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Team ethos keeps Simon s at the top of its game

PROFILE - Simons chairman Paul Hodgkinson tells Steve Menary why measuring performance and profiling staff is making his firm a nicer place to work

PAUL Hodgkinson likens the difference between his approach to running Simons and some other contractors to a comparison between England and Premier League champions Chelsea.

'Chelsea have a deep squad and they train together regularly, ' he says.

'Who would win if they played England? I'd back Chelsea every time.' Mr Hodgkinson plans to make his contracting and development business number one.

Not the biggest in terms of turnover or profit, but the best: the best for his clients and the best for his staff.

The firm is ranked number 35 in the Financial Times Top 50 Best Workplaces.

Mr Hodgkinson refers to that a couple of times with the sort of pride Mr Mourinho shows in his charges after an impressive Premier League win, but the Simons boss wants more.

Mr Hodgkinson is look ing at all possibilities to make his business better.

Simons had started using key account managers, which is slowly becoming more common in forward thinking contractors but it is also profiling staff.

Mr Hodgkinson uses Belbin profiles to see which members of staff are likely to work best together and then put them in project teams.

'There's a lot of talk about the qualities of companies but not the quality of the actual people, ' he says. 'And people don't just build buildings, people work for people.

'I have a fundamental belief that you can't just put a scratch project team together. Sometimes you might be lucky but output is directly related to the quality of the team that is assembled.' The profiles are used along with a concept Mr Hodgkinson terms the Construction Loop, which measures individual performances in the supply chain.

'Each subcontractor gets marked on every project, so do the clients, consultants and our staff, ' Mr Hodgkinson says.

'After each job, subcon-tractors are told, for example, that they have got a 72 per cent score, next time we want them to get 75 per cent and here are the weaknesses that we want them to focus on.

'That way, we are always improving.' Mr Hodgkinson is obviously a keen reader of business st rategy books, citing The Knowing Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Act ion as an influential read.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ?.

And Others Don't is Mr Hodgkinson's latest bible.

That might give the impression that he is a business guru trying to convert Simons' 800-odd staff into disciples, but not so.

Mr Hodgk inson t rained as an architect before signing up for the family firm.

Simons started out in 1944, when his father Peter Hodgkinson and a friend Harry Dunn, both only 16, went to Lincoln to work on m ilitary airpor t runways for Nottingham contractor W&J Simons.

'In those days, work was effectively handed out as a cartel, ' he says. 'My father and Harry broke that cartel up, which caused a lot of angst among competitors.

'After 20 years they had created a business that was bigger than the parent company and they eventually bought it and knocked off the W&J.' Mr Dunn cont inued to live in Nottingham and a branch office was set up there in 1967 as Simons of Lincoln, known as Sol for short.

Mr Dunn eventually bought th is business for his sons, who sold it to a management buyout a decade ago.

Mr Hodgk inson took over as chairman in 1986 only for his father to pass away six months later.

By his own admission, he was too young but enjoyed a golden first few years with the industry in bloom only for the early 1990s recession to hit.

'About 600 people left and cut the company in half, ' he says. 'That was my big learning curve as we had grown too big and lost control.' Emerging from the recession, Mr Hodgkinson and his brother Philip, the deputy chairman, started to set in place the plans that are shaping the business but were restrained by the complex shareholding that had emerged over the last half century.

There were more than 40 shareholders, from family members of the Hodgkinsons and Dunns, to former executives to County Bank ? which then held 17 per cent.

'We saw that we would all have kids and it would only get worse, ' adds Mr Hodgkinson. 'There were pressures to float and create some liquidity for the shareholders but personally I think that publicly quoting and construction companies are not two things that go together.' So, over the past decade, Mr Hodgkinson and his brother have used Simons' profits to buy out the other shareholders and the pair now own 96 per cent of the shares with the remnants held by their own siblings.

This has allowed them to press on with their plans, including focusing on a handful of 20 key clients, such as retail giants Asda, House of Fraser, J Sainsbury and developer Gazeley, that provide 90 per cent of the firm's £220 million contracting turnover.

'We're looking for clients that have a rolling programme of work, ' says Mr Hodgkinson, who estimates that cementing a relationship with a new client can cost up to £150,000 and take th ree years.

That approach has led to some casualties such as Cliff Bryant, who joined in 1999 as a managing director but left four years later citing the direction of the business as one reason for his departure.

Since then, that position has not been filled, with the two brothers running the business helped by three non-executive directors, along with finance director Jim Kendall and ex-Wilson Bowden managing director Paul Cross taking charge of the property arm.

Mr Hodgkinson is happy to take on new clients but not at any cost.

'We're happy to start a new relationship but are quite clear about the kind of companies that we want to work for. If people want something at the cheapest price, they don't really care about the supply chain, ' he says.

He pauses, then adds: 'I shouldn't say this but I don't want to work for those people.'