When I first met Les Francis I was keen to question a man who had taken an m&e contractor which was trading at a loss, and was 500,000 in hock to the bank, and turned it around. Half an hour after meeting Les, I realised why, first, he took on the challenge and, secondly, why he succeeded in making FG Skerritt a profitable company with a future. Paul Braithwaite reports in this contractor profile.
LES Francis, managing director of FG Skerritt, joined the company eight years ago in June 1998. Skerritt was then turning over £8million and was in hock to the bank for £500,000.
Eight years later, the company is on target to turn over £28 million in 2006 and there are, laughs Les, 'millions in the bank'.
In 2007 the company expects to turnover £38million - 'we already have £30million of orders' - and maintain its profitability.
Les started in the industry as an electrical apprentice in West Yorkshire. After a spell as a maintenance man in a sweet factory in Leeds, he joined NG Bailey as an electrician and worked his way up to main board director 23 years later.
Then he went to Shepherd Engineering Services as managing director.
So why take on the challenge of FG Skerritt.
'The period in my life I had enjoyed most was the time when I was building the NG Bailey business in Leeds,' he says simply.
'I don't remember the exact figures now but the business went from a very small base to around £20million turnover during the time I was there.'
This set the branch up well for the future, he adds.
Les says it took him about three and a half years to turn FG Skerritt around which was about a year longer than he anticipated.
It was not all plain sailing. The company had the bank knocking on the door at one point and there was also a massive legal case, either of which could have consigned the Skerritt name to the dustbin of history.
'After three and a half years the work we were doing such as bringing in new people and developing the electrical side, began to pay off and the orders started to flow again.'
When he joined, Les says, Skerritt's had three arms, mechanical, electrical and maintenance. The mechanical work was by far the biggest sector while electrical was worth just £800k and £400k for maintenance. Now the balance is more even with turnover for both the mechanical and electrical at £12million and the property care division up at £4million and rising.
So how was Skerritt different from other companies in which Les had worked?
Les decided that, unlike other companies where he worked, there would be no redundancies.
'I wanted to work with the people who were there. Many had been there all their lives. Surely they would want to work to see the company back into profit?'
The fight-back was slow and steady, controlling costs, getting out and meeting the customers and putting the Skerritt name back on the map. Gradually, Les was able to bring on board people he wanted such as Peter Saxby as business development manager, new accountants and a new director for electrical, Stuart Hill, who will become managing director in January, and a new mechanical director John Wolfe. Les will still be around, working as development director three days a week.
He will be working on a fourth arm for the business.
'I have always believed that a good car needs at least four cylinders and, ideally, six. I will be working on Skerritt's fourth cylinder.
'We are looking at sustainable technology.'
A year ago, the directors took time out to work out a five-year business plan.
'We are now at the end of year one but the strategy has worked so well that our plan is nearer the end of year two.'
Part of the plan, says Les, is to develop new businesses and extend geographically as well. In 2006 the company opened a property care office in Cambridge and Skerritt hopes to open another one in Yorkshire or the West Midlands during the next 12 months.
'Part of my responsibility next year will be to grow the £4million property care portfolio to £10million in two years,' says Les.
So Les will step aside to run property care, develop the sustainability technology and oversee the construction of new offices at the rear of the current building.
The Melham group, of which the Skerritt business is part, owns most of the buildings on the block. One, an empty four-storey building will lose its roof, a couple of floors will be added and this will be Skerritt's offices for the next 10 years.
For the new offices, Les and his team are looking at solar energy as well as heat pumps with photovoltaic cells to drive signage. The company is also looking at the feasibility of geothermal energy.
And the building will use energy-saving material too.
'How can we sell it if we do not use it? It is our responsibility in building services to drive the use of these technologies. I believe that in the next five years as the public becomes more knowledgeable about climate change, then there will be a groundswell of opinion for renewable energy.'
Les believes that climate change is so far advanced that 'the world is in a hole from which it cannot dig itself out'.
This will not stop him doing his bit. All engines in the vans and company cars have been downsized. Skerritt is also looking to change its fuel policy.
'We looked at changing to LPG about four years ago but there were not enough LPG outlets. Next year we will look at that again to see if it is feasible now.'
But Les is sanguine. Sustainability is for the longer term. It will not take off just like that, he believes. But during the next 10 years, it will grow.
Some 70% of FG Skerritt's work is design and build and about 60% is repeat business. The company also works on pre-fabricated pods, linked with Caladonian Building Systems in Newark, for prisons, hotels and apartments and for Project SLAM, the Defence Estates' accommodation for soldiers. Skerritt has just finished a pre-fabricated job for a Dublin hotel chain and has just started work for another.
Currently, some 50% of Skerritt's business is through partnering and this is something which Les has actively pushed for.
Les adds that one partnership is with the prison service on a 10-year framework contract on new builds.
So how did FG Skerritt become involved in prison work? Les says it began long before he joined the company, but the company had done a lot of work with the service when it was decentralising its boiler rooms and it went on from there.
Skerritt has been working with the prison service for more than 20 years.
'Some of our employees have more prison time than most prisoners,' laughs Les. With more than 70 vans on the road Les says the Skerritt name is back in people's minds. The website which was reworked last year has also served the company well.
There are 30 apprentices and Skerritt will take on another 13 this year. 'There is a critical skill shortage and it is important that we grow our own. I have a strong belief in putting something back into the local community.'
For the electrical and plumbing, the company works with the JTL but it does its own thing on mechanical. There is other training for employees such as health and safety and management. And for all staff, there is the chance to be the managing director.
'I was an apprentice and I worked my way up. Stuart was an apprentice and he will take over next. There is no reason why it should not happen to someone training as an apprentice now.'
Two employees are currently studying for a Higher National Diploma and are intending to go on to a BSc.
Nevertheless, 'our biggest single restriction on growth is the skills shortages'.
'We are constantly recruiting. The immigrant boom will help us when they move north. What we need are engineers - not necessarily high fliers all the time - who have hands-on experience and know how to put a job together and make a profit doing it.'
As for the Olympics, he would not be interested in taking on any of the prestigious work.
Too high a risk?
'The biggest job I was ever involved in - not at Skerritt - was worth £56million, had 1,200 men working on it and 'I am not saying how much the company lost'. But he says there will be enough of the peripheral work on the Olympics to make a nice profit.'If we go to London with the Olympics it will probably be with our partner Caladonian Building Systems.'
And Thames Gateway and Decent Homes will also be good for building services firms. And he predicts: 'The construction industry will grow steadily until 2013 when it will come to a halt.' Then there could be a recession. Somehow, I believe, Skerrit will not only survive but prosper and grow stronger.
Les might be retiring in a couple of years but the company is strong and his legacy, and the Skerritt name, will live on.