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Contractor Profile: The pursuit of happiness

Meet Jim King – owner of H&V Building Services and possibly the happiest contractor HVR editor Paul Braithwaite has ever met. Here, he explains what makes him and his company tick.
Contractor Profile: The pursuit of happiness
JIM KING loves m&e contracting. I don't think I have ever met someone this happy with his work.
He owns H&V Building Services, which has offices in South Darenth, near Dartford in Kent.

He bought into the business - which was originally owned by Paul Marks - on very favourable terms, he says.

The pair met in about 1983 when they both worked for Drake & Scull (now EMCOR). When Marks left to set up H&V Building Services, they kept in touch. And, in 1997, when he wanted some assistance, King joined. A couple of years later, Marks offered King a 50% share of the business.

This year, Marks retired leaving King as sole owner.

King doesn't stop smiling while he talks about the business and about his son Will. Having served a technical apprenticeship with MJN Colston, Will is currently a project manager with H&V, and will eventually take over the business.
There are three elements to the firm: building, mechanical and electrical. Jon Edwards runs the construction division, Henson Appleby is the electrical manager, and King runs the mechanical division.

Maximum velocity

And forget the recession; for H&V there has never been so much work. 'We are just going at 100mph all the time,' so much so that King is considering taking on more staff to lighten the load. But not yet, as he hasn't got time to think about it at the moment.

The company seems to have built itself a reputation for refurbishment and for bringing in jobs that are not straightforward on time and on budget.

And, 99% of the time, H&V Building Services acts as the main contractor, working with specialist sub contractors as appropriate.

When I ask him about working for main contractors as a subbie, he says: 'I would rather go and play golf than not be paid for a job.' But he does soften, and agrees he works for some main contractors - although only if clients ask for him. And clients do, regularly.

For instance, H&V Building Services has been working on and off for the University of Surrey for more than 11 years. Presently King is carrying out replacement of gas-fired plant in halls of residence and the academic building, replacing radiators in the teaching block. It is providing ventilation in the student union nightclub. And it is also doing multi-services work in the lecture theatre, which is being carried out by a project management company.

This is only the third time H&V has carried out work on behalf of UNIS indirectly. And, while this may seem simple, there are plenty of twists and turns before the job can be finished.

He has also had a long relationship with the London Borough of Brent. This summer he had a five-week contract to rip out the radiators and pipework and replace it at a primary school, which meant LST radiators and boxed-in services to name just two of the tasks which were necessary.

In Chiswick, H&V Building Services is working in a residential block where the mains in the ground floor ducts have rotted through. The owners of the ground floor apartments have been moved out, and temporary pipework has been installed from the mains to the risers so that
the rest of the flats can be used while the permanent pipework is replaced.

On this job, the ducts, which were about three or four feet deep, were full of asbestos debris. The specialist contractors had to pour in foam concrete to stabilise it in some instances. King says: 'We knew about the asbestos on the pipework and priced accordingly but to remove or encapsulate the asbestos more or less doubled the price.'

Holy trinity

There are three profit centres at H&V Building Services, one for each of the divisions. And when tenders come in, they are dealt with by the three managers.

If, for instance, there were a refurbishment job which was mostly building work, then Edwards would deal with that with help where necessary from the other disciplines.

But, if for instance there were a mechanical job 'with a bit of building or plumbing attached', then King would tender that without asking the others. 'Where we can be competitive is that we do not have the overheads associated with employing specialists in either field.'

When King joined the business in 1997, turnover was £750,000 a year. In February 1998, it had nearly trebled to £2.1M and it is £5.5M.

'Paul and I were happy with the turnover and it suited us. We could have grown the company but neither of us wanted to be sitting at our desks all day just running the company. We were content to spend roughly half the time on site overseeing the jobs. What I enjoy most is seeing a job come together on site.'

The boost in turnover came when Edwards joined the company seven years ago. A second mechanical engineer joined the business at the same time. He has since retired and Will is his replacement.

'I hope that, when we calm down after the summer, we may be in a position to take on an assistant in each discipline.' But not yet, as he is too busy to even think about it. In each area,

King will be looking for a 'young engineer who we can knock into shape'. And he insists whomever was taken on would receive a good grounding in all the disciplines. 'We would expect anyone who came in here to end up multi-faceted.'

No apprentices

He says he would rather train up an assistant and give something back to the trade than give the money to the taxman.

But he would not be interested in an apprentice. 'It is such a
small business that he would not receive the proper training.'
He does believe, though, that apprenticeships are the lifeboat of the industry.

So would he be interested in adding more services to the business, as he did for the construction arm? And where will the company be in five years' time? 'Probably in the safe hands of Will and Edwards,' he laughs. But King will be around if help is needed.

However, he says he will still be involved in contracting, including taking a more active part in committee work as he has 'still plenty to offer the industry'.
'I would not rule out sitting on committees if I were asked.'

King insists the new layers of legislation drive him mad. When Construction Design Management regulations were first introduced, he welcomed them because he 'thought building services companies were not making sites as safe as they should'.

Now, he says, he feels it has been over-legislated. 'I find it very difficult to encourage operatives
to embrace health and safety legislation.'

How can you tell a pipe fitter, who has been doing the same job for maybe 30 years, that he has to follow a risk assessment on his work? 'Nevertheless, if you don't do the assessment, you don't get the job.' Five years ago, he adds, there was a nice balance but now the legislation is 'well over the top'. But all people want, he says, is a bit of paper.

That said, he does induct the workers on site and they have to acknowledge this. 'I am a great believer in toolbox talks about the problems which may be encountered on site, safety issues where we should have done better and other problems.'

King thinks the quality of enquiries is falling at an alarming rate. In mitigation, he believes
that consultancy has become so competitive that tenders are just churned out. 'Consultants seem to be working on such thin margins that I have a lot of sympathy for them.'

But, he adds, for the last few years, often he has 'not been able to understand what they want to build, and therefore it makes it almost impossible to price it without lots of telephone calls and emails'. He suggests there should be a standard but many firms, both large and small, are falling well below his personal standards.

Retentions are another issue for King. 'The margins are very small and the retention monies are often the profit. H&V Building Services is a reputable firm, it has undergone all the HVCA assessment procedures. As part of our membership of the HVCA Charter, we guarantee all work which we have carried out for our clients for 12 months from the day of completion.'

And when H&V Building Services is the main contractor, it does not stop retentions from its sub-contractors. 'In fact, we pay all our bills on time,' King insists.
More to the point, King adds: 'We are probably owed 10% of our turnover at any one time with about a third of that overdue.'

But he does not get involved in too many disputes about money, he says, because of the fair way the company and their clients conduct themselves. And it works, says King, as repeat business is running at well over 90%.
1 October 2008

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