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Call for contractors to sharpen up business skills

Contractors must be leaner and fitter than ever - not just to survive the current downturn, but also to remain fit for purpose in the future, according to the new B&ES president Sue Sharp
Sue Sharp is only the second female president of the association formerly known as the HVCA - now the Building and Engineering Services Association (B&ES). She is also conscious of taking office at a time when the whole building engineering services sector is under scrutiny.

The industry's role is central to many of the Government's most important energy and climate change policies; but it is labouring under an unprecedented combination of difficult financial pressures and business Red Tape.

'We remain very cautious about the market conditions,' says Mrs Sharp. 'Our end of the supply chain follows about six months behind the rest of the construction industry so we came into the recession later and, by the same token, will have to be patient for longer.'

Contractors are continually challenged to prove that they are 'fit for purpose', but the struggle for profitability gets more intense as the recession continues. However, because she comes from a business, rather than a technical, background she feels this is an ideal time for her to be taking up such an important leadership position.

A diverse organisation
'B&ES is a very broad church - our membership reflects the wide range of specialisms within this industry,' she says. 'We cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach because we are such a diverse organisation. Our members have wide and disparate needs, but all contractors have similar problems in terms of business right now - and because of my background I can offer advice, support and sympathy to members at this tricky time.

'Whether you are large or small, you are forced to become leaner and more efficient. The up side is that once the recession is over the companies that survive will be in better shape for the future. If you don't get your business on a sound financial footing, however, there is no platform for your product or technical service - that might sound obvious, but sometimes that is hard for technically-led engineering businesses to face.'

The tight financial situation means firms have had to refocus on business basics like controlling overheads and managing cash flow.

'To some extent, we have had to pull back on some of the technical innovation and clever ideas to focus back on basics for now,' says Mrs Sharp, who joined the building engineering services sector in 1987 following a career in banking.

She rose from office manager to operations director and then managing director of ventilation hygiene contractor Overclean. She was md of the Devon-based firm from 1998 to 2007 and is now a non-executive director, but remains a key advisor on financial and regulatory matters.

She set up her own management consultancy, Sharp Business Solutions, in 2008 which provides a range of business services to small companies, many of which are active in the heating, plumbing and electrical sectors.

As well as helping existing small firms tackle their business challenges; Mrs Sharp is also involved in a mentoring scheme established by the National Enterprise Network, which provides grants to help unemployed people start their own businesses. In order to receive a loan, the applicant has to put together a detailed business plan and Mrs Sharp has now helped several aspiring business people through the process - an experience she describes as 'extremely rewarding'.

'I am very proud of the fact that I have been able to help unemployed people get their own businesses off the ground,' she says.

Within the building engineering sector, she is able to use her experience of handling tender documents; interpreting employment law; financial audits; CIS tax; payroll and health & safety matters to help other small employers floundering under the mountains of administration that can hamper their economic growth.

As president, she is intent on conducting a 'crusade' to lighten the burden of bureaucracy on firms particularly in the area of tendering. The issue of pre-qualification questionnaires is a source of considerable distress to SMEs. B&ES members should, in many cases, be 'deemed to qualify' because they have already undergone the association's own rigorous Inspection and Assessment (I&A) process, which is compulsory to joining and remaining in membership. However, many complain that they are still compelled to complete the pre-qualification process for each individual client.

'I urge firms to challenge these requests,' says Mrs Sharp. 'I find that clients will be flexible and reasonable if you point out that you are members of B&ES and you also have CHAS accreditation for health and safety.

'At the end of the day, if they insist you will have to fill out the damn form because you want the work, but if you don't ask you won't get.'

B&ES is also lobbying government and client bodies to improve the flow of money through the supply chain. Late payment is one of the most serious threats to the livelihood of building engineering services contractors despite the existence of legal avenues to force payment via the Construction Act.

Mrs Sharp and her fellow association officers have been pushing hard for the wider adoption of Project Bank Accounts (PBAs) and greater use of integrated teams so that payments are made on a staged basis rather than at the whim of the builder or main contractor.

She believes that by continuing to promote the competence of its members to clients, B&ES can help to raise the profile of the specialist firms and so increase their influence over the contractual process - particularly at a time when specialist skills are in increasing demand due to the drive for sustainable solutions.

Targeted technical initiatives
The association's legal and commercial work must also be supported by targeted technical initiatives, such as the association's eagerly anticipated guidance to the installation of heat meters that was launched just as Mrs Sharp was taking over as president from Bob Shelley.

This guidance is regarded by the regulator Ofgem as essential to the success of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which depends on accurate heat generation data. The association has also published a list of members capable of producing the reports necessary to apply for RHI payments as an aid to clients.

'This is an example of the association playing to its strengths,' says Mrs Sharp. 'Ofgem informs us that many RHI applications have been delayed because of lack of quality data due to the fact that heat meters have been omitted or poorly installed.

'Not of all of our members are involved in this area, but a good number are and we will respond to particular requests in as many specialist areas as possible. It also shows that our technical expertise can be used to help clients reduce the carbon footprint of their buildings and help the government meets it climate change targets.'

The skill of B&ES firms in providing the vital engineering work to integrate renewables and other emerging technologies in refurbishment projects will be a key part of the economic recovery, according to Mrs Sharp, who adds that the association will continue to accentuate that part of the market with the launch of guide to integration later this year.

Mrs Sharp has been a member of the Council of B&ES since 2003, and was chairman of its Service & Facilities Group from 2010 to 2012. She also served as chairman of the South West Regional Branch for four years from 2005. She was elected vice president in July 2010 and became president this July at the association's AGM.

She is conscious that she is the only woman, apart from Ann Justice in 1998, to lead the association, but relishes that responsibility. 'I'd like to think that young women might be inspired by seeing a woman president in such a male dominated industry,' she says.

'This sector can be an intimidating place for a woman and it can be very hard to get your voice heard. There are plenty of women in the industry, but very few in top roles as many are content to remain in the background. I hope that my presidency will give them the confidence to step forward.'

Women bring different qualities to building engineering tasks, she believes: 'We are pretty good at multi-tasking after all!'
6 August 2012


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