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Pushing the right Button

WHEN Howard Button was a little boy, there was nothing he liked better than to go down to his grandfather's demolition yard and take things apart.

When his parents brought him along to the National Federation of Demolition Contractors' (NFDC) conventions, young Howard used to look towards the top table and dream of the day when he would be President.

In his teenage years, his school holidays were spent working at the business. He did it for love rather than money since his dad, who was by now at the helm, didn't pay him.

'My father was a bit of a tyrant,' he says.

Now he is grown up, with two children of his own. And in March this year his childhood dream

became reality: the NFDC members voted the managing director of Button Demolition in as president.

The cynics among us would be tempted to dismiss this story as a nice piece of rhetoric.

But rhetoric is probably not Mr Button's forte and he admits that he is not really much of a public speaker. He enjoys meetings, where he can talk frankly with the members, and one-to-one discussions; his passion for the industry is evident.

You cannot but believe that his tale is true.

But being president is no dream job. 'It sounds very nice to be invited along to dinners and events but when you are trying to run a company as well, it can be difficult to divide your time between the two,' he says.

The NFDC needs a committed person at its head; its last two presidents went bankrupt.

As Mr Button says, 'If the president was going bankrupt, he obviously had other things on his mind.'

The current president is determined to do a good job.

If that means being controversial, he does not mind; in fact he seems to relish the chance of creating a stir.

One example is his use of the NFDC disciplinary procedure where a member bringing the industry into disrepute is brought before the board.

This procedure has always been in place, but it has not been used before. A story in Construction News in April 1996 helped kick start the whole process. Under the headline 'First firm prosecuted under new safety law' the story read :

'A demolition company has become the first contractor to be prosecuted under the Construction Design and Management (CDM) safety regulations.'

The demolition contractor was an NFDC member.

'When you see that splashed all over the back page, you have to do something about it,' says Mr Button. 'The real aim of the disciplinary procedure is improvement of the industry; we send round a notice to all the members afterwards to let them know what has happened so that they can take note and hopefully we can improve our ways of working.

'We do not want to set ourselves up as a police force.'

But not everyone was pleased with this move.

'It did not go down very well because we acted so quickly,' says Mr Button, unrepentant.

He admits that safety is still a big problem for demolition contractors.

'There have been fatalities within the Federation recently,' he says. 'It is very sad and it is taken very seriously.'

The introduction of the CDM regulations has not made any real difference. 'I always hoped that the CDM's would change things, but there has been no marked improvement,' he says.

When asked why he thinks this is, Mr Button is characteristically honest: 'I cannot put a finger on it'

But it is obviously something that troubles him. He knows that of all the strands of construction, demolition is the one with the worst image.

'It is very hard to recruit people to demolition because they still see it as a dirty industry,' he says.

And it is. Demolition jobs have the worst reputation for welfare facilities on site.

Mr Button himself tells of a recent Button Demolition job where the idea was to retain the toilet block within the building, since there was no-where to put the Portaloos; but unfortunately someone ripped the toilets out first.

It is not an unusual scenario, says the NFDC president.

'Because we are going in first, there's nothing there,' he says. 'Nine times out of ten the developer will want everything out of the way. The site's the job and there just is not the space.'

But progress is being forced on the industry from a number of directions as legislation and clients' requirements alter.

Mr Button likes to look ahead and keeps his members informed with regular newsletters.

He admits that it can be frustrating when people don't take time to read them and whine about changes later.

Before he was president, Mr Button was chairman of the Waste Committee and took the lead when the spectre of Landfill Tax raised its head.

'I got wind of it from someone almost two years before it was launched,' he says. 'So we formed a committee within the committee to examine the whole topic.'

He is proud that the committee did more than just talk and inform; it was able to influence one aspect of the Landfill Tax, arguing that bricks with plaster on them should be classified as inactive rather than active waste.

'I saved our members a fortune,' says Mr Button.

But the Landfill Tax will rise, although no one is quite sure when. 'I thought it would go on in the last budget,' says Mr Button.

'It's an easy ploy for any government. It's a good PR tax with the general public because they do not see it as affecting them.'

But on balance, the new government's stronger stance on environmental issues is good news for demolition.

Labour's proposed green tax on aggregates may be viewed as another 'PR tax' by many within the industry, but it is good news for demolition contractors. 'We see it as a benefit because it will

encourage recycling,' says Mr Button.

And the limit on greenfield developments is another plus:

'We welcome it with open arms,' he says. 'Because to get on a brownfield site, you have to knock something down first.'

So the future looks good. The mood at the NFDC's annual convention in October on the Costa del Sol must have been upbeat.

Mr Button took his wife and two daughters, aged nine and 11. Removing them from school was frowned upon, he says, but he insists that it is important for children to get a wide range of

experiences.

Perhaps he is hoping that his daughters will pick up some of his passion for demolition. But he is not banking on them continuing the family business:

'It's not quite the same for girls' he says. 'Taking things to bits is always a boys ambition.'

Certainly the ambition of a boy who would be the NFDC president.