There can be little doubt that the economic downturn has hit smaller firms the hardest. Which makes it especially important to recognise and celebrate the outstanding achievements of UK civil engineering’s smaller contractors.
More from: Market report: No need to panic
This year’s winner, I & H Brown is a firm that has undergone something of a transformation in recent years, and is beginning to reap the rewards. Its financial performance speaks for itself, with turnover significantly up and a very robust order book. Our highly commended small firm, Dew Construction (Oldham), is also on the rise, and is expecting to break into new sectors in the near future.
Winner: I & H Brown
I & H Brown has worked as a subbie on the M80 widening project
Once considered to be predominantly a bulk earthworks contractor, albeit with a specialist niche in contaminated land remediation, I & H Brown has evolved considerably over the past 10 years − and without losing sight of its core strengths. The approach is paying dividends, because the firm is operating on a good margin and has plenty of work in its order book.
“I believe the market recognises that our wider range of capabilities now includes major drainage, roadworks and infrastructure schemes,” says contracts director Roger Philpott.
“I am proud that we have achieved our goals of broadening the scale and scope of our projects, without losing the distinctive style and values I like to think our clients appreciate.”
Times are tough for the likes of I & H Brown − but the firm has been quick thinking and flexible in its approach to winning new work. “We have carefully reviewed our cost base and our operating procedures,” explains Philpott.
“We have strengthened our links with our supply chain and have looked at forming joint ventures with other contractors, where we believe our particular strengths can add value to a bid.
“Although our normal role is principal contractor, we have been prepared to work as a subcontractor when circumstances are appropriate,” he says, citing its work with the Highway Management Contractors consortium on the M80 widening project.
“We have been working in partnership with Highway Management Contractors since July 2007, initially to assist their bid for the M80 Stepps to Haggs motorway extension.
The complex bid took place in numerous phases and I believe that we performed creditably and professionally throughout. HMC was duly awarded the project in January 2009 and we have been on site since March undertaking a package of bulk earthworks, drainage and capping that is worth around £20M.”
“We have been prepared to work as a subcontractor when circumstances are appropriate.”
Roger Philpott, I & H Brown
If that project is going well, Philpott says the firm’s work in Glasgow for the 2014 Commonwealth Games is going even better.
There, the firm has been on site for Glasgow City Council since June last year, carrying out the first major enabling works project for the Games.
“We were delighted to prequalify for the tender and then honoured to be entrusted with the delivery of such a prestigious scheme. Throughout the project, worth in excess of £12M, we have worked closely with client and designer to refine the design and to respond to a number of challenges that have arisen.
The job has gone very well to date and I am certain that it has convinced a lot of people that I & H Brown is comfortable with major infrastructure projects.”
Opportunities for growth
Philpott is realistic about the opportunities for growth while the industry remains in recession, but says it is not time to panic. “Our focus has always been on margin, rather than turnover. We shall not seek work in wholly unfamiliar sectors.
“Instead, we shall look to build on our current core skills and on the expertise of our people. We shall continue to work speculatively with potential clients, to add value to their proposed schemes through market knowledge, innovation and value engineering. Although most of those schemes are likely to stay on the shelf in the present climate, I expect that several will provide opportunities for us when conditions improve.”
- Civils turnover: £32M
- Civils profit: £3.2M
- Civils work in hand: £28.7M
- Overall turnover: £37.5M
- Pretax profit: £1.88M
- Total workforce: 133
- Engineers employed: 12
Dew Construction (Oldham)
Times may be hard, but Dew Construction remains ambitious − a flexible approach and a desire for expansion into new markets is set to bring rewards in the near future.
“Our rolling business plan has focused our attention on creating a diverse but focused civils business looking for an optimum blend of work across sectors which include highways, rail, waterways, industrial and pharmaceutical, waste and general infrastructure,” explains construction director Les Matthews.
“Our focus on securing work manageable from our bases in the north west and the Midlands means we did not overstretch ourselves in the ‘boom’ times, and our skillsets allow us to be able to work as either a principal contractor or as a supply chain partner. This flexibility has enabled us to successfully deliver work packages from a few tens of thousands of pounds up to multi-millions and keeps us lean but not mean!” he says.
Optimistic for the future
Matthews is also optimistic for the future. “We believe that a number of the market sectors in which we are active are poised for a bounce and that we are well placed to improve our market penetration within these sectors.
“I’m proud of our record of repeat orders from clients and by delivering continuous improvements to our service delivery, I’m certain we can look forward to sustainable long-term growth,” he says.
Dew’s principal client is the Highways Agency, and its biggest challenge over the last year or so has been meeting the demands of the Agency’s Journey Time Reliability initiative: that is, minimising the disruption that occupation of the carriageway creates for the travelling public.
“Weekend, off peak and night working has created massive demands on individuals, the supply chain and on our organisation, but I’m pleased to say that we have risen well to the challenge and have delivered quality work, on time and to budget,” he says.
“By delivering continuous improvements to our service delivery, I’m certain we can look forward to sustainable long-term growth.”
Les Matthews, Dew Construction
Tight programming was also a feature of the firm’s successful £4M, 41-week project for Gaz de France/COGAP in the Cheshire brine fields. There, works consisted primarily of reinforced concrete, drainage and duct work, along with road and paving works.
Programme periods were tight and the scheme had a series of key completion dates allowing others to start process works. “Despite a significant array of unexpected challenges we hit all the key delivery dates asked of us and that we have agreed the final account within six weeks of leaving site,” says Matthews.
People are important at Dew, recognised this year by the firm achieving Investor in People accreditation. “We value our people and have invested significant time, energies and money in training and development and in ensuring the ethos of the business is supportive of innovative ideas and creative of an environment that ensures we deliver to our clients a high level of service,” says Matthews.
- Civils turnover: £19.5M
- Civils profit: £0.28M
- Civils work in hand: £10M
- Overall turnover: £19.5M
- Pretax profit: £0.28M
- Total workforce: 43
- Engineers employed: 5
NCE/CECA Contractors of the Year Awards: Small firm award