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Westpile returns in a new incarnation

PILING - Westpile was closed in 2003 because its margins were too small.Now it has been reborn.General manager Julian Gatward tells Steve Menary about its labour pains

'ALL I EVER wanted to do when I was younger was to work abroad, ' says Julian Gatward.

'I could have been a clown, I didn't care.'

The general manager of Westpile, the decades-old piling subcontractor that has risen from the dead over the past year, is talking off the cuff.He is engagingly honest, rarely stopping to consider his words and probably doing himself a disservice.

In his office, he keeps photographs that show how he realised his boyhood dream by working in the Middle East.His face lights up as he talks of trying to show his Indian and Pakistani workers how to fix machinery with a tool kit and no idea of what he was doing.That machinery most probably got fixed if Mr Gatward's record so far at Westpile is anything to go by.

Westpile was established in 1924 by Alexander G Rotinoff, an emigre from Russia, who developed the successful shell pile system for the firm.

Westpile's seventh ever job was for Sir Robert McAlpine and the business remained both popular with main contractors and profitable, albeit at a low margin, until 2003.

That margin was not enough for owner Interserve, which unceremoniously closed the business down in 2003 with the loss of 130 jobs.

'Piling is difficult, ' says Mr Gatward.'You have to work very hard to make a profit and you aren't guaranteed to make one.'

He tries to sympathise with Interserve but has civil engineering in his blood and does not look convinced by such brutal corporate behaviour.

At the time, Mr Gatward was asked by Bachy Soletanche to try to pick up some of the jobs that £20 million-turnover Westpile would be leaving behind.Two months later and to his surprise, Bachy paid £1.5 million for Westpile's name and some piling rigs and Mr Gatward was appointed general manager.

'They weren't getting anything other than the name and the reputation of one of the oldest piling contractors in the UK, ' he says.

Mr Gatward tried to re-employ the staff who had been let go.Of the 32 people he approached, 30 said yes.Of the two who said no, one went to work for a rival and another set up on his own but still works freelance for Westpile.

Mr Gatward remains the only Bachy employee among the 30 staff at the resurrected business.

He says: 'There was a reasonable staff turnover but not among the older people.There were a few who had been there 30 or 40 years and we've got some of them back.

'No one seems to regret returning.Now they have a parent company that is in the same business and will invest in them, instead of Interserve, which was not interested.'

Some clients understandably moved on to using other piling firms but Mr Gatward has persuaded firms like house builder Fairview and main contractors Galliford Try, HBG and Eve to return and has attracted new clients such as concrete frame firm O'Shea.He says: 'Most of the clients were pleased to have Westpile back as they were not too pleased at having to find a new piling contractor.'

The firm does not have the capacity to manufacture piles and neither does Bachy in the UK, so any driven piles have to be bought from Stent, Aarsleff or Simplex.

Most of the work at Westpile, which has nine piling rigs, is continuous flight auger or rotary piling.

Westpile mostly comes up against Galliford Try subsidiary Rock & Alluvium and May Gurney's piling arm on jobs.

Bachy had little crossover with Westpile prior to the deal and Westpile generally does not go after the same work as its owner, although Mr Gatward admits some clients still do not realise there is any connection between the two companies.

Between restarting and up to December 2004, Westpile turned over £3.5 million.Mr Gatward hopes the workload will reach £7 million this year.

'The intention is to get to about £10 million in a couple of years' time, ' says Mr Gatward.'The aim is to recover Westpile's complete position in the marketplace.

'The difference now is that we like to think the clients have more direct access to the people pulling the strings at Westpile.'

With only a dozen people in the office, Westpile does not need too much space just yet but the firm is occupying the same office - and phone numbers - as before Interserve pulled the plug.The rest of the building is still occupied by regional civil and building arms of Interserve.

There is no animosity but lack of space and the planned expansion are likely to lead to a move.

'Interserve's leases have a break in 2009, ' says Mr Gatward.'I deliberately negotiated my lease so that it would not be any longer and by then we will probably have to move. I fully expect Interserve to leave at some time and we'll have to leave too.'

Mr Gatward might expect an office move but, after 15 years with Bachy as his ultimate employer, he is keen to stay and help complete the firm's resurrection.

This is all too evident from the pleasure on his face on thumbing through a book of old photographs and information on Westpile that had been thrown in a skip two years ago.

Picking up a crusty tome, he leafs through pictures of old piling jobs, including work in the Nile delta in Egypt.

Mr Gatward stops and points to a UK job done for architects Gelden & Kitchen on a job for Rank Hovis.

Months after resuming trading, Westpile worked for the same two companies on a job again - 70 years after their first association.

The smile on Mr Gatward's face shows that Westpile is back in good hands.

'For Westpile's name to disappear from the face of the planet I felt was really sad, ' says Mr Gatward.'I was really happy to resurrect it.'