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Contractor Profile: THE PROBLEM SOLVERS

Argent FM has had more than its fair share of tough times but its approach of working directly for end clients only has clearly paid off.
Contractor Profile: THE PROBLEM SOLVERS
ARGENT has known the highest highs and the lowest lows since it was founded by Danny McGinley and Robbie Wingrave in 1979, but today the London-based m&e installation and maintenance contractor is in good shape.

Both Danny and Robbie worked for Barnards in Acton and were involved with the nationwide fit-out of WH Smith stores among other large contracts. They decided to do their own thing, setting up first in Acton before moving to Battersea and finally to their present base in Bermondsey near London Bridge. Within 10 years they were running a business with 150 directly-employed engineers turning over £6million and working for some of the biggest end users in the UK including people like Prudential, BT, IEI and the PSA. They even built a casino in Moscow.

But no one needs reminding about the devastation that hit the industry in the late 80s when the economy collapsed and the work dried up.

Argent was hit particularly hard as most of its large contracts disappeared when clients either went bust, were privatised or did away with all their in-house engineering services.

Around the same time, Robbie was killed in a motorcycle accident on the Isle of Man and Argent was facing a bleak future. Other directors also left and Danny closed the company's 4,000ft2 warehouse facility under the arches close to London Bridge station giving most of the stock away to the now self-employed fitters.

'The whole industry just collapsed around us,' remembers Danny. 'We went from a £30,000 a week wage bill to nothing.'

They picked themselves up, but didn't want to change their approach just to get the business back on its feet.

'We had always worked directly for the client and our whole business approach was built on relationships,' says Danny. 'We didn't want to work for main contractors because they don't pay you, so we decided to scale everything down, focus on small works and get out there and find some new customers.'

Relationships

The company has grown back to a workforce of around 50, the majority of whom are directly employed, and reports an annual turnover of more than £2million. Small works might have been the main focus, but they have just taken on a £4million contract to refit a complete block of luxury flats and today's clients include blue chip names like Nike Town in Oxford Street, the American Embassy, the East India Club, various local authorities including Chelsea & Westminster and Luton Borough Council, NW London Regional Health Authority and Thames Valley University where three Argent engineers are permanently based on site.

For its maintenance contracts Argent provides both on-site engineers and mobile contracts, which offer scheduled maintenance and emergency call-out including 24 hour cover. For mobile contracts, the client has their assigned engineer's mobile phone number so can get an extremely fast response in emergencies.

This is a key business priority for Danny. He wants his engineers to build relationships with their clients - rather than following the more impersonal call centre route employed by many of the larger contractors, who will simply send whoever is available.

The British Council is another client that appreciates the Argent approach and set the company one of its toughest ever challenges with the refurbishment of its offices in Baku, Azerbaijan. These had to be brought up to UK standards in line with the Council's overall international policy.

There were a few 'local difficulties' to overcome, not least of which was the problem of getting hold of the necessary kit. In the end, all the materials and tools needed were sourced in the UK and shipped out to Azerbaijan along with the team of m&e engineers who were to work on the site. And everything that went out, stayed out - only the engineers came back!

Another hurdle was the British Council's concern that the works should not interfere with their daily operations, so everything had to be done overnight for the full three-month period of contract.

During this time, Argent engineers replaced the old boiler with a new, energy efficient gas-fired condensing boiler, overhauled the main chiller, cleaned and serviced the air handling unit and completely replaced the electrical installation from incoming supply to new, energy saving lighting. As the power supply in Baku is erratic and subject to daily outages, it was particularly important that the standby generator should also be overhauled.

All Argent's works were recorded in m&e manuals, which the Council are now using as a standard for all future works worldwide.

'What we found in Baku was a bit of a horror story,' says Danny. 'But it was extremely rewarding to get it sorted out and to set a template for the rest of their buildings around the world.'

The client is also happy as a spokesman for the British Council's Global Estates confirmed: 'Argent did a great job all round with first class workmanship and good on-site management, including health and safety considerations. In addition, because of their flexibility and commitment, they succeeded in completing the project without losing a minute of business activity, for which I am extremely grateful.'

HVCA president

The approach of working closely with end clients has been further boosted since 2002 when former Lorne Stewart board director Mike McCloskey joined the Argent management.

'We have a very similar attitude to how a business should be run,' says Mike, who is the current president of the HVCA. 'We are the opposite of the 'button pushers' - guys who just go in and reset the plant without trying to get to the bottom of the problem.

'The big issue is ownership. We like to strip the job back to basics and find out what's wrong as it could have been wrong since the building was commissioned.'

The company recently came to the rescue of Kensington and Chelsea Council when it had a serious problem with some direct-fired water heaters at a school for disabled children. They faced closing the school until Argent brought in some temporary units to keep the water system running, while they also got on with replacing the main heaters.

'We are careful about who we work for,' says Mike. 'We don't take jobs on spec and we like to be recommended or to work for clients we know.'

However, being problem solvers means having highly skilled staff and they are not easy to find these days as Mike readily admits.

'We are fortunate that many of our engineers have been with us for years - in fact, one has been here since the day Danny started the company but finding new people with the right combination of skills is very hard.

'There are plenty out there with qualifications but who maybe don't have the site experience or the people skills,' he explains. 'You have to be able to deal with clients in a reasonable and honest way - that's very important to us.'

The growth in demand for renewable energy systems is attracting more people to the sector but, Mike believes, this has to be carefully managed.

'We have already come across situations where the renewable system has not been properly integrated with the existing systems in the building,' he says. 'You often see the air conditioning fighting the new equipment because whoever has done the installation does not have a good fundamental understanding of how services work.

'This has to be addressed or it could undermine all the benefits of renewables and put clients off.'

Economic argument

A big part of Mike's presidential year has been focused on the sustainability agenda and he sees a huge opportunity for specialist contractors in this field, but he believes government needs to be more focused.

'People want to be more energy efficient but there is a lack of underlying strategy,' says Mike. 'We need to set some benchmarks for the integration of solar heating, wind turbines and the rest so we can present a good economic argument for commercial users.'
He points out that most building users don't even see their gas bill as their services are all rolled together into one charge so don't have any incentive so save energy at the moment.

Mike's work for the HVCA is of direct benefit to Argent, says Danny.

'He is right at the hub of things, which means he can advise our clients about wider industry issues - that is very valuable to us.'

Danny and Mike have no regrets at all about their decision not to work for main contractors who they believe have no interest in developing relationships and are actually getting worse at paying their suppliers despite all the efforts made in recent years to improve conditions.

Danny still castigates himself for taking on one job for a builder 'as a favour' and against his better judgement on a multi-million pound house in London. It was supposed to last for 20 weeks but over a year later it was still dragging on and...Argent was still waiting for its money.

'The Construction Act has not been a success,' says Mike. 'The government has back-tracked on payment issues and the top 20 main contractors are all owned by construction companies, which says it all.

'Our clients understand that the cash flow has to be right otherwise the project won't go well. They know us and we are completely open with them and give them a spreadsheet that includes staged payments so they can be confident about planning the financial side of their projects.'

Main contractors don't know what they are missing!

1 April 2007

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