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Seddon in the frame in Stoke

PROFILE

Jim Blair has bagged an impressive array of framework deals for Potteries-based J&S Seddon, so why does he want to get his local rivals more involved?

Steve Menary reports

KEEP it local is an adage that is clearly close to Jim Blair's heart.

A Stoke-on-Trent boy, he has spent the last 41 years ? his entire career ? with his local arm of Seddon Group. But he is pained to see his rivals in the Potteries missing out on the swathes of work coming up.

Hundreds of millions of pounds are due to be spent on housing regeneration, schools and hospitals work in the area and general contractor J&S Seddon has a place on one of the biggest frameworks so far for schools work.

Another much smaller local outfit, Toft Johnson, has also made it onto the eight-strong framework but the other six successful firms are from outside the immediate area.

Aware that Seddon is in a better position than any other local outfit, Mr Blair, who became managing director of J&S Seddon in 1995, would like to do something to help his peers in the Potteries.

'To be honest, I was a bit disgusted about the lack of local contractors.

This is work that a lot of firms which missed out can do, ' he says. 'It has cut out an awful lot of local firms.

'I'd be interested in doing something that involved using all those firms that missed out to keep the work in the area and keep them employed.

'The clients obviously need some demonstration that firms can do the work but I'd like to create some form of co-operat ive.

'What I'd like to see is that when all this work is completed there is a pool of tradesmen in the area and they don't just leave again.' Mr Blair is not talking as the boss of a small-town contractor unwilling to leave his own backyard.

Part of the £180 million-turnover Seddon Group, J&S Seddon turns over around £55 million a year and has another six offices outside of Stoke, with bases in Birmingham, Bristol, Chester, Derby, Normanton near Leeds and Stafford.

The Derby and Normanton off ices opened in 1998 and 2001 respectively on the back of the firm winning major long-term contracts that have since been added to.

A rare acquisition secured a Bristol office with general contractor Jotcham & Kendal, bought out in 2000.

The Bristol firm's turnover had dwindled to around £600,000 a year but investment by Seddon has raised annual work loads to £7 million at Jotcham & Kendal.

That even eclipses the lengthy history of Seddon Group, which was set up in 1897 at Little Hulton in Manchester by George and John Seddon.

More than a century later, Seddon employs over 1,000 people directly and remains a family-run and owned business ? albeit one with a complicated structure.

With a smile, Mr Blair suspects that many years ago this might have been done purposely to deter people from taking too much interest in the firm.

'I'm sure that's not the case now, particularly as getting information from Companies House is so easy, ' says Mr Blair.

'But if we do one thing wrong today, it is not telling people about what we do.' The group's four main businesses are: Seddon Homes; Seddon Stoke, which is the parent of Mr Blair's J&S Seddon; G&J Seddon, which is another construction arm based in Bolton, and a plant arm.

G&J Seddon works on bigger, more specialist projects such as nu rsing homes, with an average job size of about £1.5 million compared with between £550,000 and £600,000 at J&S Seddon.

Apart from the housing operation, which only builds around a 100 homes a year, the other three firms have a member of the Seddon family on their board.

The group is headed up by John Seddon with his son Stuart, the chairman of Seddon Stoke.

Mr Blair, who is also a director of Seddon Stoke, is aim ing to grow J&S Seddon and is negotiating a £13 million contract that would be the business' largest contract to date.

In the long term, Mr Blair would like to see each office turning over the £19 million that his Stoke headquarters will do in 2006.

'Each operational office is capable of doing that, ' he adds. 'It wouldn't happen in the next three or four years but it's possible as a company.

'I still wouldn't take on a job that the local management couldn't support. I would never recruit just to do a job.' Closer to home, the boom on the horizon in the Potteries will help achieve this and J&S Seddon takes on 30-odd apprentices a year.

Mr Blair is also looking to expand further afield and is considering an acquisition further south.

In February, he held talks with the management of a small unnamed cont ractor in east London about buying the business.

'It's a small company and we would have to put some investment into it. The family is very support ive of acquisitions but it's got to be right, ' he says.

J&S Seddon's parent, Seddon Stoke, has only ever made three acquisitions, with a church painting business bought out years ago, followed by Jotcham & Kendal, then f loor ing specialist 4M a year later.

Part of the reason that Mr Blair and the Seddon Group are looking at another acquisition is the increasingly difficulty in getting on to long-term frameworks.

'It's getting more difficult to win big term jobs, ' says Mr Blair, who eschews working as a subcontractor for other main contractors, although J&S Seddon does work in this fashion for facilities management companies.

A round 35 per cent of J&S Seddon's workload is partnering and Mr Blair embraces the ethos.

A six-year partnering deal with Keele University has been completed and the client has been talking to Mr Blair about a new deal that could stretch for as long as 30 years.

Yet Mr Blair is convinced that partnering is not the panacea the industry once thought was on offer in Michael Latham's defining report a decade ago.

'It sounds good that a client wants to partner with you and share the savings above a certain level but they often start off at such a low price, ' he says.

'Clients still make too many judgments on cost alone. Latham said the industry should make 10 per cent profit but that's never going to be possible at a competitive level.'