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Take opportunity where you find it


Bill Robertson explains his journey from the small time to a major player

FOUR decades ago, Bill Robertson was looking forward to finishing his apprenticeship with the small joinery business run by his father in his home town of Elgin in Scotland's Murray Forth.

The business once boomed, but his father's tuberculosis had taken its toll and workload had dwindled.

Mr Robertson planned to remedy that only for his father to pass away, aged just 57, a month before his apprenticeship was due to finish.

'I knew I wanted to build the business back up and I knew I wanted to work for myself, ' recalls Mr Robertson.

Forty years later, he has built up his own family business and is still working for himself.

Robertson Group is a £159 millionturnover construction business working in contracting, housing, facilities management, development and the Private Finance Initiative sector.

He adds: 'I spent the first few years learning what the business was all about and that was the hard way. I had no idea how to price work. Learning how to price has been the backbone of my business, but it was a steep learning curve.'

His big break was a deal to develop a block of th ree shops in Elgin on councilowned land. Profits from those shops, still there today, gave him the cash to compete and by the 1970s, Robertson was on an equal footing in the Murray area with Scot t ish t itan Hall & Tawse.

More prof its in 1975 f rom a local authority housing contract to build 50 homes paid for the setting up of joinery manufacturing, concrete and quarrying arms, but by 1989, Robertson still only worked within a 40-mile radius of Elgin, turning over £9 million a year.

'That was when we drew up our first business plan, ' says Mr Rober tson with a smile, able to laugh with the benefit of hindsight.

That initial plan involved lifting turnover to £35 million within five years, achieved two years early when Aberdeen contractor Doric ran into problems.

Venture capitalists 3i got involved and Mr Robertson bought the £12 million turnover contractor for a sum he describes as 'not very much'.

On the back of the acquisition, Robertson's average job size doubled to £1.5 million, but Aberdeen also offered a new set of problems.

The public sector provided 80 per cent of the work, but this was dwindling and competition increasing.

www. cnplus. co. uk In 1995, the business took a couple of hits from bad jobs and posted its first loss.

This prompted a re-think.

The concrete and aggregates operations were sold and the business drew its horns in, cutting turnover. Mr Robertson wanted to strike out again on a healthier footing.

Realising that the source of the publicsector work his business was so reliant on would come through PFI in the future, he took the plunge.

'PFI was prohibitive then, but not as prohibitive as it is now, ' he says.

Robertson tried to pre-qualify for a £26 million Ministry of Defence PFI housing deal in the Highlands, but was deemed not big enough and shunned by the MoD.

But the company did have land through its housing arm.

This led to an invitation to join a team including Morrison and Barclays Bank that was short listed and went on to win the deal.

A second PFI deal at New Craigs Hospital, which also included spare land for 900 homes, followed and Robertson was up and running.

A capital projects arm was formed to invest in PFI deals and there can be few of Robertson's contemporaries among the small to medium-sized contractors to enjoy so much success in the maligned initiative.

Of 14 deals priced, Robertson has won 12. But this success is only par t of his plans for the business.

A facilities management business was also set up along with a development arm and the construction business was rationalised.

He says: 'We looked at the construction business and how its best profits were when it was smaller, so we broke it up into regional businesses.

'We've got three guys at each of the four construction businesses and a totally flat structure.

'Those three guys make all the decisions; they are totally hands on and produce a net profit with a fine margin.

'The idea has been to produce a por tfolio of businesses and to stop t rading in construction just to produce a cash flow.

'That has got construction into a format that we thought would work. The big change has been that contractors are now prepared to partner each other.'

As examples, he cites contracting joint ventures with Sir Robert McAlpine and development deals involving Robertson's construction operation working with Mowlem as the contractor.

Robertson's £100 million-turnover contracting operations are split between an eastern arm in Aberdeen, a central operation in Stirling, a north-east division in Gateshead and a northern arm in Elgin.

Mr Robertson still lives in his home town and, like his Scottish contemporary, Bill Barr, Mr Robertson has been persuaded to take over his local football club. He is no football fan though.

As president of the Scottish Builders Federation in 1987, he has seen how easy it is to take your eye off the ball.

'We bought the shares to get the club on an even footing but I'm not involved otherwise. We have a couple of guys f rom the business who are real fans and they run the club. They know if it fails, it fails.'

A not dissimilar attitude is key to Robertson's continued survival and success.

Mr Robertson has just set up a fifth self-sufficient construction division in Tayside to service a pair of PFI schemes in Dundee.

Mr Robertson also plans to spin off the homes business into a separate company - still owned by himself - by the end of this financial year.

He explains: 'Five years ago, homes was only operating out of, say, three sites and they would all be around Elgin.

'We have moved to the central belt out of necessity, and this year, homes will be trading out of 17 sites and 12 of those will be in the central belt.

'The idea is to grow this business so they are in a position to fund themselves and we want to take homes out of the group and allow it to do that.

'That improves the gearing picture within the group and we'll need to do that with other companies going forward.'

That will involve the capital projects and development arms being spun off as separate companies in the future.

In his 60th year, Mr Robertson is still looking forward.