March 7 2014 Latest news:
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Walk into the May Gurney offices at Trowse on the edge of Norwich and there are four key words that meet your eye which chief executive Philip Fellowes-Prynne says epitomises the kind of company he wants it to be: safe; innovative; honest; collaborative.
And they are words the boss insists are more than just jargon but underpin everything he wishes to achieve.
“They have been revised under my tenure, but I think they are very constant,” he said. “When you are in my position, it’s quite easy to look at financial results. It’s a way of being straightforward with feedback. We have got an organisation of 5,000 people and you have got to have an honest conversation at all levels. And you have got to have that honesty in all relationships, because sometimes it’s about being able to tell a client that ‘you’re wrong’ and having that really frank conversation.”
Cuts in public spending and the aftermath of the banking collapse in 2008 has ushered in tough times for firms such as May Gurney, but under the chief executive, who joined a few months after Lehmann Brothers went to the wall, and the start of the banking crisis, it has been a period when the company has reshaped itself and, like its competitors, has shifted its focus away from construction and towards the provision of maintenance and services work.
In the recent trading update Mr Fellowes-Prynne said the next 12 months will be one of consolidation for the group as it beds in acquisitions including Turriff Group, the Scottish utility infrastructure maintenance company, and vehicle supplier company TransLinc.
And those values are also crucial to a far greater ambition – to double the group’s turnover to £1bn a year as well as increasing its profit margins to more than 5pc.
“We are very much at the next stage and looking at where we go next,” Mr Fellowes-Prynne said. “Our aspiration is to be over £1bn and profitability north of 5pc. I don’t think we are too big, but there is an interesting debate around the scale of an organisation.
“My aspiration is to get that above 5pc,” he said. “If we were delivering services and taking back between 10pc and 15pc, there has got to be legitimate questions about what we are putting back.”
Born in Kent, his father moved the family to the North East in the late 1960s, and his accent owes more to Tyneside than the Thames estuary. Yet he is by no means a Geordie, and when pressed admits to a life-long love of Manchester City, though rugby is also a passion and he coaches his son’s under 16 team in Bishop’s Stortford where the family now lives.
His business upbringing was equally varied. After graduating from the University of Strathclyde with a degree in geography, his first job was with a US-owned self-adhesive manufacturer Fasson, which also led to a posting in France.
Later he moved into business logistics after being headhunted to work with Camvac, which had a base in Thetford, and then worked for Cleanaway as a landfill manager, after being headhunted again, before joining May Gurney, a business which, while a plc, can also seem close to the public sector ethos because of the large amount of work it does in that sector.
“I think the May Gurney board saw me as having those values, and I liked the company because it had those values,” he added. “I was interviewed by the board, and they wanted someone slightly different who could take the company to the next level.
“We have grown by 50pc since I have been here, and that brings its own challenges.”
But it was not an easy start for him as the company share price plummeted when the downturn started to bite.
“Within six months of me taking over our share price was at the lowest it had ever been, confidence in the market and in the sector wasn’t particularly good,” he said.
But the downturn has simply highlighted a shift that was already taking place away from May Gurney’s traditional construction businesses, which is an image many in Norfolk still have of the firm.
“People still associate us with construction, but we weren’t that exposed to it. We’ve taken in more support services and maintenance work,” he said. “May Gurney is known for the services it delivers.
“If you go to the South-West, where we do work for South-West Water, they think it’s a water maintenance company. In Torbay we are a grounds maintenance company that does beach cleaning.
“One of the issues we face is getting that brand awareness right. We are seen as a blue collar worker business, but we are substantially more than that. That’s something we are working on.”
But the boss is still keen to see what happens at the “coalface” and admits to stopping and chatting to May Gurney teams when he sees them at work.
“We are all anoraks in our own profession! If I am in an area where we are doing work and see something, it’s great to stop and pitch up and ask what they know about the job,” he said.
“I meet some teams who are absolutely fantastic, really organised, and know what they are doing passionately, but other teams aren’t so clear and that’s really helpful to me.
“We are always only one step away from our ultimate customer. We work for Norfolk County Council, but the people of Norfolk will see us doing our work.
“We still have wagons of black top going out to maintain roads, but we are getting much more interested in asset management where we can integrate our work much more with our clients and how much they invest in the maintenance of an asset. We are working much more pro-actively.”
“I would like to think I am strategic, but I do like getting out and talking to people – it’s a good litmus test for where you are as an organisation. Great ideas are very important, but if you cannot execute them, they are not worth anything.
Trying to give individuals a voice at all levels within the company is something we should all look for. The more people that are participating in the company the better.
“In France, the workers were really confrontational, but once they had got all the arguments out of the way, they got on with it.”
In Britain people tend to avoid it, and they don’t tend to disagree across the table, but then say afterwards that they don’t want to do something. I like it in a management team and in business, where you can have a voice.”
But with the vision in place, how does the chief executive see the group achieving it?
The answer lies in a unified approach which the company has already pioneered in its work in Northamptonshire, which has helped the council save £2m out of an £8m budget while also increasing the number of jobs carried out by 25pc.
He also believes the company’s integrated approach to recycling and waste management could deliver recycling rates of 70pc which may give local authorities in this part of the world pause for thought.
“Everyone is trying to face up to being more efficient and more effective,” he said. “What we have seen in local authorities in our area has been a reduction in capital spending. A lot of it comes down to better programming, and better planning so that you get better efficiency.
“We have got one centralised hub where we can co-ordinate responses to calls and we are trying to work in with what’s happening with the utility companies. If we are doing the emergency repairs, and we have got highways contracts and running household waste services, why can’t we bring all three together? If we are recycling the roads, why can’t we recycle that material?
“That’s the way public service costs could be taken out and services enhanced. Ultimately we want to deliver a better service to an organisation than they can do themselves.”
A “shoo-before-shooting” policy to control pigeons has been described by a leading Norfolk farmer as “completely bonkers”.