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There are advantages and pitfalls in setting up your own business, as Barry McMahon of Aspin Foundations can testify.

Are some people genetically predisposed to be self-employed or run their own company?

The career of Barry McMahon, co-founder and managing director of contractor Aspin Foundations makes an interesting case study.

Only 15 months after graduating from Nottingham Trent University with a fi rst class degree in civil engineering, he had set up Barry McMahon Engineering Services, and at the age of 24 was lead geotechnical engineer on the Daventry International Freight Terminal.

McMahon says: 'From age 11, I boarded at Coleraine Academical Institution. It was a harsh, regimented environment, but it taught me how to adapt to survive and instilled a work ethic and sense of independence.' After 14 months with consultant Joynes Pike & Associates in Nuneaton (Howard Joynes had been a strong infl uence on McMahon as a lecturer at university), he set up as a freelance geotechnical engineer.

'One of the first jobs I won was on the M1 motorway widening contract in Leicestershire for Kee Construction Services. It opened my eyes to the fact that price is not the only factor in winning work - developing strong inter-personal skills and networking are just as important.' Soon after this project completed, McMahon found himself working for Galliford Midlands on the Daventry International Freight Terminal. 'My role was to grade the 156,000mgreater than or equal to of muck shifted each week. The top grade was suitable for general fi ll purposes, and the lowest was fit for nothing.' McMahon spent the next five years as a contracts manager at underpinning, foundations and piling contractor Abbey Pynford. But in 2000 he again went freelance, joining forces with his university friend Andy Hoffman for 12 months to do a Railtrack-sponsored research and development project. During this period, the idea of the steel pin foundation took shape.

'Unusually for an Irishman, the genesis of the steel pin idea involved long evenings of pontification, brainstorming and a glass or two of red wine, ' McMahon recalls.

'We discovered a similar concept was being patented. Andy and I bought out the owner, refined the product in the light of our research and submitted a revised patent application in our own names.' The idea is very simple. A road rail piling rig spins a pre-fabricated hollow steel pin into the ground. For deeper pins, additional segments are added on.

'The steel pin is unlikely to be cost-effective on a greenfield site with straightforward access, where time is not a major issue, ' McMahon says.

'However on a rail project, time is of the essence. It probably costs a contractor about £4,000 just to mobilise to site for a weekend night-shift.

'A steel pin foundation can be used straight away - there's no need to wait for any concrete to set. On many projects, the steel pin already has a transfer plate pre-welded to the final segment so the gantry can be erected straight away.' 'A steel pin' became shortened to Aspin, and Aspin Foundations launched in February 2001. The first job was for traditional concrete foundations. Originally valued at £86,000, the contract was eventually worth over £500,000.

'The secret was customer service, ' McMahon says. 'It was also important that both Andy and I started out 'on the tools', so we are fully aware of practical problems on site.' The profits generated by this first contract, combined with the burgeoning success of the steel pin foundation, led to considerable growth and within three years turnover had reached £6.5M.

Aspin now had more than 65 employees and owned a fleet of specialist rail vehicles. But the company was about to face the toughest period of its short life, and came perilously close to going under.

'We took our eye off the ball and had become too dependent on Railtrack and the rail sector in general, ' McMahon says. 'We were promised all sorts of contracts and had started to mobilise the manpower resources to fulfi l them. When Network Rail pulled back to review investment, we were left with massive overheads and very little income.' Aspin's response was diversification and rationalisation. 'Sadly, the first thing we had to do was to release a large number of good people. Then we created new divisions focusing on telecommunications and underpinning and foundations.' Over the past 18 months the company has recovered and its turnover is again over £5M. 'I've had to learn some hard business lessons, ' McMahon says. 'First, listen closely to what the market is telling you. Don't believe you can buck the trend. Second, live and plan for today. Don't base your expenditure on 'what might be'. Third, build the right mix of work to sustain your business through the hard times.

Our day to day telecoms work for Galliford Try Communications and our foundations work using spun piles, complement our rail projects which mainly run at the weekend.' McMahon believes the company's future is bright, because the steel pin is now considered a potential solution on virtually all railway signalling and overhead line contracts.

Aspin will soon be moving to new offi es in Hemel Hempstead, and has just won its first supply, design and construct contract - a £1.5M project for the signal gantries on the Portsmouth to London line.

McMahon says: 'My main piece of advice for anybody thinking of pursuing a career in civil or railway engineering is to ensure you take time out. It's an interesting and absorbing profession, but just remember to get the right work-life balance which will allow you to recharge your batteries.'

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