New Clugston chief executive is looking to play a wider role within the communities the town giant helps build

By Scunthorpe Telegraph | Posted: 17 Aug 2017

A FIRST six months have been rung up by new Clugston Group chief executive Bob Vickers. With the annual results out this past month, business editor David Laister met up with the career construction figure, as he drives forward the Scunthorpe giant.  

A strong and robust boutique business, with the agility to adapt. That’s how Bob Vickers sees his new charge, as he settles into life at St Vincent House. 

It is also a welcome return to a business with a real family feel, having spent recent years in the corporate kingdom. 

A celebrated ‘builder’, having gone from quantity surveyor to project director – or “money man to delivery man” as he puts it, you sense the pride in jobs well done and the fit he will forge in a business that has carried arguably northern Lincolnshire’s most recognisable family name proudly for very nearly 80 years. 

“It is really interesting and I’m really enjoying it,” he said. “It makes a big difference coming to a big private business rather than a corporate. It is different to the Carillions, the Balfour Beattys, and I’ve also sat on the board at Morrison

Construction for many years, and that was a family business that was taken over by Anglian Water.  It is really nice to go back to the family environment again. 

“One of the issues with a corporate is it is very process driven, and despite the processes, if you look at Carillion and

Balfour Beatty, both have had their difficulties. Although they have processes, with control, and are well managed businesses, they still ended up in difficulty. Corporate businesses step too far back from the coal face, whereas a company liked this, you have to be on the pulse of what is going on all the time.  A corporate is like an oil tanker, but we can change direction really quickly, and adapt. We are agile in what we do. That is the biggest difference I have noticed, and it is quite refreshing to come into a business where the business itself is quite diverse. 

“There are three sectors and require different approaches, and are all very successful in their own right.”

One is very new to him, having never been involved in distribution. The delivery quip was clearly projects not products. 

“I am finding my feet in that, and we have expansion plans there, and we have been busy investing in the site at Brigg Road to develop that further with new vehicle maintenance facilities,”  he said. “Our bulk flour fleet is increasing in size and that is very successful and very profitable.”

Construction itself is diverse too. “Our latest energy from waste contract is worth £89 million and then there are little refurbishment jobs around Scunthorpe - it is quite a mixed portfolio,” he said.

They all add up though in no uncertain terms. Turnover will exceed £200 million this year, and there’s plenty in the bank too, a major reassurance for an industry that is at the behest of delayed starts, materials prices and the weather.

“The order book is secure for this year and we have got six months of next year secured already,” Mr Vickers said. “We have £18 million of cash in the bank and no debt with anybody, it is a strong and robust business.”

Predecessor Stephen Martin, right, now director general of Institute of Directors, on a recent tour of Nottingham University with Baback Yazdani, dean of the business school.‚Äč

Closing the books on 2016 saw Clugston record a £1 million pre-tax profit on a turnover of  £118.2 million.

Due to a number of delayed-start projects – which have subsequently begun in this financial year – turnover was down 18 per cent from £143.4 million, but since publication in late July and this interview last week, expectation on turnover has risen £30 million, as the business recoups and then builds again. 

“We are a boutique business really,” Mr Vickers said, conjuring up quite a trick in the mind with hard hat and high fashion in the same breath. It is the unique nature he is pinning down though, not the one-size fits all high street equivalent when it comes to construction. “My background has been going in to difficult businesses and turning them around. I was brought in to Balfour Beatty at a difficult time, a division I had we turned around, and did it quite successfully, then with Carillion it was a similar situation, but wasn’t public. 

"It is quite easy to go in to a distressed business and make a change. You can see very quickly the difference you have made. In a business that is successful it is more difficult to make a difference because the business is good and the changes we need to make are not as easy to measure. It is more difficult, you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. We want to future-proof the business for the next 80 years. I am creating a platform for that, introducing KPIs, but again it is difficult. Out safety record is industry leading, as is our retention of staff.”

Born in Fulham, west London, and moving to Harrow, then Bedfordshire, Mr Vickers’ career began first with ‘old fashioned’ ONC and HNC route, leading to a management training role at the London Brick Company. He has subsequently worked for Wimpey Tarmac – delivering University of East London and several supermarkets “I was building Sainsbury’s while Clugston was building Morrisons’,” he joked, before joining the distinctly different Scottish-based Morrison Construction as regional director. He worked through the buy-out by Anglian Water, and then was given responsibility for the later sale to Galliford Try (if it rings bells it bought Grimsby’s Chartdale Homes), at which point he stepped out. Balfour and Carillion followed, before being identified as a potential candidate to take over from Stephen Martin as he became director general of the Institute of Directors, as reported.

“Many years ago when I was with London Brick Co. there was some work with Clugston on heavy materials, so I was aware of them, and very interested by the fact they had been around so long, which is a great attribute in the industry.

Clugston has been through wars, recessions and is still here, still making money, and a great healthy business to be proud of. 

“It is not about turnover, it is about profitability and securing a future for the employees. Any business is only as good as the people within it. I would like to think we are as fussy about the people we work for as they are about choosing us.

“The vision for the business is based on the long term predictive income, we need to know what we are doing, when we are doing it, building on repeat business and client relationships.” 

This is evidenced by the waste to energy, working with French technical partner CNIM, it is now on the 13th scheme. Unlike others, it has stuck to what it knows, delivering the civils and leaving the process to the experts. 

“The board is very committed and the non-executives are very supportive of what we are doing,” Mr Vickers said. “John is through the adjoining door, and we talk eery day.

“Building on these relationships is the important thing for the future, for a long term sustainable future, it is not one off contracts. What we deliver is fantastic, what we do, we do well.”

Living in Bawtry, this three sons are all now working themselves, with the eldest also in construction with Wilmott Dixon. Another is a teacher and the third a freelance travel journalist who speaks fluent Swedish, with absolutely no connection to one of the culminating projects – Ikea for Sheffield.

But collaboration on a professional basis with key partners in the public sphere is emerging in a new model Mr Vickers is keen to pursue.

“We are exploring joint ventures with local government, where there is a share in the returns,” he said. “It is good governance, a community commitment to help the place, the environment. We are talking to local authorities about what this looks like. We are really keen to immerse ourselves in these community initiatives in the right way. 

“It is not a not-for-profit, but adds considerable advantage. It is a risk, but a risk worth taking it you get a good partner with you. Returns are well worth while. 

“If you keep trying the same thing you keep getting the same result. It is a new initiative, and we are keen to promote it. It has to start on a small scale with the right partners who have the right approach. Unlike PFI, where you put money in and take out for a long time, this is about making them part of that outcome.”  

We watch with interest.

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