‘We’re ahead of the curve in global reach’
Senior business leaders are balancing many concerns in the wake of Brexit and other shifting political and economic landscapes. A partnership between the Belfast Telegraph and international law firm Pinsent Masons, ‘What’s on your mind?’, is a series of interview platforms for some of Northern Ireland’s prominent business leaders to outline what’s most pressing on their agenda and how they view these challenges. Pinsent Masons experts will provide analysis as to how businesses facing similar issues can minimise risk and navigate it successfully. This week, the Belfast Telegraph speaks to Ray Hutchinson, managing director of leading UK construction, refurbishment and fit-out contractor Gilbert-ash about the company’s recent growth and its successful national strategy from its headquarters in Northern Ireland.
Q How has Gilbert-ash progressed over the last five years?
A We have progressed in many ways during this time. In 2013 we took a strategic decision to proactively grow our business outside Northern Ireland, which has been extremely successful. By having this focus, the team has won multi-million pound contracts to deliver landmark UK projects such as the National Army Museum, Liverpool Everyman Theatre, Bartlett School of Architecture and Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. We have also made progress internationally, particularly through our long-standing relationship with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and we have now delivered British Embassy projects in 43 countries across the globe. We currently have over 180 employees and last year we managed to boost our turnover by 60%, and we are planning on building on this figure year-on-year.
Q Why did you decide to put your focus on external markets?
A Our dual approach to export development was based on both geography and the need to focus our expertise in niche areas. We recognised as a company that we had to look elsewhere and have less of a reliance on health and education projects in the public sector. We would have to work hard to build our reputation across the UK and internationally, but we focused on segments where we had experience and knew we could deliver stand-out work such as landmark buildings, arts and culture, and in science and technology. If we’d stayed solely focused on Northern Ireland, we wouldn’t be where we are now.
Q Does your export focus mean that you are not interested in the domestic market?
A We are certainly very proud of the company’s roots in Northern Ireland and maximise all opportunities within our home market too. Our recent work on the landmark AC by Marriott Hotel, part of Belfast Harbour’s fantastic development, has been a highlight for us this year and the employees have enjoyed delivering their skills on their home turf; also on projects such as the 474bed student accommodation for Olympian Homes on Great Patrick Street. We are always using examples of our work in Northern Ireland, such as the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlisted projects — the Causeway Visitor Centre and the Lyric Theatre — to showcase our own expertise and also how Northern Ireland is constantly developing its landscape with unique, forward-thinking buildings and spaces. For all of us, this will always be home.
Q The market here has faced its challenges in the past — is there anything you would change or recommendations you would suggest to improve the construction industry in Northern Ireland?
A There is a difficulty with abnormally low value tenders in Northern Ireland, but it is reassuring to see local public sector procurement bodies now recognise that this is a significant problem and are considering changes which will hopefully lead to improved margins in the construction sector. The level of pricing we see at the moment is not sustainable, and something has to give. One solution is the introduction of a two-stage tendering process, which is adopted a lot in Great Britain. This means there is less reliance on price and more of a focus on the quality of what you are going to deliver and your approach to working with the client. These are hugely important and are what really matters.
Q Has the current political situation in Northern Ireland had an impact on the construction industry here? A not withstanding that most of the business for Gilbert-ash has come from outside Northern Ireland in recent years, companies and businesses are definitely better served when local decision makers are on hand to move business forward and help solve any issues in the domestic market. The construction industry would certainly benefit from a stable Executive, as the local politicians could help bring clarity to the apprenticeship levy situation in Northern Ireland, for example, and progress projects such as the York Street Interchange. Local political support would enable the Northern Ireland construction industry to build long-term strategies and have confidence in their business going forward.
Q And Brexit — has this impacted Gilbert-ash’s growth or do you foresee any issues in the future?
A Like many businesses around the time of the referendum, we were in favour of staying in the EU. We have reconciled ourselves to the fact that Brexit is happening and I think we all have to just get on with it and make it as business-friendly as possible.
Our real concern would be around the issue of EU workers, it would cause difficulties for our industry if we lost access to this pool of invaluable, skilled employees.
At Gilbert-ash we haven’t seen any reduction in opportunities; our international focus has put us in a strong position post-brexit. We’ve been awarded FCO contracts for projects in Budapest, Ghana, Japan, Australia, and Sri Lanka, I would say we are ahead of the curve in reaching out to more corners of globe to ensure the company is a success.
Q What does the future hold for Gilbert-ash?
A Gilbert- Ash was recently named as ‘ the one to watch in 2018’ in the prestigious UK Construction News report and with figures indicating strong growth for the future of around £175m to £180m for 2017, we plan to build on our success with many high-profile projects underway throughout the UK and internationally.
The feedback we have received indicates that our design-led, collaborative approach with clients is unique and we aim to continually bring a fresh perspective to our projects to ensure sustained growth, and leave a lasting legacy on the built environment.
Ray Hutchinson (inset) and (top) Gilbert Ash carried out work on the Fetal Medicine Research Institute in London and the Liverpool Philharmonic building