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Master of all trades

NCE CONTRACTORS FILE - At 16 years old C Spencer is barely out of short trousers, but the contractor is already a force to be reckoned with.

C Spencer punches above its weight in the gladiatorial world of contracting, notes operations manager Alan Jones. 'We tend to come up against the bigger boys.' And Spencer is showing winning form, with an enviable portfolio of work in its core disciplines of bridges and ports and harbours, while expanding into transport as well as buildings.

The North Lincolnshire firm's turnover has bounded from £25M last year to £63M this, and it has £68M on its order books for next year. Profits are even more impressive, up from £500,000 last year to £2.2M.

In the eight years that Jones has been with the firm the number of staff has grown from 28 to 230.

What gives C Spencer more oomph than you might expect from a firm its size is partly a company-wide appetite - stemming from founder Charlie Spencer - for challenging projects. Its role as the enabling contractor for intrusive investigation of the Forth Road Bridge main suspension cables seems fairly characteristic.

'This involves exposing sections of main cables - it's the first time intrusive inspection has been done, ' Jones notes. With specialist designer Bennetts, C Spencer has designed a fully enclosed cradle that enables workers to unwrap and drive wedges into the cables 100m above the Forth Estuary.

'We are established as a business that knows bridges - moving bridges especially.

Swing, retracting, rolling bascule, lifting bridges. We've done them all.' The Forth cable inspection job was won on the strength of C Spencer's formidable track record, which enabled it to compete successfully against major contractors, Jones contends.

But C Spencer's success is also made possible by the firm's unusual structure and modus operandi, he says.

C Spencer is less a single company than a collection of 28 semi-autonomous business units, and it is not a contractor in the conventional sense.

The 28 sub-businesses are all geared to working closely with the firm's clients, says Jones.

'There's a lot of talk about delivering value, but you have to understand those things on which the client places value.' The small teams help C Spencer's staff get to know and integrate with their clients, giving the firm detailed insight into each client's desires and priorities.

'It's that which generates growth, ' Jones emphasises.

'Once we understand and demonstrate our understanding we find the client wants to re-use us.

'We seek to work for those clients who can give us repeat business, and we've started to find that linkages occur in different business arenas.' Many train operators which C Spencer has worked with also operate bus services, and the firm is picking up depot projects in both sectors, Jones says by way of example.

'If you try to grow and keep centralised it's quite difficult to follow the threads. With this devolved structure each team is pursuing its own line of business.' The firm has recently been on a recruitment drive 'looking for entrepreneurs'.

Jones notes that C Spencer's offices in Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, York, Hull, Barrow, and shortly in Barton and Hatfield, do not fix down and define the teams, which shrink and grow as work demands and people move about the country.

C Spencer has an unusually large design capability for a contractor. It was responsible for design on £40M worth of the work it completed last year.

'Dealing with technical and logistical challenges has led towards the integration of design and construction, ' Jones explains. Rather than subcontract out difficult construction to another firm C Spencer would rather do the work itself.

'There's a high level of building and M&E work done in house.

We're bringing a multi-disciplinary approach, ' says Jones.

Vital statistics

Company: C Spencer

Head office: Barrow on Humber, North Lincolnshire

UK civil engineering turnover: £63M

Civils turnover as percentage of overall: 100%

UK civil engineering profit: £2.2M

UK civil engineering work in hand: £68M

Biggest clients: Local government (£10M): Network Rail (£32M)

Biggest sectors: Rail (£40M); Buildings (£8M); Ports/ harbours (£7M); Coastal/ flooding (£4M); Roads (£4M) Biggest growth areas: Ports/harbours; Power/energy

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