From working for himself in his bedroom to running a £3M turnover company, BCS Design managing director Steve Osbaldeston has built a business with a growing reputation.
Anyone who has ever dreamed of leaving a large firm to set up and run their own business could learn a lot from BCS Design managing director Steve Osbaldeston, who started out as a “one man band” 11 years, working out of his spare bedroom. Soon after, he was joined by Martin Cure – now a director – and between them they grew the business to the point where it now employs 40 engineers and turns over £3M a year.
“We built the business from scratch, initially doing small house extensions and timber frame buildings,” recalls Osbaldeston. “But we had a skill base in the rail industry, and we both knew people in that industry, and slowly but surely we started to get rail work.”
“When we started, and people rang us up, it would be myself or Martin answering the phone, so they would get a top quality level of service delivery,” he continues.
We find that by dealing with small businesses that are of the same ethos, we are not hindered by large company politics
He says it took about two years for the company to really get up and running, after which it became “self-perpetuating”, growing to around 10 people simply by employing friends and former colleagues, many of whom had become disillusioned with life at larger consultancies. Since then, steady growth in the number of employees has reflected the firm’s ability to increase its workload, mainly in rail, but also in temporary works and highway structures. “We have grown because of the service level we offer, and we have very rarely tendered for work – most is repeat business,” says Osbaldeston.
Winning more work
One long-term client is contractor BCM, which approached BCS in the consultant’s early days, as it was trying to win more design and construct work in the rail sector. It has been a success for both parties, “They grew on it and we grew on it,” says Osbaldeston. Work they have done together includes a lot of resignalling work in tunnels in central London, with BCS providing engineers to supplement the contractor’s management structure during overnight possessions.
Another turning point was being appointed to design platform extensions for the outer stations on the Thameslink upgrade, followed by a contract with Carillion to design the route’s new stabling sidings at Brighton. On that job, BCS was responsible for designing everything bar the signalling, which required the firm to find other firms to provide the expertise it didn’t have, explains. Osbaldeston. “We didn’t have the work stream to sustain all of these disciplines in house, so we partnered with specialist firms of a similar size,” he says. “We find that by dealing with small businesses that are of the same ethos, we are not hindered by large company politics, and we can be very proactive and very flexible.”
The company operates what Osbaldeston says is a very flat management structure, with its strategy being to put one person – an engineer – in charge of each job, and responsible for every aspect of that job.
“They look after everything – commercial, technical, delivery – everything. If we’re doing a really big job, and it becomes difficult for one person to control, then we will put in more tiers, but they will all be engineers,” Osbaldeston adds.
Osbaldeston says that engineers at BCS get far more “hands on” work than they might at bigger companies, as well as more autonomy and responsibility. “That empowers the staff more. It gives them more responsibility and a better working environment. People want to make decisions.”
Customers want a one stop, multidisciplinary service, and that’s a big step for us
The firm does not have an ICE-accredited training programme, but follows the ICE’s model closely, and has a good record of helping young engineers get their membership qualifications. “It’s really important for us that they get chartered. They are the future of the business and the profession,” says Osbaldeston.
He admits that he worries about growth – particularly maintaining the levels of quality and service that have given the company its good reputation and brought in repeat business. “We place a great deal great deal of importance on this as a business and fortunately we are still up there,” he says.
So while the business will continue to grow, the strategy is to maintain quality by creating individual business units for each discipline. At the moment there are three of these units – BCS Design itself, contracting arm BCS Solutions, and BCS Surveying. “We’ve packaged the business into three areas where we believe we can grow while keeping the personal service,” says Osbaldeston. The firm is also likely to move into areas where it currently partners with other small consultants, such as multi-disciplinary design, ground investigation and environmental engineering.
“Customers want a one stop, multidisciplinary service, and that’s a big step for us,” he says, explaining that a job like the Brighton stabling sidings required six or seven diff erent disciplines. “Our strategy is to pick these off in small chunks – for examples taking permanent way, and growing that, but at the moment we can deliver consistently by having a reliable supply chain.”
Showcasing BCS Design values
Steve Osbaldeston describes three civil or structural engineering consultancy projects that show something important about him firm. “Often, winners of award ceremonies present high profile iconic and visually exciting works,” he says. “At BCS, we embrace the root values of the civil engineering profession, delivering a plethora of lower key, but no less vital and often technically challenging infrastructure schemes.
BCS has had a design presence on the Thameslink programme since 2008, including designing stabling sidings at both Brighton and Horsham. These multidisciplinary schemes involve track, signalling, high voltage power, communications, CCTV, civils, and traction power systems. “Delivering these turnkey projects to the requisite quality, on budget and to deadline, proves BCS to be a credible and competent alternative to the ‘establishment’, able to deliver complex multi-disciplinary works,” says Osbaldeston.
Western zone resignalling
BCS was responsible for surveys, ground investigation and detailed design for new signalling infrastructure over 290km of operational railway, an enabling project that involved numerous changes that required rapid turnaround and allocation of resource. “This project demonstrates the benefits of a flat management structure with clear accountability of empowered individuals working to demanding and changing deadlines,” says Osbaldeston.
The M40 DBFO is an alliance between UK Highways and BCS to manage and maintain the motorway’s structures asset over the 30 year franchise. As part of the alliance, BCS recently designed and constructed a scheme to replace life-expired bearings and build a new central pier to a major interchange structure over the live M40, using its own on-house construction business. The scheme was an alternative design that achieved a 50% cost saving and is, says Osbaldeston, “an excellent example of how long term collaborative frameworks can deliver cost effective yet technically robust solutions to the industry”.