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Investing in people

Developing and retaining high calibre staff has helped TJ Brent to emerge as the UK's premier specialist contractor. Alan Sparks reports.

Bringing work in house, rather than delegating responsibilities and profits to subcontractors, is the key to success at TJ Brent (TJB), NCE Contractors File Specialist Contractor of the Year 2002.

TJB has seen civils turnover double from £30.6M in 2000 to £64M in 2001, profits rise from £200,000 to £700,000, and staff numbers soar from 390 to 1,000.

'Our philosophy is to bring as much expertise as possible under our own roof, ' says TJB business development manager Brian Kennelly. 'We believe in the extensive training of our own staff, as so much of our work involves public interaction. This means that we need a guaranteed calibre of staff.'

This, Kennelly believes, gives TJB far greater control over quality, safety and training, allowing it to meet the needs of its long established clients.

Kennelly repeatedly refers to continual growth as the key to today's success and also tomorrow's bright future. So it is vital that TJB still manages to recruit sufficiently skilled staff while many firms bemoan the skills shortage.

'I think that staff are attracted to the good career prospects on offer at a growing company. We have found it harder in regions where we have yet to establish a presence, but the skills shortage has certainly not hindered our growth yet.'

Over the past 10 years TJB has increased turnover ten fold. And the year 2000 saw a management buyout from South West Water owner Pennon Group.

This link explains why most of TJB's workload lies in the water sector. The company has framework contracts with utilities in every corner of the UK, with regional offices in Scotland and Wales.

Regional offices form a fundamental role in TJB policy to attract new work: 'We are opening around two new offices each year, ' says Kennelly. 'We believe it is imperative to have someone on the ground keeping a finger on the pulse of the market if we are going to win new business.'

Wherever TJB has won a new major framework contract, an office will be set up in support.

But setting up a new office without work on the books requires a little more courage.

'It's a case of chicken and egg - whether to win work first before setting up the office or to set up the office in order to win work, ' adds Kennelly. To manage this risk a skeleton crew will be put in place and the depth of talent at the office will grow as the work flows in.

Targeted areas for expansion include highways maintenance contracts for local authorities and expanding into other areas of the Railtrack network from TJB's footing in the North Western region. Here TJB is installing civils works for the much vaunted Train Protection Warning System, including ducting, crossings and boxes.

Industrial developments form a strong part of TJB's armoury, with house building identified as a boom market for future work.

But Kennelly is not about to let expansion escalate out of control.

'We are looking for continued - but controlled - growth, while sticking to our core competencies, ' says Kennelly.

Having a strong relationship with clients is also seen by Kennelly as a key factor in the firm's ongoing success.

'We've been working in partnering arrangements since before it was even called partnering, ' he adds. 'Each client will envisage partnering working to varying degrees. Some want to share an office, while others still prefer to work more remotely. Which one will become the norm we do not know, but we have strong experience in both.'

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