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In at the deep end

EARTHMOVING

Unexpectedly becoming managing director of the family firm prompted Patrick O'Keefe to take the company's muck-shifting operations in a new direction. He talks to Emma Forrest about the progress that has been made

SETTING up your own company is always daunting. But setting up a company under a watchful parental eye can be terrifying. So how would you feel if just months after starting a new division under your father's firm you were suddenly left in charge of the whole lot?

This was exactly the situation Patrick O'Keefe found himself in five years ago. Shortly after launching Soil Remediation, a division of his family's firm, O'Keefe Construction, he was thrust into the role of managing director when his father, Pat O'Keefe senior, suddenly died.

'He was the governor. We all looked to him for what to do, ' says 31-year-old Mr O'Keefe. 'It took us a few months to get settled again.'

After a period of adjustment, Mr O'Keefe decided it was time to move the firm on. Having set up in 1970, it was doing nicely, building projects across London and the south-east but launching Soil Remediation had been a nod to the future, looking to the growing number of brownfield sites being released for building.

Increasing industry knowledge of what stabilisation entails is something of a mission for Mr O'Keefe and his Soil Remediation colleagues - currently the only UK ground stabilisation contractor with an Environment Agency licence to carry out stabilisation with lime and cement. Now they have opened an on-site laboratory to increase their testing abilities.

'There is nervousness as to the effectiveness of stabilisation. There have been failures in the past with building on lime and cement but they have happened when not enough research has taken place before work has commenced, ' says Mr O'Keefe.

'Clients often ask if we are nervous about what we are doing but we tell them that we can never carry out enough research first. We test to the level required by the tender and then we over-test for our own research and the comfort of the client.'

As a further sign of its commitment to a research and development agenda, the firm has appointed former Weeks manager Kevin Woods as laboratory manager.

He started in his new role just a day before this interview took place.

The mud manager, as Mr Woods has been dubbed, is in charge of developing new tests for the detection of sulphates and helping to debunk a few myths.

'We are not happy with the way sulphates are currently dealt with by the industry and the British Standards they are treated under. There has also been a huge amount of hype about the damage sulphates can do, ' says Mr O'Keefe.

Eventually, Soil Remediation's test findings will be part of an information exchange with others in the sector - the firm already has close links with researchers at the University of Texas - but until then any findings will be kept in-house.

'We could have gone outside for our research but we are spending a lot of money on this and we would rather keep the finds to ourselves, at first. When you have a turnover of £2.5 million, a £100,000 investment is a significant amount, ' says Mr O'Keefe.

Tests are at design stage but are likely to be developed by next month. Laboratory and field tests will then be run concurrently. A one-stop piece of kit to detect sulphates is the ultimate aim.

There are also plans to carry out R&D on stabilising chalks and silts - a process largely avoided by UK contractors.

It is a bold move in an industry that usually only takes on lab managers for large, one-off projects, but brave developments are nothing new at the north Greenwichbased firm. Its past innovations include importing the UK's first pile breaker - now a site standard - and recent developments have resulted in commissioning bespoke soil stabilisation machines with in-built lime spreaders and GPS controlled dozers. A machine that blows lime powder directly into the ground is expected to be on-line by the end of 2003 or early 2004.

'Every decade we come up with another innovation and the next stage is the use of lasers to detect measurements. Again, this is becoming an industry standard but we were one of the first to use them, on back-up areas at the Millennium Dome, ' says Mr O'Keefe.

'There is a lot of young management in the firm and it is important that we take things forward. Now we have to raise our profile.'

Remediation has been growing steadily as a business but Mr O'Keefe admits he is frustrated because, although the number of available sites may have increased, the number of projects being built on them has not kept pace with the firm's ambitions.

'Everyone is preaching about cleaning up contaminated land but very few clients are actually doing it, ' he says.

He believes contractors and clients have yet to grasp the realities of the sector.

'Clients have very little idea of what we actually do, ' says Mr O'Keefe. 'Our past jobs include stabilising ground for coach parks at the Millennium Dome and the land for the Dartford and Gravesend Hospital. At Dartford and Gravesend, we saved 4,500 lorry movements. But to find 10 jobs of this type a year would be a miracle.'

The firm is qualified to work for 65 per cent of the top 100 and most of the major construction managers, but until large firms - 'the big shed builders and road builders' - have the confidence to build most of their projects on contaminated land, the sector is in danger of stagnating.

'Our dream project would be a road on contaminated land, where we could remediate and encapsulate the land, ' Mr O'Keefe says.

He adds that he has faith in the government's commitment to its huge road building programme, and says: 'Our work on the A6 and A130 has shown there is a massive market in this just waiting to be cracked.'

There are some signs that the situation is beginning to improve.

'In 1995, 500,000 cu m of contaminated material was cleaned up in the entire country. We are tendering for schemes now that would do that in one job, and some that are over 1 million cu m, ' says Mr O'Keefe.

With groundworks, basement packages and moves into piling and temporary works becoming an increasing part of O'Keefe Construction's workload, opportunities for the sister companies to work together have also arisen.

'Working to combine earthworking and stabilisation, we have redesigned soil levels and drainage systems - bringing down both budgets and construction periods, ' says Mr O'Keefe.

He adds that the largest savings can only be made if their expertise is brought in early at the design stage.

'Stabilisation is a very simple process that requires very complicated backing. We are happy to manage the entire package. We have also been brought in before when things have gone wrong - which is usually down to bad contracting.'

The Republic of Ireland is being investigated as a source of work, with the first jobs intended to come on stream in the next year. But the UK remains the firm's primary market and, according to Mr O'Keefe, it would be pointless for a UK stabilisation contractor to seek work in other markets, such as France, Germany and Australia, which have established networks of their own.

He admits the company's attitude to its stabilisation work is not for everyone.

'Our ethic is that nothing leaves the site, and that has affected turnover, ' he says. 'We will always go in and do our own classifications and our own site holes. We never just believe the site investigation. Where there's muck, there's money but, where possible, muck-shifting will not have a place.'