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Conder back in the e black

STEEL

When Gordon Ridley took the helm at specialist steel supplier Conder Structures in 2002, the company was plunging into the red.Three years on, he talks to Joanna Booth about getting the firm famed for painting its products yellow into the black

'IN 2000 and 2001 we made large losses, ' says Gordon Ridley, managing director of Conder Structures, pushing a bar chart over his desk.'And I mean large losses. In 2001 it was over £1 million.'

The graph says it all. Profits skid downhill at a dangerously steep slope as turnover ricochets erratically higher.

Having served at Conder for 36 years, latterly as technical director, Mr Ridley found it painful to watch the firm slide down the pan.

'Morale was very low, ' he recalls.'We were losing good people because they couldn't see a future here.'

But follow the chart a little further and the pattern starts to look rather different.The 'loss' line points back into profit at a healthy 45 degree angle, followed steadily by a safely plodding rise in turnover.

In 2002 Mr Ridley was promoted to managing director, with the challenging brief of turning the company round, and the first half of this year saw Conder sail back into profit.

'That's what we've been working at for the past three years and that's what we've done, ' he says.

The process hasn't been painless, however.

'It was obvious the business plan we were working to was unachievable. So the first thing was to downsize.We cut turnover by 20 per cent, which meant a horrible period of redundancies, ' he says.

Mr Ridley's next step was to shake things up at the top of the tree.He felt that one of the major problems had been that the company was running under department heads without a background in the steel business.Mr Ridley prioritised industry knowledge, bringing back some staff who had left Conder in despair.

'My contracts director had gone off to a little fabricator because he couldn't stand it any more.He was back within a month, 'Mr Ridley says.

The sales team was strengthened with experienced recruits and then the push to make Conder a success began once more.

The firm has halved its losses year on year, finally pushing into profit at the start of the year.Turnover has risen since the initial cut. From £13 million in 2002 it jumped to £18 million last year, now hitting £22 million.

Mr Ridley believes that a change in the manner Conder operates has gone a long way in reversing its fortunes.Two major customer surveys revealed how the company was perceived and what clients wanted from it.

'The survey showed that we needed to change our adversarial attitude.

Before, if a customer had said they wanted to change something they'd have got a short answer.We don't work that way anymore and it has made a big difference, 'Mr Ridley says.

The change has paid off in the form of repeat business with the likes of HBG, YJL, Bowmer and Kirkland and Norwest Holst.

Workshop efficiency has also improved 15 per cent since 2001, with self-financing bonus schemes motivating employees. Every beam going into the works for fabrication is coded with a projected time for its completion, which, if bettered, leads directly to financial reward.

'It's not insubstantial, 'Mr Ridley says.'It can add up to 10 per cent on their pay.'

The customer survey also highlighted that Conder needed to concentrate on its on-site activities.As well as inheriting Conder in bleak financial straits, Mr Ridley also took over in time to deal with the fall-out of a tragic site accident that killed a 16-year-old worker in November 2000.

During the construction of a three-span portal frame building, a Conder subcontractor failed to wedge the base of a column being erected, which then fell over, striking a ground worker.At Leicester Crown Court the company was charged with failing to ensure the safety of non-employees and of failing to provide adequate design information to subcontractors.

'We had no choice but to plead guilty, ' accepts Mr Ridley.'We had a supervisor on site but he did not notice that the erector had strayed from the method statement.'

Now Conder will not work on a site without a full time directly-employed supervisor in place.Mr Ridley also questions why the HSE did not look into the reasons the operative was working in a fenced-off area in which he should not have been.

In his closing statement the judge said: 'This is not a company which is cavalier in its approach to health and safety.'

He then blasted the industry for failing to have a set of design standards in place catering for wind loads during steel erection.

Since then Conder has worked in conjunction with the British Construction Steelwork Association, helping to develop new standards.A handbook for checking freestanding steel with guidance on wind loads was published in August this year.

Mr Ridley is concentrating on the future.The redevelopment of town centres has proved a lucrative market for Conder.

'Two years ago we did Scunthorpe town centre - all of it, 'Mr Ridley describes.'Shopping areas, theatres, the multi-storey car park. It was a £3 million contract, a good size for us.'

Conder is half way through a £2.5 million contract with Norwest Holst doing similar development in Nuneaton and is waiting to start another £2 million of steelwork for Ayr town centre with Mowlem and £1.6 million to smarten up Workington with Thomas Armstrong in December.

'It's a nice chunk of work.We've got a good track record and contacts with structural engineers now, so when we hear of town centre work we really focus on winning it, ' says Mr Ridley.

The firm is also pushing ahead with multistorey car parks, having formed a partnership three years ago with structural engineers Hill Cannon and Makers, part of the Keller Group, to deliver specialist design and build skills.Makers started off as a car park repair specialist, so already knows what can go wrong.

The partnership's steel car park design uses a slanted floor to allow space to be utilised more efficiently.The decks sit at a fall of one in 20, which equals to half the rise between each deck. Ramps can be shortened, leaving more room for parking spaces.

Mr Ridley also sees a rise in demand for luxury accommodation and large scale distribution sheds.

Despite its initial shock, the firm has coped with the rises in steel prices.

'At the beginning of the year it was horrendous, 'Mr Ridley reveals.'We only had a few days warning about the first rise. Corus said they were just passing it down the supply chain but fabricators all have fixed price contracts, so it finishes with us.

'You may not have even started a job but you can't go back to a customer and tell him prices have risen. It's not his problem.'

Since then, the three-month warnings have given the company enough time to work the rises into their business templates.Mr Ridley believes that rises are coming to an end.

'Corus is talking about reduced and less frequent rises in 2005, and that's something the BCSA has pushed for.

We need to get the perception out of the market that steel prices are always rising, ' he says.

Conder Structures was originally part of the Conder Group before the parent company collapsed.The firm will celebrate the group's 50th anniversary next year. Local brewer Bass bottled a special 'Conmid 25' beer for the company's 25th birthday, and Mr Ridley plans to do the same in recognition of the passing years.

With the business back on track Conder has plenty to raise a glass to.