Keith Roshier, managing director of demolition contractor H Smith, is a man with a past - as a high-flyer at one of Britain's top universities. Now he is leading the way to a more professional industry.
THE YARD of H Smith (Engineers) in Orpington, Kent, looks much the same as the premises of any number of demolition contractors. Ramshackle sheds, bits of rusting plant - whole or in pieces - and a collection of portable buildings which serve as the firm's head office.
It seems a strange environment in which to find a Cambridge graduate at the helm. Why spend three years studying engineering at one of the UK's most prestigious universities only to end up back where you came from, in an
industry which can hardly be described as cutting edge?
But then Keith Roshier, H Smith's 36-year-old managing director, could hardly be described as your archetypal Oxbridge boy. His accent is Kent rather than cut-glass, he is straight-talking and down-to-earth, and seems almost embarrassed to talk about his high-flying academic past.
'I have always been nervous about putting my degree qualifications on my business card,' he says.
But he isn't reticent about explaining how his approach differs from that of some of his fellow members at the National Federation of Demolition Contractors. He represents a new generation of demolition contractor, selling his services on expertise, not tradition.
When he started in the business 15 years ago he had to overcome the problem of turning up to meetings a relative youngster and with a very different background to many others in the industry.
'I was very concerned that people would think I was a snotty-nosed little git,' he says.
Things have changed since then. Mr Roshier has been managing director for 10 years and now he is proud of the fact that he and his team have an impressive array of academic qualifications between them. The site manager on a job the firm recently completed at the British Museum even has a PhD, he boasts.
This professional ethos is very much at odds with the state of the yard. This, Mr Roshier claims, is because the area covers the site of an ancient monument which prevents the firm from putting foundations into the ground.
Mr Roshier is a great scuba diving fan. It was a passion which he developed while at university and has carried on.
'Diving is my single greatest hobby,' he says. 'I will dive anywhere.'
Now a member of Holborn Diving Club, holidays more often than not involve Mr Roshier and his wife, whom he met sub aqua, heading to a location where the scuba-diving is good - the South China Seas, the Outer Hebrides or the Red Sea.
He is certainly different from some of the old-school characters - or 'dinosaurs' as he calls them - who are to be found in the demolition business. But he seems well-liked in the industry, a 'nice bloke'.
'I would be happy to be up against them at tender, if you know what I mean,' commented a competitor.
Mr Roshier's father started the firm back in 1961, renting the land which the hotch-potch of portable cabins still sits on from a Harry Smith, who owned that and adjacent sites.
Mr Roshier is vague about the reasons for Mr Roshier senior naming the firm H Smith (Engineers), saying that it was partly to do with this original set-up. Later along the line the Roshier family bought the plot of land.
The original family plan, it seems, once Keith had decided to fly the nest, was that his younger brother would become involved in the firm.
However, when it became apparent that his youngest was more inclined towards being a pilot than working in the demolition business, dad got on the blower to his errant engineering son.
'My dad phoned up and said: 'Your younger brother [who had been in the company earlier] is not particularly interested or keen on staying, are you? Because if you're not, I'll sell the company,'' remembers Mr Roshier.
It came at just the right time. As one of six graduate trainees, Mr Roshier had been cooped up inside a factory all day for the six months since graduating, working as a foreman on a piston production line.
'I was getting paid a pittance. Looking at someone six years older who was theoretically ahead of me on the graduate production line, and thinking, 'I'm not too keen on this'.'
So he returned to Orpington and spent the next five years getting to grips with the business and doing battle with his father.
'My dad and myself cannot live in the same house, because we're completely opposite characters,' admits Mr Roshier.
'But in some respects work-wise that has worked well because what he's good at, I may be lacking and what I'm good at he may be lacking.'
His dad is very good with people, he explains, but not so keen on bureaucracy and paperwork.
Complementary skills or not, Roshier junior was soon ready to take control.
'It rapidly came down to, 'Dad, let me do it this way or not at all'.'
So, at the tender age of 26, Keith Roshier took the reins at H Smith.
He thinks that his scientific background and his love of problem-solving is a major benefit, both at tender stage and for planning and executing a job.
He gives the example of a job at BP Grangemouth where H Smith had to remove several badly rusted 350-tonne heater units, transporting them over live oil lines. Mr Roshier and his team came up with an engineered girdle, an idea which has now been patented.
The other plus from his education is that it gives him a good comprehension of what a job involves: 'My engineering training helps me because I can sit and listen to an engineer and find out when they are pulling the wool over our eyes.'
H Smith (Engineers) has always targeted city jobs at the upper end and now looks at complex jobs in various sectors.
Mr Roshier is keen to point out that the firm can tackle any project, but adds: 'Having said that, if it's a very simple job, it's probably not for us.'
He is particularly proud of the £3.75 million British Museum job, where H Smith removed the book stacks from the reading room in the Great Courtyard.
It was a special job for many reasons: tight conditions; the fact that some stacks were listed, so they had to be dismantled for re-erection; the delicate nature of the surrounding buildings and their exhibits.
Mr Roshier is putting his problem-solving skills to work on the NFDC's health and safety committee. He would like to see a more positive relationship with the HSE, rather than the reactive situation that exists at the moment.
'The HSE tends to have a bit of a habit of, if there's an accident, going round slapping someone's wrist and prosecuting them. I'd like to see a much more open approach.'
Many of the problems come because the HSE inspectors do not understand methods of working, and therefore which situations are and aren't potentially dangerous, he says.
The NFDC's committee is trying to work with the HSE to tackle these issues, says Mr Roshier, to ensure that inappropriate working methods are not imposed for the sake of it. This could lead to more cost, longer programmes, and could even mean the unwitting creation of more hazards for operatives, he explains.
In some cases, he concedes, it will just come down to greater costs. 'Clients have got to appreciate that and spend more money,' he says.
And the signs are that some clients are willing to pay more for a firm which can demonstrate its professionalism.
'I think we have a professional reputation with our good clients,' says Mr Roshier. 'Because if they wanted someone cheaper I could give them a list as long as their arm.'
But, having said that, business is not quite booming at the moment. H Smith has a number of jobs waiting to go which are being held up for varying reasons, and the market place is 'fiercely competitive', says Mr Roshier.
And despite his protested reluctance to advertise his education, he does allow that in tender situations, perhaps the Cambridge degree can help.
'I put it on business cards and I put it on letter heads,' he says.
'When you get to prequalification stage you get people who don't know much about demolition trying to decide from a list of 50 who to put on the tender list.'
Let's just hope they don't visit the premises.