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Miller's tale

BUILDERS build buildings – we make them work.” This is a favourite expression of the man who has just taken up the presidency of the Heating and Ventilating Contractors’ Association (HVCA).
John Miller, managing director of York-based m&e contractor JH Shouksmith & Sons, believes that, as well as making them work, it is specialist contractors who will increasingly be expected to make buildings sustainable.

Clients' growing interest in sustainability and green technologies is the lever to move specialist contractors further up the notoriously savage contractual food chain.

'Main contractors are struggling with sustainability,' he says. 'They are looking for people who can deliver this for them. That means taking advantage of specialist expertise much earlier in the process.'
However, contractors can only deliver if they invest in the necessary skills, and if the industry, led by the HVCA, moves quickly to develop technical standards covering all aspects of sustainability, installation and technology.

'We are on the edge of an amazing opportunity,' he says. 'The sustainable design agenda could well prove to be the lever that ensures more specialist sub-contractors become included in professional teams. But to be accepted you have to have credibility and a track record.'

And the Shouksmith Group certainly has pedigree. It can trace its history back to 1820 when founder Joseph Shouksmith became a freeman of the City of York. You had to be a freeman in the early 19th Century to employ workmen. The firm went on to become one of the first limited liability companies in York when JH Shouksmith & Sons was formed in 1919, and has provided plumbing, heating and electrical works ever since.

The 21st century version still has its headquarters in York and remains a family business, with sixth generation Richard Shouksmith serving as company chairman, and his sons David and Edward now part of the management team.

However, it has constantly evolved over the years to adapt to the changing nature of the industry, and has doubled in size since 2000. Now a fully fledged M&E design and contracting business handling projects up to £5M, the group's annual turnover moved past £20M last year, and it directly employs more than 200 people.

'We have always believed in directly employed labour and training,' says Miller. 'Our founder built the business on skilled craftsmen and we have remained true to that tradition. The industry is buoyant at the moment and you can't gamble on being able to go out and buy the right skills to service growth - and you certainly can't buy loyalty.'

He believes the industry has fallen far short in training during the past two decades and some radical measures are needed to bring the skilled pool of labour back up to strength.

Miller wants the industry to introduce a compulsory training fund so that every employer who benefits from the sector contributes financially to rebuilding the labour pool.

'The fund is vital. People will poach staff from each other - that's inevitable - but if everyone is paying their fair share then everyone can benefit. We were quite comfortable with the previous training levy and a lot of the industry's problems can be traced back to when that stopped,' he adds.

Many companies complain about the cost of training and the quality of young people coming into the industry, but Miller has little sympathy.

'With everything that is happening at the moment, we can't afford not to train,' he says. 'Also, if you have an apprentice for four or five years and he turns out not to be any good, whose fault is that?'

Shouksmiths currently has 23 craft apprentices on its books and Miller is also chairman of the Leeds College of Building, which is the only college in the country solely dedicated to construction.
The company also has seven adult trainees and sees this is an increasingly important strategy for building up a skilled workforce. The

HVCA's Yorkshire region pioneered a programme in partnership with Job Centre Plus for returning unemployed people to work by transferring their existing skills across to building services. The first intake had a 75% success rate.

'The government's focus is almost exclusively on young people and another role of the training fund would be to help re-allocate resources for older workers and to provide career-long training,' says Miller.

The training issue is a top priority for his presidential year, along with making sure the work of the association is meaningful for all the members.

'I want to be a listening president,' he says. 'There is a tendency for trade bodies to focus on the big issues of the day which may not always be directly relevant to their entire membership.'
For many contractors, the day-to-day running of a business can be far more about mundane concerns such as getting paid.

'Of course, we should be talking to the government about renewables and energy policy and so on, but I also see it as my role to bring the regional views back to the centre of the association so the concerns of smaller members are properly represented.

'Even though the industry is buoyant, people are still putting in sub-economic bids for work,' Miller points out. 'Many are also reluctant to stand up for their contractual rights. We need to encourage more people to join the HVCA so we can support them and speak with a single voice on behalf of specialist sub-contractors.

'We all work for main contractors and some of our members do come up against tough terms and conditions, but nine tenths of the battle is won by having a good relationship.

'There's a lack of trust out there which makes it difficult to talk to people and makes it hard to solve problems.'

Specialist contractors should be encouraged to cover themselves by having agreements in writing because, ideally, it will never be referred to, but it is there just in case, he adds.

'We like to say to the client that it won't be relevant as long as we stay out of trouble, but if your work programme suddenly gets compressed by six weeks, through no fault of your own, that needs to be flagged up so that there are no disputes if deadlines are missed.'

Again he feels the HVCA can and does help in this area, thanks to its team of legal and commercial specialists. But he would also like to see more involvement in association affairs from the large national contractor members, to help foster good relations throughout the sector.

'There are enlightened clients out there who want sub-contractors to work as part of their team and who do not see the need to hold payment retentions,' added Miller.

'The attitude is often: 'Presumably you would like some more work from us, so we assume you will do a decent job'. We don't call that partnering, as that means different things to different people, but we like to see it as working as part of a team, and I think that is the way forward for the industry.'

Shouksmiths has healthy working relationships with a number of major clients, including McDonald's, English Heritage, Carillion and various local councils. It was also heavily involved in the restoration of York Minster and has made a speciality out of inner-city housing projects and student accommodation.

Over the years, Shouksmiths has grown both organically and by acquisition. Turner & Pritchard of Gloucester was bought in 1966, finally rebranding as Shouksmiths South West last year.
The group also acquired Leeds-based mechanical contractor Morfitts in 1976 - where Miller started as an apprentice. An office opened in Sheffield in 2004 and last year the group acquired Keda Plumbing in Bolton, which now trades as Shouksmiths and gives the group a strong presence in the north-west.

'There will be more geographic and organic growth,' says Miller. 'We are working more and more with national clients and they often want their sub-contractors to handle more complex, complete m&e packages, so our business has evolved to provide that.
A key issue is also developing our project management and co-ordination skills to handle these larger packages of work.'

With a thriving business to run and an ambitious set of challenges as HVCA president, it looks like Miller is in for a busy year.
31 August 2007


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