BQ Newsletter

Built with a heart

Tuesday 10 April 2012 0:00

Peter Baber

Diligent attention to community work has paid off for construction company Esh Group and will pay off as it expands in Yorkshire, its regional head tells BQ.

Esh Group – who are they? Even Chris Walker, divisional director of the Yorkshire arm of Esh Build, admits that most people in the region probably won’t be familiar with the name – especially given that its overall group headquarters are in the North East.

But they should be familiar with at least some of the work the company has done in the region, particularly through its civil engineering subsidiary Lumsden & Carroll. Its clients have included Yorkshire Water.

“We have actually been in and around Yorkshire for the last 20 years through Lumsden & Carroll,” says Walker.

“We are definitely not new kids on the block.” It was precisely because of Lumsden & Carroll’s already established brand name, in fact, that it was one of the few divisions of the company that didn’t end up with the prefix Esh before it when the company restructured and rebranded its divisions and opened an Esh Construction Yorkshire head office in Thorpe Park in 2009.

Now the Esh Construction brand comprises Esh Build, Esh Property Services – a facility solutions company - Lumsden & Carroll itself, and Stephen Easten, a specialist building company with its focus on churches and listed buildings.

Walker, a construction industry veteran who has previously worked for the likes of Allenbuild and Malton-based Harrison Construction, is the man who has been given the task of raising the company’s profile in its newest region.

But what is this Esh? Here, perhaps, a little knowledge of the North East would come in handy.

Esh Group got its name because it was based in the village of Esh Winning in County Durham.

But as any self-respecting Geordie football fan would know, Esh Winning was also the birthplace of the late Sir Bobby Robson, former England manager and widely respected across the whole football community, not just on Tyneside.

That connection proved useful in setting up the company in Yorkshire. Robson himself came to the opening of the Leeds office, just a few months before he died. In fact, the event was probably one of the last functions he attended that wasn’t football related. Such a big name at the opening, however, was clearly something of a pull.

“What an ambassador that man was,” says Walker. “He had had ties with the company for a number of years. He had worked closely on rebranding and on our expansion into this region. Because of him being there we got the press here, with TV coverage.

“It really went well, considering he was poorly at the time. We had 150 guests, and he brought with him his autobiography. I think he must have sold well over 100 copies of it that night. But even then he stayed behind, and people came up and they were talking to him, talking generally about family as well as football. He had a word with everyone.” Walker clearly likes the community-centred ethos behind such events. In fact, he says it was Esh Group’s strong record on corporate social responsibility that got him interested in joining the company in the first place. One project he likes to talk about in particular is the work the company does with the Cyrenians, a charity supporting vulnerable and homeless people.

“Work like that really touches on parts of the community that are struggling,” he says. “After all, it’s easy as a company to offer work experience, but there is still a plethora of people out there who have been pushed to one side or ignored because of their backgrounds – through no fault of their own.

You try and tap into those people to give them chances for life by offering some kind of work. Supervising such work can of course be demanding, but our results have been successful. Some people drop off within minutes because it’s not for them – I don’t know, perhaps they do want to go back to not working hard. But some do tune into it.

"We make sure these individuals come away with NVQs that are recognised within the industry, so that they get opportunities within Esh or within other employers.”

The company is actively engaged in more conventional CSR too, for example by going into schools to help would-be construction workers build their CVs.

“That might seem rather basic,” he says, “but people in sixth form often have very little to sell at their age other than their personality. And how do they get that across in a letter? We have found that when we talk to them on what we are looking for when we see a CV we can then show them how to do it. Plus it builds their confidence. We can run it as a mock interview.”

While such work started in the North East, it has been brought down into Yorkshire as well.

“We may approach a school in the area,” says Walker. “We are currently working with Allerton High School. We may be there for an hour, giving them briefings.”

He insists that such work does more than improve people’s sense of doing good. For any construction company, he thinks, it is essential.

“Typically when you start building on a site potentially you are a nuisance,” he says. “People are always inquisitive with regards to what you are doing. Perhaps they are not in favour of what you are doing anyway. They didn’t want that building in the first place. But if you start growing people more towards what they are getting out of the project, and perhaps if there are employment opportunities there and in the future, they may become part of it instead. So at least when they are talking to their friends and neighbours they make a point of letting them know what the product is. It might even get to the point of saying: ‘Actually my son/father is employed on that site.’ It draws people in.”

The work in schools, he says, also serves a useful purpose in reminding school leavers just what a potentially rewarding career construction can be for some of them.

“We try to give them an insight into construction,” he says. “There are so many opportunities out there, from hands on working through to site administration, contract administration, accounting, and clerical. Within construction you have loads of disciplines.” He shares the view of many in the construction industry that too many schoolchildren are led to believe that an apprenticeship in construction would be unrewarding, and so instead go to university for a course that is not really suited to them. But he doesn’t necessarily blame the schools themselves for this misdirection.

“Opportunities have actually expanded in recent years because of modern materials and alternative methods of construction,” he says.

“Traditionally you would have thought of a bricklayer or plasterer, but because of modern materials those have extended with regards to alternative types of roof tiling, for example. We can engage with younger people under apprentice schemes so that they can become involved in groundworks, drainage, roof coverings, and all the basic traditional trades as well.

"We do need to focus on traditional trades, otherwise in years to come there will be no one to focus on traditional tasks, but at the same time we need to make sure we are bringing people through to understand and learn alternative new methods.”

It isn’t all touchy-feely, however. In its relatively short lifetime, the company’s Yorkshire division has been involved in some exciting projects. One of the biggest in the early days was the refurbishment of the Weeland Road glass bottle factory in Knottingley.

The factory has been producing bottles since the 19th century and claims to be the first ever factory in the world to use a machine for making them.

The factory was acquired by Austrian company Stolzle Oberglass in 1994, and the subsidiary it formed to run the factory, Stolzle Flaconnage, has since been producing bottles for a wide range of customers from Boots to Glenfiddich. But by 2009 the company felt the factory was in need of an upgrade.

“Our involvement started out when the client invited us to look around their existing facilities with a view to making a customer centre,” says Walker.

“They make perfume bottles and beer bottles and they are just like a food company in the way they need to manage their production line. We had a live environment throughout, so coordination became a key issue. We built the customer centre, then ended up extending their factory on an open book basis to make sure we can give them a competitive price. It was a good project, worth around £2.4m.”

In 2010 that seven-month project won the value award at the Construction Best Practice in Yorkshire and the Humber awards.

One of the first projects the company took part in had a more sinister evolution when a tenant in a block of 72 apartments in Glossop decided to set fire to the building one bank holiday weekend.

It was completely gutted, and Esh was called in. “The whole building needed new structural support,” he says, “and it was a tricky situation because all the flats were separately owned.

It was quite a stressful time, because quite rightly all the tenants wanted to know when their apartment was going to be ready to move back into, because they had been living in hotels for months on end. But we got them all back in the end.”

Currently the company is involved in building a £4.5m care home for the Turning Point charity at Mastin Moor near Chesterfield. But there are wider projects to follow too.

Esh Build has worked for Morrisons, and is now part of the Yorbuild framework, while Lumsden & Carroll are on the Yorcivils framework, and hopefully there may be some crossover.

“We also get opportunities through universities, who do tend to stand alone in terms of their own frameworks.

"We are now on the framework for Sheffield Hallam, and have worked previously at Huddersfield, and done a scheme at Leeds.

"We were involved in the refurbishment of the library at Huddersfield, while it was civic realm works at Leeds. Again that was harder to co-ordinate because it had to be done during live term. We have also just found out that Esh Facility Solutions has just been awarded the framework for reactive and routine maintenance at Leeds Met.That may develop things. They already work for the likes of Boots and Barclays, and that brings opportunities for ourselves, because while they look after facilities management, Esh Build could tender for associated work. Our Leeds office is like a central hub.”

With work like that, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that Walker feels Esh hasn’t really experienced any of the current downturn.

“The bigger schemes, while still there, are fewer and further between,” he says. “And most councils, especially with regard to education, are looking to refurbishment and extensions, whereas eight years ago they would knock down and build again. But there is still quite a bit of work out there. We are hopeful of Yorkshire being the next strategic area in particular because we are convinced there is more work here. It’s now a matter of trying to raise our profile so people know we are here and the benefits we have.”

One factor in Walker’s favour, he says, is the benefit of having a strong balance sheet – something many other construction companies wish they had.

At the end of the last financial year, Esh Group as a whole reported a turnover of £169m, an operating profit of £5.9m and a cash balance of £28m.

“On that basis we can talk to clients and categorically guarantee that we will be here to finish the project,” he says. “You can’t always do that these days. It also gives reassurance to our supply chain, because they know they are going to get paid on a regular basis.”

As a result, when asked where the Yorkshire division may be in five years, he sees a rosy future ahead.

“It’s difficult to mention turnover,” he says, “but in that period I would like to think we will be turning over in excess of £35m. We did £13m last year here alone.”