The big interview
Simon Carey LR

Construction is one of the toughest industry sectors. Investors and developers will always bear down on costs, and skilled tradespeople are often in short supply

The construction company is on the front line. It must deliver a best-in-class building while achieving the sometimes lofty ambitions of architects. It must also find practical ways to integrate new technology, meet increasingly ambitious European sustainability standards and the forensic financial analysis of quantity surveyors.

Some construction companies look to reduce costs through ill-advised acquisitions of businesses where they have little expertise, but as we’ve seen with Carillion, which branched out from its core construction into all sorts of ancillary businesses, such a strategy can be doomed to failure. Better to continually invest in doing better what you already do very well.

That’s the story of Gloucester-based Barnwood Construction. For more than 55 years it has been building a reputation for quality, collaboration and delivery. It’s also responsible for some of the region’s highest profile commercial buildings, from the second St James’s Place HQ building in Cirencester to the stunning Innovation Centre at global manufacturer Renishaw’s Wotton-under-Edge headquarters.

Barnwood Group turned over £85 million last year with around 250 employees. It is divided into commercial construction where it works across the south and south west of England, its national shopfitting company, Barnwood Shopfitting and Barnwood General Works. The business will only dip its toes in the residential development sector when building flats or student housing.

Barnwood’s Managing Director is Simon Carey, who has been with the business for 14 years. “Our reputation is our priority. We want to be known for the way we do business and aim for a friendly and proactive manner. We want to be our clients’ partners,” he says.

From generation to generation

Barnwood’s workforce are the key to its success, says Simon. Some of the company’s employees have been there for 30-40 years with three having achieved 50 years. “They’re modest guys who don’t make a song and dance about it, they just want to do their job,” says Simon.

“We do our best to treat people with respect and give them opportunities,” he adds. “Being a director of Barnwood is like being a custodian. We want to pass a successful business on to the next generation of directors and we are already readying people for those roles.”

Simon hopes that Barnwood’s former directors feel the business is still being run as they intended. “A couple of them still call into the office regularly. Their influence is still here,” he adds.

He also pays tribute to the company’s suppliers and sub-contractors. “They are what make us successful and many have worked for us for decades.”

A long way from the old days of construction then. “When I worked for a national contractor in the early 1980s, it tended to be a battleground. Claims would be made against clients and subcontractors, all in an effort to eek a profit out of a risky business. The industry has changed significantly and contractors need to be collaborative. Clients have a choice. When a development works for them it also works for us and our supply chain.”

Simon joined Barnwood when it was turning over around £35 million. It’s now more than doubled and could hit £100 million this year with a fair wind behind it. But while that’s an ambition for Simon and his co-directors, it’s not the be all and end all. “We’re looking for organic growth, not massive expansion.”

Geographical expansion delivers growth

The 2008 recession dealt a heavy blow to the construction industry. The Board responded by launching Barnwood General Works. “Barnwood had traditionally not taken on building contracts under a million pounds, and we were missing out on work so we appointed Guy Cook to head that division and it’s now turning over around £6 million,” says Simon.

Barnwood General Works allowed the business to avoid redundancies by redeploying people, but the biggest thing Barnwood did to counter the recession was to widen its region. “We focused on the M4/M40 corridor and were fortunate to win significant work in Surrey.”

In 2013 the company invoiced more work in Surrey than in its Gloucestershire heartland, having been contracted on major works for the University of Surrey, including student accommodation and commercial buildings on its research parks. It has continued to fill in the geographical gap, recently completing a major 70,000 square feet Grade A office building at Oxford Science Park.

In Cheltenham, Barnwood Construction is building another Grade A office space for Formal Investments on a prime site. Honeybourne Place will go to the market later this year. In Gloucester the company is working on a mixed-used project, including 47 flats, hotel and retail premises at Baker’s Quay for developers Rokeby Merchant.

“We still work on many industrial buildings, like the units we’re building for St Modwen at Quedgeley in Gloucester and Avonmouth. We also work with other developers including Robert Hitchins and Ashville, both of whom we have worked with for decades.”

Barnwood Shopfitting has its own stable of high profile clients. “We are currently working with the Nationwide Building Society and WH Smith, along with fashion brands such as H&M, Debenhams, Monsoon, Accessorize and Jigsaw,” adds Simon.

A changing landscape delivers new opportunities

The Gloucestershire landscape has seen massive changes, but Simon is positive about the county’s future.

“Gloucestershire has a lot to offer, particularly in the high-tech and cyber industries. Our success is closely associated with that of our clients and with the prospect of a development of a new cyber park near GCHQ, this growing number of technology companies is just what Gloucestershire needs.”

But the county is in competition with its neighbours. At Worcester Six, just off junction 6 of the M5, Siemens is investing £27 million in a new manufacturing facility for Worcester-based Material Solutions Ltd, its additive manufacturing 3D printing specialist.

Barnwood works in Worcestershire too, having worked for GTech, one of the UK’s fastest-growing independent companies which designs and manufactures cordless home and garden appliances, and Sanctuary Housing in the centre of Worcester.

Simon added: “Gloucestershire has to be aware that if permission for development is refused, that development will go elsewhere.”

It’s all about the people

Several of Barnwood’s board directors started at the company as apprentices and the company is keen to maintain this ladder of opportunity.

“We try to offer all our staff development with the company,” says Simon. “We take on a lot of apprentices through the workshop, in the office and on our sites and we’ve always trained even in the depths of a recession.”

The company trains through local colleges, including Gloucestershire and Stroud Colleges, and the CITB.

Barnwood also treats its subcontractors with more respect than some others.

“We’re ahead of the industry norm in our payment terms and always pay our contractors on time. After the Carillion debacle, this will become increasingly important. We don’t want people going out of business through no fault of their own.”

Best in class: Barnwood shares the love

A number of landmark buildings are changing the regional landscape. One key development was the new Princess Royal Grandstand at Cheltenham Racecourse, though it wasn’t built by Barnwood, but by Kier Construction. “It’s an exceptional building and we did supply some of the joinery in the building, so we played a small part,” says Simon.

However, Barnwood has built many stunning buildings, including the second building for St James’s Place wealth management company in Cirencester.

It’s currently building the new Forest of Dean College at Cinderford. Designed by Gloucester-based architects Roberts Limbrick, this challenging project involves constructing the first new building on the town’s Northern Quarter redevelopment said Simon.

“It had to be built within the cost constraints of the college, on a site with ecological issues. It’s also the site of a former open cast mine which was filled in during the 1970s.”

Four facts on Simon Carey

  • A family man, he lives near Cheltenham
  • He supports Gloucester Rugby (what other rugby club would he support!)
  • A petrol-head, he loves the feel of ‘two wheels only’ with an open road ahead of him
  • Catch him on his BMW motorbike this summer traversing the Pyrenees