Business profile: Chief who has looked North and seen an emerging powerhouse

Bob Vickers of Clugston
Bob Vickers of Clugston
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The North can outperform the ‘saturated’ South, according to Clugston’s Bob Vickers. Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright reports.

THERE’s no virtue in being a busy fool.

Bob Vickers knows that you can’t build a business by spreading yourself too thinly. The Clugston Group’s new chief executive wants the company to plays to its strengths, and not chase scale at the expense of profit and quality.

The group’s business empire ranges from construction to property development, and over the last 80 years, it has survived wars and recessions that have swept away many rivals.

Clugston also packs some punch on the national stage. Mr Vickers’ predecessor, Stephen Martin, is now director general of the Institute of Directors, which places him under a relentless media spotlight. As an old industry hand, Mr Vickers is more concerned with securing sustainable growth than pursuing schemes that grab headlines but little else .

“The vision is to focus on long-term predictable income, rather than one-off projects for different clients,” Mr Vickers said.

“Eighty five per cent of what we do is for repeat business customers in niche sectors, that could be care homes , or energy from waste or specialist building work. It’s somewhere we can add value where others can’t.”

Mr Vickers, who has held senior roles at Carillion, Wimpey Construction, Anglian Water and Balfour Beatty, stepped in to the CEO’s role earlier this year. He arrived during a time of intense political upheaval, which left its mark on the company’s last full year results. Turnover fell 18 per cent to £118.2m last year, as a result of delayed projects, which have now been started.

Mr Vickers said: “The delays last year were emanating from people’s concerns about the Brexit discussions, and about the issues associated with funding.

“There’s a bit more certainty. People have got over the shock of the Brexit vote and are now making those levels of new investment that have enabled those projects to go forward.”

He remains calm in the face of Brexit uncertainty.

“The Brexit debate will take its course,” he said. “Business will continue despite those discussions. The ultimate solution, I guess, will be a compromise position between the UK and Europe. That’s got to be in the interests of both parties to get the right outcome.”

He regards Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire as Clugston’s heartland because “people know us and trust us because we’ve been here a long time”.

He added: “Our balance sheet is good, so we’re seen as being a very robust business. We want to work with our local communities in the North of England. We’ve just completed the Ikea at Sheffield, which is a great scheme, and we’re in discussions with them regarding further opportunities in the North of England.”

But management is all about saying “no” to schemes that don’t fit in with your strategy.

Mr Vickers added: “We were offered the chance to look at a scheme in Greenwich, but have declined that opportunity.

“We feel we would be playing ‘out of position’ in that location.

“We’ve just secured a big project for Arco (the safety company) up in Immingham, which is a £24m project delivering a new warehouse for them and a distribution centre. We built the first phase of that 12 years ago. It’s all about creating relationships which stand the test of time. Ten per cent of our staff have been with us for more than 25 years, and 25 per cent of our staff have been with us for more than five years.

“There’s a great camaraderie within Clugston. There’s a culture that supports our people.”

He can view the North of England with the objective eye of somebody who has travelled widely. He provides our region with a glowing endorsement.

“I don’t think it (The Northern Powerhouse) is where it should be, there’s some work still to do,” he said. “What I do know, from my experience of coming up from the South, is that the South is saturated.

“All the opportunities for the future are in the North of England, not the South, in terms of house pricing and the services that can be offered. There’s a fantastic opportunity for the North of England to really expand and do some great things in the future.

“The pace of life here is more controlled, you’re not rushing around like headless chickens as people are in the South, you’re achieving just as much, if not more, in the North in terms of the attitudes, and the culture. It’s a much better, happier friendlier place to live and work.

“I think the road systems are quite robust in the North of England. Certainly the rail network needs work doing to it. In saying, that, the infrastructure in the South is also broken. It’s a national problem, not just a Northern or Southern problem.”

He believes business can make a profit while supporting the communities it serves.

He added: “I’m currently working with Leeds City Council looking at a number of initiatives around community involvement with health care and care homes.

“Care homes seem to be a growth market, because we’re all getting older and at some point, there will be a shortage of facilities.

“We’re talking with a number of local authorities about the unique model which will actually allow us to re-invest in the local authority, as well as make profits as a private enterprise.

“But it isn’t about taking all the profit and running away. It’s about actually using some of that money to re-invest in the community.

“This year we will be knocking on the door of £200m turnover, but to me it’s not about turnover.

“It’s actually about the profitability of what we do, and making sure that profit can be re-invested in our people, and the stakeholders in the business, for our future.”

Clugston Group appointed Bob Vickers as its chief executive earlier this year.

He joined Clugston from Carillion plc, where he was a director in Carillion Construction Services.

Clugston has interests in construction, logistics, facilities management and property development. Previously, Mr Vickers has held senior roles at Wimpey Construction, Morrisons, Anglian Water Group (AWG), Gleeson Building and Balfour Beatty. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Building and a life member of the Institute of Directors.

Clugston Group was established in 1937. The business has offices and operations in locations including Scunthorpe, Leeds, Stockton-on-Tees and Bromsgrove.

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