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The magic touch at Independent Access

SCAFFOLDING & ACCESS

As UK marketing and sales director of manufacturing giant JLG, Andrew Fishburn had a ringside seat for the collapse of hire specialist Independent Access. Paul Howard finds out why he crossed the fence to help resurrect the company

EAST is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. Likewise when it comes to hirers and manufacturers of plant. With the exception of Finning's ownership of Hewden and Terex's shortlived alliance with Hawk Rental, the UK hire market has managed to resist the overtures of plant makers.

At least, this is the case at a corporate level.

At a personal level the boundaries between working for manufacturers and hirers are less well def ined and more easily crossed.

One such poacher turned gamekeeper is Andrew Fishburn. Formerly director of marketing and sales in the UK with access manufacturer JLG, Mr Fishburn is now a quarter of the management buy-in team aiming to resurrect one of the fallen giants of access hire ? Independent Access.

With such immediate experience from the other side of the indust ry fence, he is candid about the work that needs doing if he is to succeed.

He says: 'The first year is about getting the business out of intensive care. We need to secure the team for the future and to secure the customer base. We also need to eliminate unnecessary costs and position ourselves for the future.' As well as this strategic planning, there were also practical steps to be undertaken in order for the business to cont inue to function at all.

Mr Fishburn says: 'We also had to get kit into good enough condition so it could actually be used as much as it should be. We had a lot of niggly breakdowns. We had to clamp down on these.' The result was that the first few months under the new owners saw Stuart Honeywood, fellow director and erstwhile colleague of Mr Fishbu rn's at JLG, spending th ree months making the company's preventative maintenance more stringent. 'We've now set it up along the lines of what you would have in place as a manufacturer, ' says Mr Fishburn. 'If an engineer says it can't go out on hire, then it won't, regardless of what the salesman says. We spent £400,000 on this alone.' Eight months into his new career Mr Fishburn is now also thinking about the tactics to employ next year. 'We intend to come out fighting with an aggressive sales and marketing campaign and a new brand (see below).' He is also aware of the pract ical lim its to his aspirations. He says: 'In the second year we've got to build the business we've got.' Initially, at least, this means focusing on what the business can offer with the f leet of machines it inherited after administration rather than a wholesale investment in new machines. 'If and when we need to invest in new kit we will, ' he says. 'At the moment, the age profile of the machines is good, with an average age of between three and four years.' This fleet is somewhat diminished from the 2,000 or so un its run by Independent. A round 650 machines were repossessed during administration but this still leaves 1,350 to play with. 'We're still top 10 in the UK , ' says Mr Fishburn.

Currently the machines are split fairly equally into three groups. 'Approximately one third are smaller scissors, a third are dieselpowered construction machines up to 43 m and a third are electric boom lifts, ' he says.

Although these are the machines with which the company intends to do business in the short term, the profile of the f leet will not remain static. Far from focusing on the diesel powered sector that constitutes the lion's share of the access industry, however, Mr Fishburn says the proportion of these models will be reduced: 'When we get round to changing our fleet profile we'll wean ourselves off some of these diesel machines.' With the construction industry's appetite for these models so voracious, isn't this a risky strategy?

He says: 'Yes, it's another thing to have to do, to educate the end user, but a lot of people are ready to be educated about the virtues of electric machines.

It also depends how you define construction. Our smaller electric scissor f leet is proving very popular with mechanical and electrical contractors. People should be more aware that these machines can do a lot of the jobs 'traditional' diesel construction machines can do, but have extra virtues as well ? they're cleaner, quieter, more compact. Clean air work ing is already an issue in places like London.' This attitude is clear evidence of Mr Fishburn's intention to do more than just follow current trends.

In fact the desire to bring about change ? in the way people use access machines and in the way the company is run ? is at the heart of his motivation.

Nevertheless, the catalyst for his initial involvement with attempts to rescue Independent came from his former employers at JLG.

He says: 'Independent was a very big customer of JLG when it went into administration. They had a high level of exposure and my involvement was part and parcel of its effor ts at t rying to stop it going under.' Mr Fishburn's efforts turned into more than just the protect ion of his employer's best interests, however.

'I got involved working with the management buyin team as an adviser with industry experience, but I was asked to be involved in the actual buy-in. It just felt like the time had come to give it a go.' This means his career has now come full circle.

He says: 'I started out at Zip-up rental, then went into sales with them, then with JLG, and now I'm back into rental.' One of the reasons the timing felt right was Mr Fishburn's pronounced fear of being stuck in a rut: 'I didn't want life to pass me by. I didn't want to be 55 in a big company and not be in a position to effect any more change.'

His wish has now come true in spades ? the ability to effect change is a vital element of how he sees his new role: 'We've got to change the culture of the business, to change people's mindsets. We've got to bring in a whole new management approach.' In pract ice Mr Fishbu rn sees this as inverting the classic organisational pyramid with decisions being passed up a chain of command. He says: 'We don't want to be an MD-led organisation, the big cheese sitting on top of a pyramid making all the decisions. We want decisions to be made by everybody, we want to have a guilt-f ree cultu re.' This task is not a simple one, however. He says: 'The CEO of Atlas Copco said to effect change takes two years per layer of management. We have now removed some layers of management to facilitate our own process of change and shorten the timeframe.' This explains some of the company's reduction in staffing levels over the past eight months.

Wizard Access now has 72 staff compared with 110 when Independent went into administration, although Mr Fishburn says most of these losses were brought about by the process of administration itself rather than straight redundancies.

Does this mean his mantra of change has begun to be accepted? Mr Fishburn believes it has. 'We're eight months in and we can now see some light at the end of the tunnel. There's more to it than just getting people responding to the new culture, though. We've got to work hard to equip them with the necessary skills as well.' As with all businesses there is a limit to the amount of time available to put all these new processes and knowledge in place, a limit of which Mr Fishburn is keenly aware. Yet, in spite of the steepness of the learning curve for everybody involved, he remains upbeat. He says: 'The timetable for effecting this change is the million dollar question, but I'm confident it can be done.'

What's in a name?

THE COMPANY that Andrew Fishburn and his colleagues are intent on restoring to prominence and success went into administration as Independent Access but came out as something else. Wizard Workspace is the company's new brand, or at least will be after a controlled roll-out.

Mr Fishburn explains why there is no rush: 'This is already being introduced to new customers but there are still a lot of loyal Independent customers whom we don't wish to alienate. Having said that, there's also a lot of baggage we need to lose with the old name.'

And why Wizard Workspace? Precisely because it doesn't sound like just another access hirer. 'We liked 'Workspace' because it's not just about height, it's about working when you get there, and 'Wizard' went well with it. It also implies the concept we want to sell ? aerial working made easier.'