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Pochin pumping up th he volume

PLANT HIRE

David Pochin is aiming to raise the standards of concrete pumping on construction sites. Finance editor Steve Menary talks to him about the plant business and his role in the 70-year-old family firm

'I'M A FIRM believer that the longer a team plays together, the better it will function, ' says David Pochin.

The down-to-earth operations director for the UK's biggest concrete pumping fleet is not prone to grandiose statements, but he knows what he is talking about. Just six months ago he travelled to Sydney to see England's well-established rugby union team triumph over arch-rivals Australia in the final of the World Cup.

Mr Pochin is also part of the third generation of a family who are working their way up through a construction group founded 70 years ago by his grandfather Arthur and great-uncle Cedric.

A practical bunch, the Pochin family have always been builders and engineers and he admits that his late father, Michael, expected him and his brothers to join the business.

'I like practical work and enjoyed working on engines from a young age and there was always a kind of expectation that we would come into the business, ' he explains.

Younger brother Matt opted to work in property but his other brother Anthony runs the Pochin contracting arm and 15 years ago, after completing a degree in mechanical engineering and a six-month visit to New Zealand, David also joined up.

A keen rugby player, he spent too long in New Zealand and ran out of time to visit Australia - an ambition that was only fulfilled through last November's trip with his uncle Nicholas, who retired last month as chairman of the family firm.

With his own father having sadly passed away a few years ago, the retirement of Nicholas Pochin meant that, for the first time, the chairman or chief executive is not a family member.

This, David Pochin says, was part of a new five-year strategy.He explains:

'The company realised it was getting a bit insular and wanted to try and get other people into the business.'

Pochin is quoted on the stock exchange but the family controls the majority of the shares and the influence remains with Mr Pochin - one of five family members aged between 37 and 42 - looking to rise up through the ranks.

Since joining, he has stayed with the plant business, which owns 110 of the 400-odd pieces of concrete pumping kit in the country and has main offices in Bathgate, Colnbrook, Middlewich and Tamworth, with 10 satellite branches from Exeter to Pontypool.

Only 39, his experience in this area led to him being asked to head the concrete pumping interest group at the Construction Plant-hire Association (CPA), where he is trying to make his mark by introducing proper safety guidance for concrete pumping machinery.

'Concrete pumps are classed as 'engineering' in the construction use regulations, so they don't need MOTs, ' says Mr Pochin.

'Technically, you could even drive one with a driving licence, although we obviously don't encourage this.'

One of seven interest groups created by the CPA, the concrete team includes four other hirers - Reilly, Camfaud, Raynesway and Ascus - that operate around 250 of the UK's concrete pumps.

The group, which also features pump manufacturer Putzmeister and Burlington, the UK agent for the other main supplier, Schwing, has just produced a guide, Safe Use of Concrete Pumps, aimed at establishing basic standards.

Mr Pochin adds: 'We've worked for major contractors where our operators have called us and said that the site isn't safe to work on, so we've told them to come back off site.

'We get called unco-operative and unprofessional when we refuse to work on such sites, but in the south-east it's worse than anywhere else and it's getting worse all over the country.'

He declines the opportunity to point the finger at individual offenders, but cites a recent instance when one of his operators was asked to work with 10 Kosovans who could not speak English and did not have an interpreter.

The guide is aimed at providing a better industry-wide understanding of working with concrete pumps and around 10,000 are set to be distributed this month. Pochin will send 2,000 copies to its own clients, which are mainly major national contractors.

The Health and Safety Executive will take another 250 copies, having already read and approved the guide but Mr Pochin and his CPA interest group want to take it a lot further.

'The HSE has told us that it will use the guide as the rule book on safety for concrete pumps but we're trying to get funding from the Department of Trade and Industry to get it established as a British Standard, which would give it more punch, ' he says.

This may prove harder, as a financial case has to be made for establishing a British Standard but Mr Pochin admits that his firm and the other hirers on the CPA group are also at least partly motivated by the financial implications of better standards.

The price of a concrete pump ranges from around £175,000 to £650,000 for the top-of-the-range equipment, yet more and more sub-contractors are buying this type of kit.

And some subbies, Mr Pochin insists, are saving money by providing concrete pumps with operators that are not always trained properly.

He adds: 'Our guide says that the minimum to expect of an operator is a CPCS [construction plant certification scheme] card, which means that they should be trained to NVQ level two.'

While the subbies are able to undercut hirers like Pochin with lower rates, their short-termism has other consequences.

'A lot of these sub-contractors are buying their own equipment because the manufacturers are selling kit on a sale or return basis and some are hammering the machines for two years, then returning them in a bad state.Then they will often be sold on to one of our smaller competitors, 'Mr Pochin explains.

'You still get these small pockets of operators around the country with three or four machines and the state of some of these machines can be despicable.They are often held together with wire and string and are treated as just another piece of plant.

'Concrete pumps are much more complicated nowadays yet rates are the same as they were 15 years ago and costs for us have gone up.The guidance is part of a huge push from companies in the group to show how much concrete pumping has improved and hopefully that will be reflected in the rates we get.'

The difficult state of rates is evident in the latest results from Pochin's plant division, where concrete pumping provides most of the income, alongside smaller pieces of specialist gear, such as the Avoidatrench ditch digging kit.

In the six months to November 2003, Pochin's plant division lost £163,000, which compares with a £204,000 pre-tax profit in 2002 and comes despite a £965,000 rise in turnover to £8.2 million.

Mr Pochin would like to see concrete pumping emulate crane hirers with a move to contract hire but accepts that lack of control over concrete delivery or a trained workforce would make it difficult for Pochin to lay concrete instead of just supplying kit with a fully trained operator.

For now, he wants to concentrate on moving into other areas of specialist hire and producing a return to the black.

He is also looking after his first child, a little girl, who was born earlier this year.

However, Mr Pochin does not expect her or any subsequent children to emulate him, his brother or his cousins and join the family business.

'I like the idea of working in a family business because we've always been a close family, ' he says.

'But I don't think that any of our children will want to go into the business.There's too much pressure these days.'