The UK construction industry’s long history of using traditional timber formwork has made it a tough market for system formwork specialists to crack. But that situation may be changing, as new Doka UK managing director Joe Affinito tells Margo Cole.
While engineered formwork systems have long been the norm in continental Europe, even for the most routine of construction tasks, their adoption in the UK has been slower and specialist suppliers have found it hard to gain much of a foothold here.
Now the tide appears to be turning in their favour, as modern construction methods and challenging geometries are increasingly lending themselves to pre-assembled systems.
One of the biggest players in this field is now setting its sights on tapping the UK market.
Austrian formwork giant Doka, a £645M turnover company that is active in 70 countries around the world, recently appointed a new UK managing director, Joe Affinito. His brief is to develop Doka’s business into a market-leading supplier of formwork, shoring and safety systems.
“I’ve always seen Doka as a sleeping giant and that’s what I’m trying to unleash,” says Affinito, who moved to Doka from Harsco, where he was engineering director.
He acknowledges that the depressed state of the economy makes this an interesting time to take on such a challenge.
“The market has been pretty depressed for a number of years,” Affinito says.
“It really depends on the government - they talk a lot about investment, but it would be nice if they did something really positive about that and followed their statements with some actions.”
Affinito believes non-listed companies like Doka are not subject to the same pressures as stock market listed firms such as Harsco.
We specialise in formwork in 70 countries, so we can easily move material around to where it’s needed
Joe Affinito, Doka
“You can be more focused on the longer-term viewpoint, as against short-term shareholder value,” he says.
“The drive for results is still there, but in a different capacity, and you can take a more strategic viewpoint.”
One advantage of this ability to take a longer-term view is that Doka has been able to carry on investing in research and development throughout the recession, continuing to work on new products.
“Our strength is in vertical wall formwork, but we are going to focus very much on moving into horizontal slab formwork and taking on the traditional [formwork] market,” says Affinito. “And we plan to do a lot of pre-assembly of wall formwork.”
He sees pre-assembly as something that will be particularly attractive for projects in congested city centres, where there may not be enough space on site to assemble large sections of formwork.
“We can build it up as a unit, and it comes off [the delivery lorry] as a unit, so the client has it when he needs it,” he says. “It saves the client in terms of access and damage and we have the people and the space and the know-how to do it.”
Doka also plans to bring its expertise to other growth areas in the UK market where there has been a shift towards slipforming in high-rise structures and where safety screening systems are being adopted.
Although known in the UK as a predominantly European company, Doka’s activities across the globe are something that Affinito says brings a wide range of benefits.
“We are an organisation that specialises in formwork in 70 countries, so we can easily move material around to where it’s needed,” he says.
“So if somebody wants to build a dam, for example, there are a few countries we can bring material from - and expertise.”
He says the firm recently developed a formwork system for dam linings, anticipating that its main market would be China, where a large number of dams are planned, only to find that the first order came from Norway.
This ability to move materials around the world is aided by the fact that Doka made a decision early in its history to produce all its equipment to the same standard, rather than just meeting local standards in the different territories in which it operates.
“There is one standard for quality, so when we do bring materials in, we don’t have to worry if the quality will be right,” he explains. “It’s going to be Doka standard equipment, which moves around the world, so we can call kit up from anywhere.”
Affinito is aware that he will only be able to grow the business in the UK by developing successful, long-term relationships with customers. The firm has already scored some notable successes, including supplying formwork for Crossrail and the Emirates Air Line cable car in London.
Affinito believes more high-profile projects will follow, as long as Doka “leaves a fantastic impression” with the contractors it works with.
“We need to give true service - something that’s very difficult in the infrastructure environment,” he says. “How we commit to these clients is how we will get customers coming back.”
One way he thinks Doka can stand out from the competition is the combination of local support and specialist expertise.
The company has set up a network of “competence centres” - mainly in Austria and Germany - each specialising in a different type of formwork or structure.
“So, for example, for a cantilever bridge we can go to the expert that’s doing that type of work, and then take it back to the local centre to take over,” says Affinito.
True service is very difficult in the infrastructure environment. How we commit to clients is how we will get them coming back
Joe Affinito, Doka
Like many companies in the construction supply chain, Doka would like to be working more collaboratively with contractors and getting involved in projects at an earlier stage than is traditionally the case.
The company’s involvement in civil engineering projects tends to be directly through main contractors, while for building projects it usually supplies its equipment to concrete frame subcontractors.
“The better contractors are those that are co-ordinated and are working much closer with the supply chain,” he says.
“The more we can be sitting alongside a client, or being involved at the outset with the client, the better it is.”
He has had experience of formal and informal partnering arrangements and believes they can benefit all parties if the spirit of partnering is maintained when times get tough.
“When partnering works well it gives benefits right the way through,” he says.
“Clients benefit because they will be given priority to call off material, etcetera, and we can afford to do that when we’re getting commitment the other way - like being paid on time.”
Affinito says that many clients, contractors and subcontractors have “good intentions” to work more collaboratively, but the tough economic climate “added hurdles”.
Nevertheless, he maintains that closer working usually results in cost savings.
“When I have seen true partnering, it really does work,” he says, “but it comes down to the market at the end of the day, and it’s a tough market.”
In taking on his new role, Affinito accepts that he has joined Doka at a “challenging” time. But he still believes the company can become a market leader - despite the difficult trading environment and tough construction economy - by establishing a reputation for expertise and for understanding its customers’ needs.
“I think you will see some differences in the coming months and years in Doka in the UK,” he says. “I’m very positive about it.”