‘We’re ahead of the curve in global reach’

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Analysis & Company Report -

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

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