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Caring attitude goes a long way in a recession

Thinking about staff helps motivate them and they will perform better when the going gets tough

A contractor where the chair bakes cakes for board meetings is not something familiar to many in this industry. But arguably a bit of a caring attitude is something we could do with more of in the middle of a recession.

Family run firm Barnes Construction was chaired by Mary Barnes from 1995 to 2001, taking over from her husband David who started the company in 1978. It was she who provided such baked delights until retiring from the firm and passing the reins to son William.

And it was this family feel which has prevailed over the years. “David Barnes showed that you could run a successful construction company while looking after your staff,” says managing director Nick Fayers, who has been working at the firm some 26 years.

Tough times

But the reality of today’s world is that times are tough for most of the industry. Barnes aims to keep stable in the next few years rather than growing and it says that work in budget hotels, health and social housing are holding up. It strongly focuses on work in its region, with 75 per cent of contracts coming from Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.

This was a strategy started in 2000 where previously about 75 per cent of contracts came from outside the region. This change of direction meant that turnover trebled and contract size doubled.

The company turned over £35 million in 2007, £37.5 million in 2008 and this year expects it to be roughly the same. Mr Fayers says profit is “similar to industry standard” at one to two per cent.

No redundancies

It has not had to make any redundancies, “but people have left and haven’t been replaced,” says Mr Fayers.  Its graduate training scheme is going strong. Mr Steward runs the programme which attracted 70 applicants this year, versus an average of about 30 to 40 in previous years. Many are attracted by the word ‘management’.

Mr Steward says: ”About 15 to 20 per cent have an inkling about construction but ‘management trainee’ catches their eye rather than ‘construction’. We wouldn’t get half the applicants [if the recruitment advertising focused on construction]. Their eyes are opened to the industry in interviews.”

School leavers get into management

By Andrew Rennison

One employee whose eye was caught by ‘management trainee’ is 22-year-old Matt Shore, who began training with Barnes four years ago.

“When I left sixth-form I didn’t have much experience,” he says. “Construction wasn’t the area I particularly wanted to get into, but I’ve always been interested in management. My idea of the construction industry was fairly vague - you know about the on-site side of it, but until you are involved in the background you don’t realise all the hard work that goes on there.”

Matt is full of praise for the Barnes scheme. He says: “For people coming out of education it’s a great opportunity for experience. You spend some time in each department, and are given a mentor who makes sure you are learning what you need to.”

He adds that the family nature of the business has helped him feel secure through the current downturn. “Management is very easy to speak to,” he says. “You never feel like they are withholding anything.”

As for budding managers about to leave education, Matt offers simple advice: “Just give it a go. Industry schemes like these are great opportunities,” he says. “I started off with no experience, but they teach you what you need to know – it gives you great career progression.”

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