
'Our role, ' explains Greenford, 'has become a provider of solutions. We offer a very high quality design capacity, akin to a specialist consultant.' This service is invariably free, with the company securing its revenue from product sales.
The process is set to continue. Last month, Maccaferri significantly strengthened its position in the geosynthetic sector, by securing the UK distribution rights to Colbond Geosynthetics. This adds a suite of new products used in soil reinforcement, erosion control, landfill applications and drainage. The Dutch manufacturer was previously represented in the UK by MMG Civil Engineering.
In the immediate future the company has its sights on other distribution deals and has set a target to double its UK turnover to £10M in the next five years. To achieve this it intends to increase the UK market share in areas such as gravity retaining structures, soil bioengineering, basal plat- forms and pavement engineering.
Greenford believes segmental concrete block walls will develop into a major market for the UK, following the same rapid growth curve established in the US and now developing in Australia. He sees a parallel with the acceptance of geotextiles, which were introduced to a cautious market in the late 1960s, but are now common place in everyday civil engineering practice. He predicts segmental concrete block walls will become the established method of constructing gravity retaining structures within a relatively short time.
Another important growth area will be soil bioengineering, Greenford believes. To strengthen its role in this area, the company has taken on experienced botanist Hugh Ellis, as soil bioengineering manager.
Essentially there is incompatibility between engineering requirements and creating a good ecological environment. With care, botanical understanding and appropriate detailing of the face, it is possible to create conditions in a structure favourable to the greening process. Already, Ellis' involvement has led to modifying installation specifications for some of its green product range.
Although simultaneously pushing both concrete block and green structures, technical director Philip Staten reports that he has never experienced a conflict between the two. 'The finish is invariably client driven. The client knows what it wants and is unlikely to be persuaded otherwise.'
Other priorities on Maccaferri's agenda are increasing BBA certification on its core products.
And Staten is keen to continue ongoing research and development in basal reinforced platforms, which has included close collaboration with consultant Mott MacDonald.
Staten is on something of a crusade to improve the quality of geosynthetic design in the UK, particularly for basal reinforce- ment. He believes there has been a decline in standards as geogrids become seen as a commodity product like geosynthetics. 'It's very frustrating when a buyer just wants a price per square metre and cold shoulders any request for information on the application. We explain that you can't compare products on a direct basis and there are a number of cheaper and inferior quality grids now flooding the market from Europe.'
Maccaferri operates a network of regional offices through UK and Ireland and plans to open new offices in the near future. The company has debated whether to embrace contracting, but has chosen to remain a supplier providing technical support.
It retains a low key contracting interest in Scotland, which is important for the 'hands on knowledge needed for product development', says Greenford. Its construction experience has also proven to be a valuable sales aid.