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Accommodating for success

George Downing Construction is defying the downturn with its focus on student accommodation

Student accommodation is one of the areas of construction often praised for still growing despite the challenging economic conditions. George Downing Construction will testify to that. The company grew its turnover by a whopping 59 per cent in 2011 through work on several major schemes and offering value added services such as fit out work for incoming tenants.

The company, which started in 2001, had a turnover of £40 million for 2011. “We’ve gradually grown to this level of doing major contracts now,” says George Downing Construction director Ian Orton. “We predominantly do student accommodation; we’ve only ever done two residential schemes. We decided that was not the market we wanted to be in as a company because of the uncertainty.

“You can build a block of residential flats but you’ve got the problem of selling them. If you get to the end of a scheme and you’ve only sold 50 per cent of the flats then you’ve got a problem. With student accommodation we know we can sell it,” says Mr Orton. “There is more certainty, and we believe a lot less risk.”

But being in the right market is not the only factor in the company’s recent success, repeat business and effective supply chain management are also very important as Mr Orton explains. “We’ve given a commitment to our sub-contractors about paying them on time, we have regular meetings with them and we don’t screw them into the ground. This means our overall cost back to the client team is good because we are able to get the best price possible.”

George Downing Construction also has a very open approach to sharing information with its clients and subcontractors. “When we are building the contract figure we have an open book policy with the client so they could see the subcontracting figures that go into building the job cost. We’d agreed all the profit levels and risk and they were content that they got the best value for their scheme,” says Mr Orton.

And it is this open approach that allows the client, the contractor and the subcontractor to all get the most out of the project. “The whole construction team are focused on delivering the project on time and on budget; we have regular meetings with the site teams and major subcontractors. Because we’re open with them and we don’t start fighting with subcontractors from day one, we work with them and I think that’s the change – we work with them to get the end result and the quality that we want.”

The company has diversified from just constructing the buildings to offering fit out services too, as doing the two together can save both time and costs says Mr Orton. While it has also focused on getting the accreditation necessary to show the company is committed to quality assurance, sustainability and health and safety. George Downing Construction recently secured the National Quality Assurance ISO9001 accreditation which recognises best practice in management systems from the tendering stage to post handover.

“When we started working with the universities directly and doing their fit out we had our own in-house quality assurance system that wasn’t accredited. We had to move to get the accreditation and now we’ve got it. It’s already started opening doors for us. We are on a tender list for potentially £30 million plus of work with Manchester Met University to start next year.

“We are doing pre-tender qualifications for all of the universities and the only thing that got us onto the official tender scheme was having that accreditation,” says Mr Orton. “We are also working towards other accreditations including environmental, sustainability, then health and safety. They are the four we are going to target and we are working towards the others at the moment.”

Maintaining the level of growth the company has experienced in recent years will be tough, but Mr Orton says the company is expanding geographically but remaining in its core market in order to grow but still succeed. “We have just done our first scheme in London and we’re working on the advanced works of a scheme in Cambridge, so we are spreading our wings all around the country,” he says.

“You can deliver good design at the right price. It’s all about working with your subcontractors and the design team, and open communication,” says Mr Orton.

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