Inspection, testing and compliance services firm ESG is gearing up for an upturn in workload on the back of High Speed 2 and growth in the highways market. NCE reports.
There is no question that High Speed 2 is the most sought after, eagerly anticipated civil engineering project to hit the UK for decades. Consultants, contractors, environmental assessment firms, ecology experts and project managers are all lining up to vie for a slice of the £42bn pie.
Among the first to benefit will be ground investigation firms. Site investigation work for the first London to Birmingham phase is now out to tender and it promises to stretch the UK-based resource to breaking point.
Indeed, experts have already warned that the UK market will be unable to cope, prompting an influx of Continental rivals who, once here, will stay and claim a permanent foothold in our market.
Inspection, testing and compliance services expert ESG is preparing to tackle these challenges and stave off foreign competition. It is well aware of the opportunities presented by HS2 and a recovery in the civils market generally, and is enacting a plan that will see its geotechnical division grow by 43 staff this year.
It is a seminal moment for the firm. While ESG’s geotechnical services division is an amalgamation of six or seven acquisitions, at its core is Soil Mechanics, which turns 70 this year. It’s a notable landmark.
But managing director of the division Philip Ball is keen not to overplay this landmark, focusing instead on efforts spent in the last year on unifying the business and winning work.
This effort continues into 2014 and is critical when it comes to winning work with major UK clients.
“We have got to work really hard at getting all the previous businesses working together,” he explains.
We are really optimistic about 2014, particularly the end of it and then into early 2015, and especially if HS2 kicks off
But it’s an approach that is demonstrably working. In the last 12 months, the firm has secured work with major clients across the UK.
The highlight has been a £1.3M ground investigation contract as part of the Scottish Government’s plans to dual the A9 north of Perth.
The first phase is nearing completion and more ground investigation contracts are being tendered now.
Other wins have resulted in the firm working on the Borders Rail and Swansea Bay Tidal projects in Wales, Crossrail’s Connaught tunnel in London and the Birmingham Gateway in the West Midlands.
“We have national clients wanting national services,” states Ball, adding th at the firm does also have a lot of regionally-based clients that still want a more localised, personal service.
But it is the national clients that really excite right now, with High Speed 2 promoter HS2 Ltd top of the pile.
“We are really optimistic about 2014, particularly the end of it and then into early 2015, and especially if HS2 kicks off,” he says.
This optimism is translating directly into growth.
“So as a result we are still looking to immediately bring in 35 people out of 43 vacancies that we have identified,” he explains.
The firm is looking for a range of skills and experiences, from apprentice field operatives, through to business development managers and estimators, right up to senior managers.
And with good people hard to find, ESG has been happy to recruit those with no hands on ground investigation experience.
“It is comforting to know that we can get people from outside the ground investigation world to mix with the core team,” says Ball.
We’ve recently invested in the very latest surveying systems to ensure we are in the very best position to maximise opportunities
But one skill that Ball is keen for new recruits to bring is hard-nosed commercial acumen.
“The market has changed,” he notes. “In the past, a lot of our work was done with consultants and local authority clients. Now it is done with much more commercially aware and assertive tier one contractors,” he explains.
“Gone are the days of working to a gentleman’s agreement”, he explains. “Now staff have to know what they are doing by the letter of the contract.”
To prepare staff for this bold new world, ESG has done a lot of work on its in-house training programme.
“We’ve done a lot of preparation with operations managers,” explains Ball.
“First to look at what the need will be, then to put in place a mentoring and training regime, and then as new people have come on board, to review the effectiveness of the programme.
“It’s been a major task and we think we’re well prepared.”
Joining the team
One of the first to experience the new approach is geophysicist Tom Smith, who joined the firm’s geophysics and surveying team just before Christmas.
Smith is a recent graduate from the University of Liverpool where, as a mature student, he studied geophysics. He says ESG’s heritage, reputation and plans for the future were all factors in his decision to join the firm.
“It is great to be working with such a well-respected and long-established company, joining at a time of expansion and exciting business opportunities.s
With a strong existing customer base and a healthy pipeline of prospective projects it will be great to be part of the business as it expands and moves forward.”
Smith’s enthusiasm sums up ESG’s people-first approach to growth.
But in the inspection and testing sector it is not all about people. Kit is important too. And here too ESG is investing.
“We’ve recently invested in the very latest surveying systems and technologies to ensure we are in the very best position to maximise business opportunities and support our business as it grows and diversifies throughout 2014 and beyond,” notes Ball.
Time will tell, especially if HS2 work comes to fruition.
Case study: Gavin Hart on Connaught Tunnel
“The Connaught Tunnel is 550m long, 17m below ground level and was originally constructed in 1878 to take Crossrail under the Connaught Passage, a water link which connected Royal Victoria Dock and Royal Albert Dock.
The tunnel was earmarked to become part of the Crossrail development and to accommodate modern rolling stock and overhead line equipment the tunnel had to be enlarged.
ESG was appointed by Crossrail to act as principal contractor for undertaking the ground investigation work. The primary aim of the ground investigation was to establish the strength of the structural elements of the single arch tunnel invert and determine the structural interaction with the brick-lined wall.
This involved identifying the main geological, geotechnical, chemical and contamination hazards within the ground surrounding the tunnel by using both innovative and conventional exploration methods.
“The project had to be completed within a difficult working environment which presented a number of challenges, especially with regards to dealing with artesian groundwater pressures. These had to be solved using innovative and original solutions.
Working closely with colleagues and stakeholders allowed the site team to successfully deliver a challenging project while providing individuals with the opportunity to assist with the development of a solution to refurnish a historic tunnel to meet the requirements of a modern railway infrastructure.”
- Gavin Hart is a geotechnical engineer at ESG