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Contractor Profile: Rock stars and hospitals: it’s all in a day’s work!

Sharp + Howse managing director Bob Shelley admits he has a low boredom threshold, so it is just as well that his company works for such a diverse range of clients
Contractor Profile: Rock stars and hospitals: it’s all in a day’s work!
Sharp + Howse will do anything “from a tap washer change to a multi-million pound commercial project”, according to its managing director Bob Shelley.

Diversification is a key part of the growth strategy for the £4million turnover Oxford-based business and its 50 staff.

The firm that was originally set up in the 1930s as H.E. Howse to carry out simple plumbing and leadworks for Oxford University colleges still works directly for a number of prestigious clients in and around the town, but it is now a very different business and includes the giant John Radcliffe Hospital, Carillion and various rock stars and country-pile-owning celebrities among its clients.

There is no record that Messrs Howse and Sharp ever met, although they would have competed with each other in Oxford. Following the death of Mr Howse in the early 1970s, a major share in the business was bought by local building firm Symm & Co, which also eventually acquired Leonard A Sharp another long-established local m&e firm – and so Sharp + Howse was born.

In 1982 the group acquired Bicester Air Conditioning to add an air conditioning and ventilation side and today the company is an autonomous part of the Symm Group, which also runs the building business, and a stonemasons called APSM.

Bob Shelley also has a lengthy m&e pedigree having served his apprenticeship at Lorne Stewart before working for Rotary Southern and Towco Gratte and running his own business. He joined Sharp + Howse 14 years ago and was appointed managing director two years later.


He is invigorated by the challenge of running such a diverse business and feels the company has developed a reputation that gives it access to many blue chip clients.

“Sometimes people refer to us as ‘Weird + Wonderful’ rather than Sharp + Howse because of our willingness to take on all sorts of unusual projects.

“People like to work with us but they know we will not be the cheapest because we pride ourselves on our high standards,” he adds.

“Working for large commercial clients and celebrity owners of extremely luxurious country houses takes a particular type of person.

One day you might be standing toe-to-toe with a builder arguing over payments and the next you are politely discussing the finer details of a project with a wealthy client who is spending millions of pounds on his home.

“That mixture of life and technical skills is hard to find,” says Bob.

The company enjoyed an extremely rewarding partnership with local car manufacturer Rover and was heavily involved in the rejuvenation of its Cowley plant in the ’90s – all history now following the collapse of the famous firm, but he sees that experience as extremely useful as it was “partnering in the purest sense”.

“There was very little paperwork. We knew what they wanted and they knew we could deliver it. People tend to try and over-complicate these things.”

He wants to take the company on to the next level – growing to around £6million turnover next year – by accepting larger projects and taking advantage of the trend for large contractors to put out packages of work to mid-size companies.

Close involvement with the HVCA is also a key part of the firm’s strategy and this goes back to long-serving managing director Derrick Beale, who was a driving force from the early ’70s onwards.

“He was passionate about the HVCA and its training projects in particular. I was a bit reluctant at first to get too involved but now recognise what a fantastic network it offers,” says Bob.

“Sometimes it is hard to measure what you get out of all the voluntary work you do, but there have been particular instances where market intelligence I picked up at HVCA meetings has proved invaluable.”

At one association meeting he got wind of the fact that a client was about to go bust and was able to make sure S+H got its money in quickly.


“Contractors are under constant pressure to pay for various industry registration schemes of dubious worth, but the HVCA badge has real value and carries weight in the marketplace thanks to its reputation and initiatives like the third party inspection and assessment regime.

“It is also a great opportunity to share problems and work together with fellow contractors to tackle them. It takes you out of your insular business environment to look at the big issues, which are vital for the future of our sector.”

Derrick anticipated many of the skills problems facing the industry today and which a critical issue for a sector coming to terms with an explosion in workload and emerging technologies.

“There are not enough firms training and so the pool of skilled labour is not large enough to sustain the sector,” says Bob. “We have had to step up our apprentice training programme as it is getting harder to recruit people able to handle the range of our work and meet our high quality standards.”

He is concerned that a shortage of quality recruits could hinder the growth in sustainable building design.

“Sustainability is our future market but there are problems. If quality firms can’t meet the demand, then cowboys will cause mayhem. There is already a lot of misinformation out there with some people even deliberately selling the wrong solutions.”

He has come across a number of situations where someone was sold a heat pump that was too small for the job.

“If the temperature drops too far it won’t cope but some contractors will do this to get the work because if they specify it correctly the client will be put off by the cost. These people could kill the market if they are not careful.”

He is also frustrated by the “lack of gumption” displayed by many contractors who refuse to stand up for their rights with builders.

Bob Shelley: I dont see why we should leave our money in someone else's bank account

Contractual rights

“It is wrong to say that builders don’t pay – they pay if you enforce your contractual rights,” says Bob. “The Construction Act is not perfect but it does at least have a payment mechanism and if builders realise you are not going to back down they will pay up.

“No-one has ever said to me you won’t get any more work from us because you insist on getting paid on time. If everyone just stood up for themselves and stopped taking work at sub-economic prices it would make life a lot easier for the rest of us.

“We don’t have large outstanding debts and have only ever gone to court twice. And I don’t see why we should leave our money in someone else’s bank account,” he adds.

“We always chase our retention payments. Too many contractors just let them go but our credit control department will never give up.”

The barrage of new legislation is another source of frustration for Bob, who believes this “has to be the industry’s worst ever period for changes to the rules and regulations”.

“On health and safety we are getting to a point where we are so heavily regulated we are in danger of being less safe. People start to assume they are invulnerable because of all this protective gear they have to wear and don’t properly consider the dangers around them.” He also thinks employment law is now so onerous that you begin to wonder why you would ever want to employ anyone.

However, none of this dampens his enthusiasm for the work itself. He has retained a hands-on role wherever possible and admits that the operatives get nervous when he appears on site as he insists on “perfection”.

S+H is developing something of a specialism from working in hospitals including the John Radcliffe Children’s Hospital and the Queen Alexandra in Portsmouth.

“I still get a fantastic buzz out of the sheer variety of this industry – because of our work with hospitals we are helping to improve people’s lives. That is so rewarding.

“We accept that people don’t always appreciate what we do and that architects always want to hide it but we get great satisfaction from providing a quality, important service.

“You should always be able to drive past a building where you have worked and bore your wife and kids by going on about it – if you don’t feel like that then you should go back in there and put it right.”
1 June 2007


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