Insight

Meet the members: Keeping good company

2 February 2014

Denise Chevin meets three members and heads of Chartered Building Companies who put high stock on customer service, quality of work and traditional values. Photographs by Mischa Haller.

Patrick Burke MCIOB, director, Burmor Construction

Burmor Construction is a testament to the resilience of the traditional family building firm. Like many other SMEs it’s been squeezed out of its usual hunting grounds by local authority frameworks. But thanks to a hefty contract win in the social housing sector, 2013 was still the Peterborough-based general building contractor’s busiest yet.

That’s not to say it’s not been through the mill during recession, says director Patrick Burke MCIOB. “Prices for building work have collapsed, so you’re doing things close to cost with just enough margin to keep things going, leaving no room for error. You find yourself having to work 10 times as hard just to make sure there are no mistakes.

“Then suddenly there are a glut of tenders as there are now – so I’m working weekends and evenings, doing three or four tenders in a month that might normally take three to four weeks each. The competition for work is still so strong.”

Old-fashioned virtues of integrity, respect for people, and a commitment to training are part of Burmor’s DNA, so Burke is proud of the fact that it didn’t lose any of its 40 employees during the recession – and the fact that the company continued taking on apprentices.

“We’ve even managed to give staff a small pay rise, it was us saying we’re committed to survive this recession and it was good for motivation and hopefully it worked. The majority of our staff have worked at the company for over 20 years, our longest serving member been here for 33 years.”

About half of its £5.7m worth of work is building new homes for housing associations, and the rest is a mixture of school and hospital work and some private residential. Plumbing and heating is separated off as a separate company and all electrics, plastering and decorating is subcontracted out. It is also building a very small number of new homes.

"The majority of our staff have worked at the company for over 20 years, our longest serving member been here for 33 years."

Patrick Burke

Burmor was started in 1978 by Burke’s father Pat and Pat’s brother-in-law (Giovanni “John” Morza, hence Burmor). They were aged 27 and 32 at the time and both had a trades background. His late grandfather Pat was also a co-founder. Burke joined aged 22 after a degree at Keele in history and politics. He trained on the job as an estimator and went to college for five years for one day a week to a get a degree in quantity surveying. He still does Bills of Quantities by hand – though he sees architects and clients using BIM as driving change that will benefit building firms like Burmor.

The company is now owned by Burke, his father, uncle and cousin. His uncle retired in November and he expects his father to retire in a couple of years.

Burke says he doesn’t want the company to change too much. “We like the way the company is set up and the people we are working with,” he says. “Our goals are to get environmental and quality management systems in place and get the appropriate accreditation, which might open doors to us in terms of getting on frameworks.”

At one time Burmor won much work for Cambridgeshire County Council, and then Peterborough City Council, both of which have gone down the framework route. He says he wouldn’t be surprised if councils start to rethink these policies, because employing bigger firms ends up costing them more and the cash they spend is not recycled in the local economy.

That said, he is confident there will always be a place for local building firms that can offer a personal service and at lower cost than the nationals.

So will there be a next generation coming into Burmor? “After you’ve worked all hours during the recession, it feels difficult to say it’s something I’d definitely want for my daughter, but hopefully it might get a bit easier now. Having a father in the industry certainly didn’t put me off, it’s a fascinating job.”

Patrick Burke Q&A

What do you get from being a Chartered Building Company?
It’s a great mark for consumers to realise that we’re not a fly-by-night operator. I think it counts for a lot. They might not understand precisely what it means but they can get the gist of it. We wouldn’t promote the fact we are a CBC on our hard hats and hi-vis jackets if we didn’t think it was a benefit.

What bit of business advice would you offer?
Building’s a complicated business and sometimes clients change things which might make the job run late, but not realise why. At these sort of times picking up the phone and having a cup of coffee goes a long way.

What would you like to see government change?
I’d like to see debate on frameworks. Are they the right way to go? And do they benefit the local economy?

Where would you like Burmor to be in five years?
I’d like to see us grow to around £7m, and see more young trainees coming into the office – and to have more accreditations.

Rob Hooker MCIOB, co-founder, Greendale Construction

Greendale Construction is one of those companies that can be confidently described as punching above its weight. The Poole-based Chartered Building Company combines the hallmarks of a traditional regional contractor, yet it’s perfectly on trend with where the industry is heading. Greendale is building its first Passivhaus scheme, has embraced offsite manufacturing techniques, lapped up social media and for 2014 has BIM in its sights.

Its portfolio of work mirrors its eclectic mix of expertise – from renovating historic castles, schools and car show rooms, to delivering the sort of minimalist homes that find their way on to Grand Designs. It’s not surprising, perhaps, that director and co-founder Chris Kane MCIOB was drafted on to a strategic panel which fed into the 2025 Industrial Strategy for Construction.

“Yes we were delighted to be involved with that,” says director and co-founder Rob Hooker. “All that has to happen is for some of those aspirations to be delivered. We’d particularly like to see more support for SMEs and more investment in training across the board in our industry.”

Greendale was set up by Hooker and Kane in 1990 when the market could not have been tougher. Both have a background working for large contractors, and met when they were both working for Southampton-based Horton Construction. Hooker was a contracts manager and Kane a site manager. They still share the ownership 50:50 but have recently drafted two other directors to the board, one being an FCIOB. 80% of the company’s work is within 50 miles of the office, though Greendale is hoping to expand along the M3 corridor and eastwards and is planning a new office in Winchester to help grow turnover to £15m by 2015.

"I think the reason we've done so well is that we're strong on marketing – social media, face to face and we have a great portfolio of referral work."

Rob Hooker

“From the outset we wanted a strong accent on delivering high-quality buildings with a professional service delivering good value to customers,” says Hooker.

“We’ve grown organically to reach a turnover of 10 million and now employ 50 staff including trades people, site managers and surveyors. Our ethos is still to have a directly employed workforce to deliver our projects. Building is noisy and inconvenient, and everyone wants it to end. So as a process it has to be done carefully and we pride ourselves on that. We plan our work so as to create the least disruption – out of hours say, or manufacturing offsite.”

Hooker says they can find themselves stuck in the middle between “the man and a van builder” and the big national contractors, the plight of many SMEs. But he says: “I think the reason we’ve done so well is that we’re strong on marketing – social media, face to face and we have a great portfolio of referral work.”

During the past five years Greendale has been slightly cushioned from the full brunt of the recession by the continued buoyancy of the local market. “There has not been the downturn in this part of the world, it’s still a growth area and a number of large businesses have moved to the Bournemouth area, which has helped us as builders.”

Workload is split 65% commercial and public sector with the rest coming from private residential, including homes on the mega-wealthy enclave of Sandbanks.

Greendale is careful, though, to limit the volume of domestic work – the emotional attachment from clients can make these projects risky ventures. “It certainly takes a special type of manager to do these jobs and a big resource of the company,” admits Hooker.

Hooker is moderately optimistic about the year ahead: “There are definitely more enquiries coming though. We are looking forward to tender margins improving, but these will not rise by more than 1%.

“A lot of good people are pricing jobs. People who can afford to build are still getting a really good deal.”

Rob Hooker Q&A

What do you get from being a Chartered Building Company?
It’s not something we get asked about that often, but I’m convinced it adds to our overall standing in the industry to know we’re a professionally run company. The professional accreditation aligns with our core values and therefore promotes us in the way we wish to be portrayed.

What bit of business advice would you offer?
You must have a clear vision of where it is you want to go. Make sure you do your research and SWOT analysis and back this up with strong, passionate leadership to allow the staff to blossom. I think the secret of our success is that we have stuck to many aspirations of our 1990 business plan which was all about customer care, snag-free buildings and delivering value for money. We have, of course, reviewed our business plan on a five-year basis and embedded this throughout the company .

What would you like government to change?
Planning laws are too restrictive. Obviously you don’t want the school playing fields or greenbelt land to be built on, but there has to be a balance and I think we need a more common sense approach to allow projects to be brought forward more quickly.

I’d like to see banks finally backing SMEs – and also we’ve got to look again at employment law. I can understand why companies prefer to go down subcontracting route – employment laws can make it onerous to take people on.

Where would you like Greendale to be in five years?
We have a business plan for the next five years and we are targeting a 50% increase in turnover with profit margins being maintained at 5%. The new directorships to the board will help drive the plan forward. We remain committed to our core values: giving our customers highest quality work, best value and completion on time.

Liam Dower MCIOB, founder, Basestore

One of the newer recruits to the Chartered Building Company scheme is Basestore, a specialist firm set up by aspiring young entrepreneur Liam Dower MCIOB.

The 28-year-old Dower saw a gap in the market for a high-quality construction company to service the growing demand for basement design and construction, a technically challenging field where having a CBC badge would offer reassurance to homeowners. So in August 2011 he left Laing O’Rourke with a few years’ experience under his belt and his chartered qualification to launch Basestore. It was officially registered as a CBC in February 2012.

Basements are high risk and involve specialist temporary works engineering and therefore need to be managed correctly and in sequence with the basement build. Health and safety breaches in basement construction work have certainly caught the attention of the HSE of late, which has flagged it up as an area it is clamping down on.

Dower is initially focusing on the London market, though not the type of warrens on three to four levels for billionaires’ homes in Kensington and Chelsea. He sees his market being in prime locations in places like Hampstead, Fulham or Clapham – any area really where property values make it worthwhile extending downwards. Cambridge, Surrey and St Albans are other possibilities. “Basements are the new form of extension for those who can’t extend anywhere else. Perhaps they’ve already extended in the loft or out the back but still want more space,” says Dower.

"Basements are the new form of extension for those who can't extend anywhere else. Perhaps they've already extended in the loft or out the back but still want more space."

Liam Dower

A typical project for Basestore would be a single-storey basement to a Victorian terraced house leading outside into the back garden, with glass roof allowing natural light into the kitchen. He is also keen to offer a full building service, say, if the basement construction formed part of a larger building project.

To date Basestore has completed two projects in north London, totalling around 200 sq m each.

As well as his own expertise – a degree in Construction Engineering Management from Loughborough University followed by two years at Skanska and then three years on Laing O’Rourke’s graduate management programme – Dower also has his father on board plus a group of 10 ground workers, labourers and carpenters. Dower senior has worked in construction for 35 years, a good part of them running his own groundworks contractor. It fell victim to non-payment from a developer during 2011. The liquidation of his father’s business sparked Dower to bring forward plans to set up Basestore.

He admits it’s taken a bit of adjustment moving from a large firm with resources at your fingertips to a working environment where you have to go and find them and create your own routine. Industry networking, getting his face in front of domestic architects and structural engineers is a big part of his job. “It was great working for Laing O’Rourke and I certainly learned a huge amount. But I come from a family of Irish builders and I always wanted to run my own company,” says Dower.

Liam Dower Q&A

What do you get from being a Chartered Building Company?
It has been difficult not having a large track record of work. Understandably, architects and homeowners want to see your portfolio and assess whether you have the ability to deliver. And that’s why being an MCIOB and CBC helps.

What bit of business advice would you offer?
You can’t manage what you don’t measure. So if you’re bidding for work and don’t get it you have to ask why so you can try to better yourself.

You also need to maintain persistence through the ups and downs and focus on business growth. You also need to grow a thick skin so when you do get knockbacks you don’t take it to heart.

What would you like to see government change?
I would like to see a reduction in the regulatory administrative burden and costs to small business. For example, the administration costs associated with employing staff such as holidays, sickness, paternity and maternity arrangements and the recent changes to workplace pensions placing further demands on employers. My mother has recently had to close her retail business due in part to increasing regulation, rates and increased costs associated with VAT.

Where would you like Basestore to be in five years?
My aim is to have grown turnover in excess of £1m. Also, my passion is to develop property and after the completion of a number of small projects in a contracting capacity this is something I am keen to progress.

What is a Chartered Building Company?

Chartered Building Companies are an important part of the CIOB, but rather than an individual it is the organisation that is the member. Membership of Chartered Building Companies and Chartered Building Consultancies enables organisations of any size to demonstrate a commitment to professionalism and best practice.

To become a CBC, firms have to meet certain criteria, including that at least one of their executive directors is a chartered member of the institute, and approximately three quarters of their board have relevant industry chartered qualifications.

More than 600 organisations have gained chartered status. Each is able to use the official scheme logo to present itself as a properly qualified company, or consultancy, able to demonstrate professionalism and integrity.

For more information visit www.ciob.org/cbc-schemes

Leave a comment