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Difficult questions, Simplex answers

PILING

In a sector turbulent with consolidation, buyouts and closures, Simplex has reached the grand old age of 100.

Dave Donovan looks to the future with Steve Menary

'IF YOU solve a problem, then the person you have solved that problem for will always remember you, ' asserts Dave Donovan. 'If you run away and bury your head in the sand , you will always have an enemy.'

That is the doctrine to which the Simplex managing director works. Despite working in the construction industry for 35 years and employing about 100 people, he still loves going out on to a site with a prospective client to look at the problems and how to solve them.

He adds: 'I'm sure there are problems with pouring concrete, bricklaying or steelwork but often people can see those as they are above ground and have seen them before. Even with the best site investigation, you can't always tell what you're going to find in the ground.

'Often those assumptions are erroneous anyway, and that's where you have to get people out of a mess.

I've made some of my best friends in this business because of problems.'

This year is the piling specialist's 100th anniversary, but when Norwest Holst Soil Engineering took the business over six years ago, the problem was Simplex itself.

Mr Donovan explains: 'In the 1980s, Simplex was up there with the likes of Cementation and any of the other major players.

'It then went through a number of changes in ownership and Simplex became increasingly peripheral to each of those owners. The net result was there wasn't any major investment and the business lost its way.'

The last of those owners was Britannia, the general contracting operation which is a subsidiary of what is now Renew.

'Br itann ia was happy to sell as it wasn't part of its core business, ' adds Mr Donovan, pausing to choose his words before continuing. 'They invested what they thought they should but it needed a good kick.'

Even with years of neglect, the deal still came as a surprise. Piling is not a high-margin business and when Norwest Holst bought Simplex from Britannia in 2000, it had a turnover of £22 million but only about £5 million of this was from piling work.

'As our piling business at Norwest Holst was doing okay, our owners Vinci thought, 'we'll have more of that, '' explains Mr Donovan.

With a turnover of almost £12 million, Simplex was a much larger business - albeit one that required investment, which Ken Child, managing director of the enlarged business together with his number two, Mr Donovan, faced the challenge to attract.

Mr Donovan, who took the top job three years ago, says: 'We had a lot of issues to resolve. One was financial. But Vinci is financially astute. If it hadn't made the investment, there wouldn't have been a business.'

Apart from kit, Vinci also funded acquisitions, with Simplex buying Derbyshire-based precast pile jointing manufacturer Synergy last year. But money was not the only problem that had to be rectified.

Simplex was also complex and adding the NHSE operations brought further complications. Two years before being sold off, Simplex had bought another piling operation, Dell, which specialised in driven piles.

Dell was renamed Simplex North and the existing operation traded as Simplex South. But, according to Mr Donovan, that was practically all that was done in terms of integration.

He says: 'You had NHSE and their kit and people; Simplex and their kit and people and Dell and their kit and people. There were three separate entities, an inefficiency which we had to fix.

'Everyone had different terms and conditions and we had to update and make uniform things like health and safety and administration.'

As Norwest Holst had only bought the people and assets from Britannia, a new operating company was formed in 2003 and this business was consolidated into one operating base in Derbyshire.

'It focused thoughts on piling, since before NHSE was predominantly a site investigation contractor rather than a piling one, ' explains Mr Donovan.

The issue of health and safety was a more delicate and problematic one. Mr Donovan has witnessed serious injuries and fatalities on site in the past and is not afraid of asking difficult questions about procedure.

He says: 'I've seen experienced guys involved in accidents and you have to ask 'why?'. Where does the problem come from?'

Mr Donovan does not answer his own question immediately. Normally gregarious, he pauses, then says:

'If you just say 'accidents happen' that's saying 'it's okay' and as soon as you say it's okay, it becomes okay.

'I'm convinced that it starts with managers and managers haven't always believed that.'

Mr Donovan does not say as much but he is quite clearly including himself in that criticism.

That is why he recruited Scottish behavioural consultants W2 to look at the whole issue of safety and accidents at his business.

Simplex's managers, including Mr Donovan, spent a couple of days away from their everyday rout ines when working with W2.

This entailed a 'difficult couple of days', in Mr Donovan's words, but provided the opportunity to examine long-held views and approaches, which had startlingly results at the company.

Mr Donovan says: 'I'm loathe to make myself a hostage to fortune, but so far this year we've not had a single reportable accident, which is unheard of.'

That exercise sums up Mr Donovan's approach to management and also why the business has yet to secure Investors In People (IIP) status.

This is expected in 2007, but Mr Donovan thinks that unless his staff know why they are doing it then there is little point.

He adds: 'These blueprints for business are good, but it's no good having one just so you can get a gong that you can wave about.

'We're working hard towards IIP but you have to talk the talk, not walk the walk or it goes tits up.

'It's like a supply chain. Each of the individuals in a business have to believe that is the right way to go.

'Contractors want a supply chain as they think that it works well, but you have to persuade all the people in the chain that it works well and often those people have their own agenda.

'There's always people in you r business that don't want to toe the party line for whatever reason. We've got that in our business and you have to recognise that and work with it.'

Simplex works regularly for the likes of Shepherd, Wates and Kier, along with Norwest Holst.

Mr Donovan likes this regular work but is pragmatic enough to accept that if his staff can solve a problem for these major contractors, then this is more important than simply following a trend.

He says: 'We need a healthy cynicism and need to question why we are doing things.'

That approach and the backing of Vinci has helped Simplex, after a century in existence, to survive.

Turnover this year will come in at about £16 million.

With a number of big contracts on the horizon, the f igu re of 200,000 met res of piles manufactu red each year in Derbyshire for Simplex and its rivals should grow and turnover could hit £20 million next year.

In Mr Donovan, Simplex clearly has someone with the enthusiasm to keep the business going a while yet.

CURRICULUM VITAE

BORN in Cork to Irish parents, Dave Donovan grew up in Birmingham and did a degree in civil engineering at Liverpool University.

He explains: 'I studied double maths and physics. It was really heavyweight stuff and I knew that I didn't want an academic life.

I wanted some action.'

After graduating in 1971, he spent a year in Singapore with Caisson Piling, then part of Cementation. Mr Donovan returned to the UK after a year to take up a job with Cementation itself, and worked in London and Yorkshire before moving into consultancy in 1973 with TP O'Sullivan.

Working on bridges and canals, he became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, but contracting was in his blood.

'At five o'clock, I was still at the drawing board and everyone had gone home, ' he recalls. 'I didn't want that.'

Not that he is a workaholic. In 1976, he returned to Cementation and stayed for 16 years until the recession hit. That was 1993 and Mr Donovan was offered a job by Norwest Holst Soil Engineering - in Leeds.

The job led to his present role. When Norwest Holst bought Simplex in March 2000, Mr Donovan was second in command and took over the top job in 2003 when managing director Ken Child retired.