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Regime changes pose no threat to Van Elle


Taking over from company founder Michael Ellis, Mick Hughes was appointed managing director of geotechnical engineering contractor Van Elle in July.He talks to Joanna Booth.

How has it been stepping into the shoes of the man who started Van Elle?

When I started we planned to have a three-month overlap but within the first month Michael was letting me get on with it. He pops in a couple of times a month. I haven't had a bollocking yet but I'm sure I will at some point! It's exciting to be involved in the strategic planning.The team here is young - at 49 I'm about the oldest person.

What is your background?

I've been in construction since 1972, and spent all but six months of that time with contractors. I tried consultancy but it wasn't for me. I didn't like standing and watching other people doing things.

I went into the foundations business in 1979, first with Steel Foundations, and then I moved to Roger Bullivant 19 years ago, working in the north-east and Scotland.

What goals do you have for Van Elle?

Our turnover will be about £32 million this year and I want to push that up to £40 million in the next three years.We're planning to develop in the northeast and Scotland, which my background will obviously be useful for.We have an office in Gateshead but the majority of our work there is in drilling and grouting operations.We want to get our market share of the piling sector too, so we're recruiting to expand that office.

Have you targeted any particular sectors for growth?

The main growth areas will be piling and our Smartfoot foundation system. It's precast and posttensioned, so it doesn't require any wet trades on site.You don't have to worry about the weather.

We developed it for the residential sector and that's where we're pushing it at the moment.The only thing holding us back is our in-house casting facilities. It's on the agenda to get a larger yard.We're in discussions with the owners of an area of land adjacent to our head office.

How has the Landfill Directive affected Van Elle?

Obviously getting spoil away from site is now an issue.The industry is moving away from the solutions that it has previously used.Traditional foundations create far too much muck, and house builders are increasingly considering piling.They used to imagine it would involve a big rig and huge expense, but driven precast and steel are relatively cheap.The directive has actually helped us in many ways.

You're aiming to have the majority of your workforce NVQ trained by 2009.How is that going?

It's time-consuming but we're pushing ahead.When the first set of lads went through it became a race to finish.There's competition. It's pulling together what they do anyway to make them qualified, not just experienced. It's very important in our industry.

Everything goes on underground.You can't go and check and say: 'Oh, that's a nice-looking pile.'We rely on our staff on site for the quality of our work.