Many in the foundations industry were surprised at the news that Roger Bullivant had agreed to sell his eponymous business to Bachy Soletanche. But he’s as committed to the sector as ever, he tells Claire Symes
When I last visited Roger Bullivant’s offices some eight years ago, one of his employees was adamant he’d never sell the company and told me that he expected to be casting him a concrete coffin.
But the unexpected has happened and Bullivant - now aged 73 - agreed to sell his company to Bachy Soletanche’s parent company Soletanche Bachy for an undisclosed sum last summer.
Selling his business was clearly not something that Bullivant takes lightly and took a lot of soul searching, but while the company is a real passion for him, the other driver in his life is his family.
“By selling I have secured the future for my family,” he says.
But there were other factors at work too.
“The service industry in the UK is often staffed by people from eastern Europe. Many younger people from the UK don’t appear to want to make their own way in the world.”
“Maintaining £1M a year investment in research and development in the current economic climate was becoming challenging,” he says. “I can’t see where the future lies for this industry - the nature of it is changing and I don’t just mean in terms of the current financial situation in the UK.
“I remember a time when engineers were more hands on than they are now. Today’s engineers do not know the cost of anything.”
Bullivant marketing, business development and sales director John Patch adds: “We are seeing more delineation between the professions these days, but geotechnical engineers need to understand the cost.”
It is some of these issues that Bullivant plans to address with his new consultancy business Posteritas.
“The aim is to get more people to cross the boundaries,” he says. “We are seeing more spark in terms of innovation from architects than engineers in recent years.
“Good architects have a lot of offer in terms of aesthetics, but if they are bright enough then they have the potential to project manage construction without stifling innovation.
“A lot of engineers are too insular and too scared to take a risk - this is partly linked to professional indemnity issues, but architects have become more outward thinking in recent years.”
Bullivant and Patch are from engineering backgrounds and clearly share the same drive to improve their knowledge.
But they do not see the same motivation in younger generations.
“The service industry in the UK is often staffed by people from eastern Europe. They appear to have a stronger work ethic whereas many younger people from the UK don’t appear to want to make their own way in the world even if they are educated,” says Bullivant.
Hard work is something that Bullivant was raised to respect and undertake as part of normal life.
“My father was a groundworker and I started working with him as a grease monkey on Saturdays on a Bucyrus drag line in a coal mine when I was 12 or 13,” he explains.
“When I was 16 my parents went on holiday without us and my father told me that I was going to be operating his dragline - an NCK Rapier - on a gravel quarry while he was away.
I think my eyes lit up at earning a man’s wage, but he quickly told me that I might get some extra pocket money, but no more.”
From then on, when Bullivant wasn’t studying, he was working, but he had an eye on where he wanted to be. “I didn’t pass the 11-plus, so I went to the local secondary modern school.
But I remember seeing a smartly dressed man with a briefcase at the bus stop each morning,” he recalls. “He worked at Rolls Royce and to me he represented the need to get on in life. Nothing in life is free - you have to earn it.”
Bullivant could have been drafted into the military at 16 but was exempt if he was still in education, so he went to the local technical college.
“Looking back the college gave me a wonderful education,” he says.
Nonetheless, full-time study did not stifle his entrepreneurial spirit - while his counterparts were playing sport on a Wednesday afternoon, Bullivant established and ran his own window cleaning business.
“I missed the first sports afternoon by accident, but realised that no one missed me, so I never went,” he says.
He supplemented his window cleaning with newspaper delivery and chimney sweeping on Saturdays.
From college, Bullivant went on to study civil engineering at Leeds University, a subject he chose based on his - and his father’s - experience in muck shifting.
Each summer Bullivant worked for Tarmac and joined the company when he graduated.
“Tarmac’s training for its young engineers covered every aspect of construction, from quantity surveying and setting out to general engineering,” he says. “It was decided that I should become a chartered civil engineer and was seconded to Bylander Waddell in Sheffield to gain the necessary design experience. Working in a room of draughtsmen was an amazing experience and a good craic.”
During his time there Bullivant decided to try to become chartered through the Institution of Structural Engineers, as well as the Institution of Civil Engineers, and paid the £15 registration fee himself.
He describes the sum as “a fortune” in those days.
“I like to think things through carefully and not take a chance,”
“I got a note back asking for endorsement from my employer so I approached one of the directors at Bylander Waddell,” he says. “He scoffed at the very idea of a contractor taking the structures route and told me that out of the 10 engineers he put forward for the exam each year, he only expected three to pass. I remember protesting that I paid the fee myself and he eventually signed it.”
Bullivant describes the structures exam as one of the hardest he has ever sat - but he passed.
On his return to Tarmac he was still waiting for his chartership through the ICE to be signed off, but with the IStructE accreditation under his belt he asked for a pay rise and threatened to leave when it wasn’t immediately forthcoming.
Despite this approach, Bullivant says he isn’t a gambler.
“I like to think things through carefully and not take a chance,” he says. “I got the pay rise.”
Although clearly a skilled engineer, Bullivant very nearly ended up with a career in fashion and owned a clothes shop in Derby in the 1960s - he even left the construction industry to pursue this full-time for a while.
“It was an amazing time to be involved in the clothing industry and I greatly enjoyed it but it didn’t generate enough income, so my wife ran the shop and I went back to the construction industry,” he explains.
Bullivant started working for Clugston Construction on the Burton-on-Trent sewage works, which was one of the company’s biggest jobs.
The plant is still in use and is currently undergoing its second upgrade.
He soon realised that there was more money in working for himself which led to him working for another major contractor, but this time in his own right as the firm that eventually became the Roger Bullivant of today.
It was through this general contracting work, notably on the No.2 gas feeder main from Norfolk through to Birmingham that Bullivant became one of the UK’s leading grouting specialists.
“The quantity surveyor working with me told me to get two P13 grout pumps for the work,” he says. “I asked why as they cost over £20,000 each.”
The reason was to enable the pipeline to be pushed under roads using thrust boring techniques and avoid major disruption during the construction.
Bullivant’s move into the ground stabilisation market came when the National House Building Council (NHBC) asked for help to repair homes damaged by subsidence.
“A lot of ground floor slabs on houses used to be built on top of the unconsolidated material that was thrown into the centre when the strip foundations were excavated,” he explains. “The result was settlement of the slab and the internal walls - it was a big problem for the NHBC.
“The conventional approach to repair involved demolishing the internal walls and slab and rebuilding them. It was costly and disruptive for the homeowner as it could take 13 weeks to complete.”
Because of his grouting knowledge Bullivant was invited to come up with an alternative.
His solution involved drilling holes through the floor slab and pumping in grout to fill the voids and lift the floor and internal walls back up into position.
It took a fraction of the time to complete - just a week - and costs were much lower.
The business took off and allowed Bullivant to start investing in more research.
“Until we start work on site many homeowners feel they have been messed around by insurers and loss adjusters so it is important they feel we understand the stress they are under”
“I was worried that the solution was too easy and started to research the problem in more depth. I became worried that the subsidence could recur due to further consolidation,” he says. “I told the NHBC of my concerns.”
Subsidence did happen at some sites, but Bullivant devised another solution - combining the grouting with 75mm diameter pin piles at 1m centres and to around 2m depth to provide additional support.
It was around this time that Patch joined Bullivant. “I came from a large contractor background and to me the 75mm diameter pile was more of a tent peg than a pile,” he says.
Patch says that working for Bullivant was very different from working for other contractors.
“We were working far more closely with the public than many engineers do and we needed to be more tolerant as a result,” he says. “For Roger, it was a personal quest to train his staff in how to deal with the company’s customers and make sure they were happy with the service.”
Bullivant adds: “Until we start work on site many homeowners feel they have been messed around by insurers and loss adjusters so it is important they feel we understand the stress they are under. While we have been working in this business I have seen some people commit suicide because of the high level of stress that problems with your home can cause.”
Bullivant adds that this is something that he feels a great hurt over.
It is clear, though, that Bullivant is not ready to give up work and the sale of the foundations company is giving him more time to focus on new projects.
In addition to the Posteritas consultancy, he is working on plans to develop 2,200 homes - to be known as Drakelow Park - on the site his former business occupies.
“I expect he will drive a hard bargain when it comes to the foundations,” jokes Patch.
Bullivant wants the development to be iconic and is looking at some of the UK’s best-known planned communities, such as Bourneville, Saltaire and Poundbury, to draw ideas on what works and what doesn’t for his own site.
Work on a link road with a new bridge over the river is already underway and work on the housing site is due to start in spring 2012.
Financially fit for the future
In 2007, Bullivant was turning over £150M with £110M coming from the foundations side of the business.
But like the rest of the construction industry, the company suffered a fall in demand in the recession and the foundations contribution dropped to £60M in 2008.
According to John Patch, the market eased slightly in 2010 with the company recording a turnover of £65M. It is on track for sales of £70M in 2011.
While Bachy Soletanche’s investment in the business may have surprised many, the two businesses complement each other well.
“Bachy undertakes 200 jobs a year but Bullivant does in the region of 2,000,” says Patch.
“We have 220 working days a year and eight area offices - statistically we start a new job at every area office every day,” he adds. “We have a hit rate of around 30% so we have to generate 7,000 enquiries a year to maintain this level of business. Bachy solely targets the larger projects, whereas we still focus on the smaller schemes.”
Bullivant has made a name for itself in working on challenging projects.
The company has carried out underpinning on historic structures including Windsor Castle and Warwick Castle and has undertaken a number of projects with difficult access.
“I recall one scheme in London’s Park Lane where we had to dismantle a rig to pass it through a basement window of a restaurant in order to carry out some underpinning,” says marketing, business development and sales director John Patch.
Patch believes that it is the company’s awareness of its customers’ sensitivities that has helped the business to thrive.