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Hydrock has grown from two staff to more than 100 in only eight years. Max Soudain investigates the secret behind this success.

Long gone are the days when UK firms could keep staff happy with an annual day out to Blackpool Pleasure Beach in a charabanc.

Today, companies have to offer a bit more than a donkey ride and a kiss-me-quick hat.

'The annual skiing trip to Europe is a good way of getting to know people and the staff really appreciate it, ' says Hydrock managing director Brian McConnell.

McConnell established the firm on 1 January 1996, working out of his living room.

In May that year he was joined by Hamish OrrEwing, civil engineering director.

Eight years later, Hydrock employs more than 100 people across its two divisions, Hydrock Consultants and Hydrock Contracting.

Whether this phenomenal growth is purely down to offering a winter sports trip is questionable, but retention of employees is clearly high on McConnell's agenda.'We have virtually zero turnover of staff, ' he says.

By November 1996, the firm was ready to employ its first member of staff. 'It was a bit 'chicken and egg', ' McConnell recalls. 'We had to have enough work to take someone on, but we also had to have someone to increase our capability to allow us to take more work on.'

The core of Hydrock's business was, and still is, consultancy, including geological and geotechnical investigations, structural and civil engineering, tunnelling and environmental work. Between 30% and 40% of the work is geotechnical and geoenvironmental investigations for house builders.

'We like working for small clients as our involvement in the project is greater, ' McConnell explains. But the company also has larger, long-term contracts with major clients such as the Ministry of Defence, which account for about a fifth of the division's workload.

The contracting arm was formed in 2002, mainly in response to a contract from Bath and North East Somerset Council for emergency stabilisation of Combe Down stone mines in Bath (GE October 2002).

Abandoned 150 years ago, the mine system covers about 16ha, much of it under residential areas and roads. Hydrock's contract involves excavating stone and driving roadways through the mines to carry out stabilisation by pumping foam concrete, spraying concrete and pneumatically placing stone.

This work is on-going, with a 12-month, £5M extension awarded last year and a decision on further stabilisation work pending.

'We got into contracting when it was warranted, ie when the client wanted us to - and when it was profitable, ' McConnell explains.

He believes Hydrock has retained staff by taking on interesting contracts, creating opportunities for employees and by making work 'dynamic and enjoyable' This is backed up by geoenvironmental director Adam Fisher: 'Senior staff are really enthusiastic about the work and this rubs off on junior staff, ' he says.

A good working environment is vital in recruiting the best staff, particularly during a skills shortage, McConnell adds. 'A lot of talent has left the industry.While there are still lots of good people out there, they are spread thinly - the right people are there if you want them.'

While an MSc or even a PhD is a good selling point (the firm employs eight PhDs, many of whom carried out research under Brian Hawkins at Bristol University), 'what's more important is that they are able to interact with other team members and clients and that they are enthusiastic, 'McConnell says.

'While we can give new recruits on-the-job training, we can't train them to have a personality.'

Employee ownership is also very important.

'I want staff to own the firm, not just metaphorically but financially.' Of his own share, he says: 'I would rather have a smaller part of something good than all of something mediocre.'

The firm's success comes from a combination of hard work - 'We have worked our butts off ' - and good luck. Most of its growth has come during a buoyant period for the UK construction sector.

'But we have taken some risks. As a small company you often sail close to the wind.

Anyone in the same situation who says they haven't is either a liar or very lucky.'

McConnell believes Hydrock's core activity will remain ground-led geoenvironmental work. 'New clients tend to come to us with a ground-related problem but later they realise we have some above ground capability as well.'

Expansion is still on the agenda.'Our growth so far has been based on workload. Now, with our established client and work base, the firm's situation is more secure and we are able to speculate more.' Expansion will also be geographical, with offices opening in the Midlands and south east England, he adds.

McConnell says he and the other directors have no intention of cashing in on success.

'We don't want to sell Hydrock and any suggestion has always been nipped in the bud.

We don't have an exit strategy - we have a 'staying-in' strategy, ' he says.

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