January 21, 2020

PBS Construction (North East) Ltd – Family values continue to pay dividends

Since Construction Industry News last caught up with PBS Construction (North East) Ltd four years ago, the Hull-based company has relocated to brand new premises and had a change of Managing Director, with Glenn Smurthwaite following in the footsteps of his father Peter to take on the role. What hasn’t changed, however, has been its emphasis on delivering high quality work and its focus on staff development.

“We moved to larger premises in 2016, which has resulted in a more enjoyable working environment,” explains Glenn. “It’s had a really positive impact generally, particularly with our 130-strong staff. This is important because our business is based on our people; they’re our core asset at the end of the day.”

This focus on the needs of its staff has been a cornerstone for PBS since its creation in 1988, as the company has always recognised the importance of its workforce. This is a philosophy Peter Smurthwaite built into the company from day one, with the baton having since been taken on by Glenn, as he outlines: “We get more ‘buy-in’ from our people as they feel appreciated, which is reflected in the standard of work they produce, their loyalty and our low rate of staff turnover. This leads to high levels of customer satisfaction and trust. Thanks to the quality of our workforce, we’ve developed an excellent reputation, which is why customers keep coming back to us, time and time again.”

Around 96% of PBS’ workload is repeat business, with 80% of its contracts being carried out for local authorities. It is on the frameworks of North-East Lincs Council, East Riding Council, North Yorkshire Council and, most recently, North Lincs Council, which looks after the Scunthorpe area. “In addition, we do a bit of contracting work for the likes of Tarmac and Lidl, although we’re reluctant to get too involved in this area as you risk getting your hands burned by the larger operators,” adds Glenn. “Of course we’ll never get complacent, regardless of how highly thought of we are. I personally work as hard today as I did when I first joined the company as a 16-year-old. I’m 42 now and I’m as equally dedicated to the culture that has been instilled into the business by my dad from the moment he created it. This ethos permeates throughout the organisation, right down to the apprentices.

“Ultimately I want our staff to enjoy working here and to stay a long time. Job security is obviously a major priority for people so we don’t mess them about. This is the same for our sub-contractors and suppliers, all of which are paid properly and promptly. This ensures that only the best sub-contractors and suppliers want to work with us, which once more helps to differentiate ourselves from others within the marketplace. Morally we want to do things the right way, even if we may seem old-fashioned in this regard. We remain a family orientated company with strong traditional values and even at 70 years of age my dad is still involved in the business as chairman.”

The infrastructure PBS has put in place has led to a strong stream of prestigious projects. At the moment it is involved in the Cleethorpes public realm regeneration scheme, a two-year contract that is running until September 2020. It entails high quality paving, York stone, granite paving and kerbing, as well as earthworks and surfacing. The entire project is nearly a mile long so is something of a flagship job for the company. 

“Thanks to the experience and expertise of our workforce, we’re able to deliver the vast majority of work ourselves. We utilise some sub-contractors to help out at busier times, but we’re extremely careful about who we use, as we want the standards to be maintained at all times. It’s all about keeping a firm hand on the quality. 

“A growing number of businesses call themselves ‘management companies’ that just end up sub-contracting the work out to other operators, so will only have a few office staff and their own labourers. This means they have very little or no control over the quality of work being delivered because they’re relying on third parties and agency staff. This is not a route we’ve ever taken and we certainly never will.” 

Despite the excellent reputation it enjoys, there are challenges that PBS is having to contend with, particularly the skills shortage that is affecting all areas of the industry. “Construction isn’t the most fashionable industry and tends to be overlooked by youngsters as a viable career path,” says Glenn. “We’re fortunate we’ve been able to find and recruit young people, which we train and develop in-line with the PBS culture, but there is a general lack of skills across the board, whether it’s office positions such as quantity surveyors or onsite deep drainage operatives. 

“I find the lack of interest in construction strange as it’s an industry where you can potentially progress from laying kerbs to become a contracts manager, a site manager or even managing director. It’s one of the few industries where you can start at the bottom and develop a really good career with a decent salary if you’re prepared to demonstrate the required level of desire and commitment. 

“This is something we fully supported as an organisation, as we look to promote from within whenever possible. This is reflected by the fact that many of the people in our management positions, around 90% I would say, have worked their way up with us. The advantage is that they know the business inside out and are fully immersed in the PBS way. Other companies may take a more short-term view because they’re only interested in short term gain, but we’ve always taken a longer term approach to build a sustainable business with long-term prospects. If you’re willing to invest in people and develop them to their full potential, they will reward you with consistently high standards of work. Loyalty’s a two-way street.

“Our ability to retain such a high proportion of staff means we’re not having to spend time and effort replacing them, a process that is being made all the more difficult by the skills shortage and the poor quality of industry training generally. It’s not a sustainable strategy in the long run and the industry needs to act collectively to address the issue.”

Thanks to the quality and experience of its own workforce, PBS continues to develop having successfully gained access to a growing number of frameworks. In the process it is ensuring that the foundations are being laid to keep the company moving forward.

“Our turnover has increased organically year-on-year, which is the best way to grow, as it’s much more manageable than doubling it every 12 months,” says Glenn. “We’ve invested substantially in training our people and our plant. We reinvest all our profits as an organisation and we always ensure the margins are there to allow us to take this approach.

“We’ve got a strong order book so we know where we will be in six months’ time and this stability provides the peace of mind that allows us to invest for the long term. It’s not a hand to mouth existence. That said, I’m not someone who wants to take over the world, as we’re instead focused on growing sustainably by winning our share of the work that’s available. We’re more than content with that.”  

This is a philosophy that has served PBS well since its creation and is sure to continue to do so as it builds ever more on its already impressive reputation.