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Contractor Profile: Charity and business begin at home

Mike Belli re loves working in the heating industry, but that does not stop him getting hot under the collar about the red tape he feels is stifling smaller enterprises. He talked to HVR about his passion for business and his charity work saving lives and eyesight in Kenya.
Contractor Profile: Charity and business begin at home
BSW Heating managing director Mike Bellière is worried that he is starting to sound like a grumpy old man. After more than 40 years in building services contracting, he finds today's heavily regulated business environment dispiriting.

'We must be one of the most regulated industries in the world,' he says. 'You have to fill in a lengthy pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) just so you can tender, and then you have to answer all the same questions again when you get the work.

'Many of my contemporaries who started businesses 30 years ago wouldn't be able to do it now because of the amount of bureaucracy. It favours the larger businesses because the small ones can't deal with all the complicated compliance requirements.

'And this complex and lengthy process does not guarantee that you are any good at engineering, and it would be good if the government would wake up to that fact sometime soon.'
Croydon-based BSW Heating was founded in 1962 by Bellière's father, John. The company split into two separate arms in 2001 when Bellière's brother moved to Haywards Heath to run BSW Building Services as a stand-alone business.

Family affair
Bellière says the operation has thrived since the separation because it forced him to refocus. He has built up a service business alongside the established domestic and commercial installation arms. With an annual turnover of close to £12M and employing 100 people, with a similar number of full-time sub-contractors, he describes business as brisk.

BSW provides service cover for tens of thousands of homes on behalf of its many local authority and housing association clients. Payment problems are few and far between for BSW because it works almost exclusively directly for the end client.

'Heating contractors are generally fairly efficient people, and are certainly more efficient than many builders. We generally try to avoid getting sucked into their inefficiencies,' he says.
'And the great thing about service contracts is that you get continuity of work - the downside is that if you lose one it can have a big impact on turnover. So you can't afford to stand still, and we are always looking to grow.

'The four elements you need to be successful in this business are plenty of work, money, labour and materials, fairly obvious, but the tough part is having all four at the same time. At the moment, we are looking for more labour as we are quoting for some big jobs.'

Finding expert staff to cover the rising workload is not generally a problem for BSW, says Bellière, because the company is so long-established and has consistent workloads. It also has a long-standing apprentice scheme with between three and four trainees taken on every year.

On the installation side, the company works from individual homes right up to major projects like the recently completed Arndale Centre refurbishment in Wandsworth, where BSW installed 8.5MW of boiler plant.

'I do bitch and moan, but I can't imagine having had a better working life in any other industry,' says Bellière. 'I was lucky to start when central heating was really in its infancy. I don't complain about the heating industry itself, which has been very good to me - it is the government's appetite for over-regulation that causes problems.

Red tape
'There are people sitting around in Brussels constantly dreaming up new regulations. I know they were considering insisting that anyone with outside workers would have to take daily UV readings to protect their employees from sunburn. We can cope with this kind of nonsense because we are big enough, but many companies can't and it is driving small players out of the industry.'

Bellière sees a big future in renewable energy systems, but admits persuading clients to dip their toes in the water is proving hard work.
'They all want to improve their green footprint - and they need to. The trouble is it is expensive at the moment,' he says. 'Most people think it is a good idea, but actually doing something about it is another matter. It is our role to provide guidance and encourage people to do the right thing, but the government has to support the industry's efforts by enforcing its own energy legislation. It will happen.

'It is a good thing that the industry has a body like the HVCA to represent us at government level and to advise and persuade on these issues,' he adds. BSW has been a member of the association for more than 30 years.

But Bellière is also looking to the future of the business, and has three directors running key aspects of the company. Bellière's son, Guy, is the contracts director, ensuring that the family connection will continue into a third generation. Alan Warner runs the admin side and Robert Bazil is in charge of the rapidly expanding service business.

'They all have excellent complementary skills,' he says. 'But they need someone to pull it all together and that's what I do - although they'll probably laugh at that when they read this!'

Greater need
He also has a huge, consuming interest outside the business. He and his wife, Dee, founded and run the Medical & Educational Aid to Kenya (MEAK) charity.

MEAK has organised and funded 2,500 eye cataract operations in the African country and more than 200 heart operations in the past ten years, all carried out by doctors flown out from the UK.

In fact, the charity is responsible for around 25% of all the open-heart operations carried out in East Africa. It also provides vast amounts of educational materials and medical supplies to a country where more than 50% of the population lives below the poverty line.

It all started when Dee handed over Bellière's favourite T-shirt to a Kenyan fisherman during a holiday 22 years ago. She said he needed it more than her husband.

'I did ask why it needed to be my favourite one,' he recalls. 'After that we started taking suitcase loads of clothes over there, and one thing led to another.'
Classroom supplies came next, soon followed by medical equipment. Eventually the charity that was formally founded in 1994 started arranging medical missions.

'I am extremely proud that we have been able to give people their eyesight or their lives back with the help of some fantastic doctors,' says Bellière. 'I have had a very good life thanks to the heating industry and it is nice to be able to give something back.

'The company is closely involved and the other directors look after things while I disappear on missions. We have also had great support from other people in the industry.' Wolseley and Travis Perkins are both sponsors.
Does that mean it will soon be time to turn his back on heating and become a full-time charity organiser?

'Perhaps the other directors think that might not be such a bad idea, but I am not ready to hand over all the reins just yet.'

1 January 2008


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