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Foundations of success are built on innovation

Preview; Roger Bullivant has a habit of coming up with innovations for the industry; two have been short listed in the Interbuild 2000 Awards Structural Building section. What is the firm's secret? Kristina Smith visited its HQ to find out

WALKING into the head office of piling and precast firm Roger Bullivant is like walking into somebody's house.

It's a modest building that looks and feels like a home, and the employees are comparable to an extended family: not always in agreement but always remaining friends.

The office of chairman and owner Roger Bullivant at his headquarters in Drakelow, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, is equally modest, like a small front room. A message scribbled on the white board on the wall reads: 'A man without vision will surely perish.'

This is Mr Bullivant's handwriting, the same urgent script that covers the board in his chief engineer Steve Tonks' office with diagrams and notes.

Mr Bullivant is the father of this unique family, a business which he owns and which has grown from nothing into a £50 million-turnover business.

He has gathered around him an unusual group of people and maintains a forward-looking recruitment policy, designed to anticipate future needs.

Not everybody stays, of course. This is a pretty demanding environment. The boss is said to be very exacting, and that, combined with the constant stream of new ideas which he produces, means there is never a dull moment.

At 62, Mr Bullivant remains a workaholic, often waking up in the early hours when his subconscious produces a new concept. He reads much, studying trends and developments in the industry and it is this hard background work, he says, that fuels the moments of inspiration.

After a stint at Clugston, Mr Bullivant realised that working for other people was not for him, so in 1971 he struck out on his own.

'Roger Bullivant was quite wild in the early days,' says sales and marketing director John Patch, who has been with Bullivant for 13 years. He refuses to enlarge.

Other members of the team hint at stories from the early days 'that would make your hair curl' but, again, they will not divulge the details.

Mr Bullivant did bring something from his first job though - his boss Charles Ellerington. He became a mentor to the fledgling company and has been involved in the business from the start. Although retired now, he continues to be involved.

Underpinning was the name of the game then. In 1972 insurance firms added subsidence clauses to their policies and a lucrative market was born.

With plenty of competition, progress in the early years was slow, but during this time Mr Bullivant was working hard to develop an alternative to traditional underpinning methods.

By the early '80s his piles for underpinning and the plant to install them were ready and things really took off. Turnover grew from £3 million to £18 million between 1983 and 1991.

Margins were unbelievably good, 100 per cent at first, although this did not last, as other firms caught on - often firms started by Bullivant staff.

'If you look at the membership of the Association of Specialist Underpinning Contractors, 50 per cent of them were spawned by us,' says Mr Patch.

Most of the profits were ploughed back into the business, he continues, although Simon Bullivant remembers his brother, 23 years his senior, arriving at the family home in an E-type Jaguar.

And it was this which helped to inspire Simon as a child to follow his brother into construction; now he works for the firm.

There were lots of investments during those years of growth, particularly into R&D and training.'We realised, even in those early days, that you could take a civil engineer on and it would be six months before he was of any use to us,' says Mr Patch.

'First we had to spend time on training in the new methods and new systems and then we had to teach the recruit how to deal with customers and home owners.

'Engineers are quite often aloof and think they are the bee's knees, so to train them in the rudiments of customer care is quite something.'

Money was also going into developing other precast concrete piling solutions.

Just as well, because in 1992 the underpinning market shrivelled. The effect of drought cost insurance companies dearly - £550 million in 1991 - but a year later payments had fallen to £136 million for subsidence cases.

Mr Bullivant, however, was prepared.

'Roger started warning us in 1986 that the bubble would burst and that this lucrative business would become the victim of market forces of one sort or the other,' recalls Mr Patch.

Mr Bullivant decided that laying foundations for new houses was the way ahead and his new precast piling hit the market in 1987/88.

This was not achieved without a certain amount of internal conflict.

'It got to the stage where it was him against the chiefs. There was a team of directors who disagreed with Roger's belief that the end of the underpinning business was in sight,' says Mr Patch.

'Also, they questioned whether precast was the right business to be look- ing at.'

Turnover from underpinning fell from £18 million to £9 million in 1992. But contrary to the directors' fears, the piling business by then had grown to turn over about £8 million, which made up for some - though not all - of the shortfall.

In fact, 1992 has been the only year in Bullivant's 29-year history in which it did not grow. The firm now has a 35 per cent share of the market, producing more than 1 million m of precast pile a year.

But development did not stop at piles; Mr Bullivant wanted a foundation system.

'His vision is that we will see the end of people digging great big holes and throwing in lots of concrete because they think it makes a good foundation,' says Mr Patch.

And so, Quickfloor was born. In 1995 this was a winner in the Construction News Innovation Awards, the predecessor to the Quality in Construction Awards.

The business is going well now and turning over £18-20 million.

'It is growing quickly, in fact growing too quickly,' says Mr Patch. 'We are in the situation where supply is constrained and there is not enough factory space to supply the marketplace; that's an issue we are having to deal with.'

The potential market is huge, with more than 200,000 houses to be built a year and with the government keen to push brownfield development.

Add to that light commercial, student accommodation and nursing homes and the total market value is £1 billion.

'That's got an awfully nice ring to it,' says Mr Patch.

Of course, Bullivant's new ideas have not stopped there. A constant stream stems from the chief executive, according to chief engineer Mr Tonks.

'The originator of most of the ideas is Roger. He comes up with ideas and passes them on to the team in written and sketch forms with costings,' he says.

Recent additions to the Bullivant portfolio include precast beams for industrial buildings; Quickwall, a precast wall for warehouses; and precast dock leveller pits, again for warehouses.

The latter two products are short listed in the Interbuild 2000 Structural Building awards, which Construction News is sponsoring.

There is further to go in the housing sector, too. Bullivant will soon go on site with its QuickHome precast house wall system on a demonstration project with Northern Counties Housing Association.

But with all these success stories, there are of course failures. Mr Tonks explains that quite a few ideas are taken as far as testing on part of the firm's 28-ha site, and then have to be dropped often for reasons of econ-omy. One example is new designs for floor slabs which would integrate with the piling and beam system for houses. Countless versions have been tried and rejected, although they are close to a solution now, says Mr Patch.

Bullivant spends an amazing amount on R&D. Last year its R&D and training budget was more than £1 million. Three people, including Simon Bullivant, work in the R&D department and this is in addition to the 22 people working for Mr Tonks in the engineering department.

Simon Bullivant believes the company tries to do too much itself. Since taking on the R&D role, he has started to use outside resources. He also believes that Bullivant needs to be more focused in its efforts.

This high investment in development does take its toll on the margins. Last year profit was around 3 per cent of turnover before tax. But Roger Bullivant still believes firmly that innovation is the only way to increase profitability. He points out that prices are falling in the piling and ground improvement market due to overcapacity and increasingly efficient machines.

'Innovation is the only way forward to reverse this trend for us as a company. The reason we survive is because we spend such an enormous amount of money on developing ideas and it's not just a one-off investment, it's consistent investment,' he says.

But after nearly three decades of commitment to innovation, Mr Bullivant has decided that it is time for him to enjoy life and his family more. His colleagues have three years to work out how they will carry on without him.

Whether Roger Bullivant will be able to pull away entirely from this business, which bears his name and his values, remains to be seen.