Investing in your staff can help win clients and see you through tough times
Now is a time when many contractors are struggling. They may be looking at ways of becoming more efficient or having to cut costs more dramatically by losing staff. But there are also some that are not suffering the effects of the recession as much, and they could provide help for smaller firms.
Conlon Group, a Preston-based general contractor and property developer, battled through the turn of this century.
One of its major development projects “went pear-shaped”, in the words of director Maureen Boland, and its profits had been poor before that. Its turnover was about £8 million at that time.
Turnover is now £32 million and Conlon was named SME of the year at this year’s North-west regional construction awards.
But how has the group done it? Partly by applying the ideas of Latham and Egan.
“One of the decisions we made following the review was to commit to the Investors in People initiative. We used this as a means of communicating to our workforce the principles outlined in the Latham and Egan agendas,” says Ms Boland.
“The main focus of our attention was partnering, people and improving communications, particularly of business targets and performance. We also got involved with the Lancashire Construction Best practice Club.”
The firm found that some local authorities were early to take up the principles of partnering including one of its biggest clients, Lancashire County Council.
Conlon and some of its clients organised workshops, which outlined all aspects of partnering to senior staff. This helped it get a place on the County Council’s long-term framework.
Julia Evans, chief executive of the National Federation of Builders, says that the first step to partnership may be to join a trade federation as it will help you meet like-minded people.
She also says it is important to have one face to a potential client. “Customers might hesitate about speaking to a consortium. It’s easier to just talk to one organisation to make sure the consistent approach remains. Behind that make sure it is streamlined. It can be very productive,” she says.
Ms Evans suggests that partnering must be with the right people. “It’s not something you enter into lightly. There is friendly rivalry between firms. The current climate means that the competition will be stiffer. But be open-minded about it,” she says.
Other improvements Conlon made include signing up to the Considerate Constructors scheme, where it hopes to score 33 out of 40 on its sites. These results are circulated to teams and has encouraged competition.
The firm is also fairly unusual in the industry as it has two women on the board – Theresa Noblett, a quantity surveyor who has worked in the industry for 23 years, and Ms Boland, who switched from the grounds maintenance industry eight years ago. She looks after HR and business development.
One of Ms Boland’s concerns for the industry is its lack of staff from diverse backgrounds.
She says: “The most worrying part of the diversity debate from a business, supply and demand point of view is the fact that the industry only has access to 52 per cent of the entire working population – men – and therefore only 52 per cent of available talent.
“We need a better balance, if only to prevent staff and skills shortages in the future.”
Not all firms find the formal partnering approach right for them. Smart is an electrical, networking and data cabling contractor, based in Hertfordshire, with about 40 staff. It finds that informal partnerships work best. “It is more flexible because you can always walk away,” says managing director Russell Solts.
“We are all on a conference call on a weekly basis and if there is a problem you work together to overcome it. Everyone has the same goal, to get the ultimate installation.”
The firm works with a handful of clients on this basis. It has just won a £500,000 contract with the NHS in Winchester.
Mr Solts also advocates membership of a trade body – his firm joined the Electrical Contractors Association – because of the technical expertise and other contacts available.
Ms Boland says: “Getting into the partnering work early on definitely helped us to grow the business, not least because it fits with our culture so well.
“That and a huge amount of investment in training and development, regular business improvement activities and the calibre of those we employ has helped our success.”
HOW TO KEEP YOUR STAFF WORKING TO THEIR BEST ABILITY…
Julia Tyson, group HR director at Wates, says:
• Engage your teams and empower them to make a difference.
• Make time to say well done, good job and thank you. The power of praise and recognition should never be underestimated.
• Deliver clear and concise communications to members of staff. Be honest and listen to your employees’ concerns.
• Celebrate success no matter how small.
• Retain focus on the long-term vision of the business and provide very clear, calm direction.
• Visible leadership is vital; direction should always come from the top.
• Work hard to retain your top talent. Maintain focus on their development.
…AND ADVICE TO OTHER BUSINESSES
Maureen Boland, at Conlon Construction, says:
• Keep up with the times, especially in terms of technology and the continuous professional development of staff.
• Don’t underestimate the people you employ and make sure they are all aware of the company’s aims and objectives; enlist their support in helping you to achieve it. Most employees want to work for a company they are proud to be associated with.
• Endeavour to work towards achieving all the accreditations/standards your target market expects, for example Investors In People and ISO 9001, and set KPIs.
• Communicate with your clients; ask them for feedback and listen to it. It’s their perceptions of you and the service you offer that count when you are asking them for references or testimonials.