It’s been 12 months since Construction Industry News last caught up with Phil Pemberton, Managing Director of Property Services at Sovini Group. In that time it has celebrated its fifth anniversary, further underlining the progress that has been made since the company firmly grasped the opportunity that was created following the demise of Connaught in 2010.
“When Connaught went bust it opened up a gap within the market and a number of repairs and maintenance contracts immediately became available,” says Mr Pemberton. “To use this opportunity as a springboard to achieve five years of trading from a standing start has been absolutely tremendous.
“The manner and the speed in which we were created meant that we all had to really throw ourselves into the deep end in the early days. We therefore used last year’s anniversary to relaunch our vision, mission and values. We took a step back to take stock of what we’d achieved and to talk to our workforce about what we could accomplish going forward. We used this information to create our new strategy based around our people and our customers.”
As part of this review process, Sovini was not only able to reflect on the areas it was performing well in but also identify ways to build further on the momentum it has already generated. “One of the most significant findings was that there’s a massive appetite amongst all our staff to be part of the exciting journey ahead, which is fantastic,” adds Mr Pemberton. “With construction there’s a number of roles and responsibilities from the bottom to the top and this provides an opportunity for our tradespeople to really develop their careers with us and to aspire to more senior supervisory and management positions. In order for that to happen we’ve got to continue to grow as a business. We’ve therefore started pushing boundaries and looking at different clients and new types of work streams.”
“We’re continuing to push the boundaries in terms of what our staff are achieving. We’re taking a good look at what our clients want for their future needs. It’s a testing time for our clients but those challenges represent opportunities for ourselves. We’ve carried out some sub-contracting over the last couple of years but we believe we do those work streams better ourselves.”
Phil Pemberton, Managing Director of Property Services at Sovini Group
When Sovini was initially set up it was focused mainly on providing a repairs and maintenance service dealing with leaking taps and broken windows etc, but it has since moved on significantly from those days. It is now self-delivering hundreds of kitchens and bathrooms, as well as carrying out communal area refurbishments on an annual basis. It has its own gas servicing and heating teams enabling it to carry out in excess of 800 installations a year.
“We’re continuing to push the boundaries in terms of what our staff are achieving. We’re taking a good look at what our clients want for their future needs. It’s a testing time for our clients but those challenges represent opportunities for ourselves. We’ve carried out some sub-contracting over the last couple of years but we believe we do those work streams better ourselves. This has included environmental cleaning, roofing and works associated with fire risk assessments and security such as the installation of general fire detection equipment and intruder alarms. By growing the work stream areas that we cover we’ve been able to also increase our client base.
“In the past many of our clients have been based in the social housing sector, such as registered providers and housing associations, and they’re facing challenges of their own at the moment. The July budget last year caused organisations operating in the social housing sector to start looking at themselves as businesses. Some of the challenges they’ve got stem from their reduced income, which in turn has forced them to look at extending the life spans of their components and reducing their repairs requirement. This gave us the opportunity to package a greater number of services in order to provide greater value and reduce overheads for the client.
“Due to the infrastructure that we’ve been able to develop and the experience that we’ve accumulated, we’re demonstrating that we can compete against some of the very best organisations, We’ve evolved into a business with approximately 250 staff with a turnover of around £20m. Within the next few years we’re going to make significant improvements on that and potentially be nationally recognised.”
Similar to the circumstances behind how it was created, Sovini Group is continuing to be able to convert negative situations into positive outcomes. “You can either sit down and roll over in challenging times or dust yourselves down and instead find the efficiency savings that enable you to offer the same standard of product and services at a competitive price,” says Mr Pemberton. “We’ve been able to achieve this by looking at the key components involved in delivering an efficient and effective service.
“Two and a half years ago we bought Roger Haydock, a timber merchant, and have since renamed it as Sovini Trade Supplies, which reflects the diversification that the organisation has undergone in terms of the products it now offers. Having access to this resource has helped us greatly and it has grown to the extent that it is picking up third party clients. It’s another example of our desire to really push the boundaries of what’s possible. As a consequence, many small contractors in the North-West are starting to use Sovini Trade Supplies. This has been a great experience for us, working closely with one of our group members to help make a difference to their business and equally to the group overall.”
With any organisation that is expanding there is always the danger of diluting the service levels that made the growth possible in the first place, but this is something that Sovini Group has managed to avoid. “The key has been the investment in our staff and their development through training. We put a great deal of thought into developing our business culture and the role our people play in contributing to this ethos. It doesn’t happen by accident, you need to put the infrastructure in place and have the right people. This is why training is so important, as is ensuring that you give your employees the opportunity to develop their careers.
“One of the biggest challenges facing the construction industry at the moment is staff retention but we believe we’re ahead of the game because we’ve got such an attractive offer that people want to come to work for us. We’re managing to retain our staff and we’ve got excellent levels of staff satisfaction. We conduct annual surveys that enable us to identify what we’re doing right and highlight areas for improvement. The model is all about engaging with staff, which is quite different to the majority of construction companies that perhaps don’t support their workforce as much as they should. In addition to the good terms and conditions we can offer, we’re also able to provide facilities such as onsite gyms and cafes. It’s all about showing our commitment to our workers by demonstrating our trust in them, which in turn helps us to raise their hopes and aspirations. If they’re happy and motivated they’re much more likely to go out there and do a good job.
“People have talked about multi-skilling for many years but we’ve made sure that we’ve actually got multi-skilled staff, not just from a trade angle but also supervisors and managers. That middle layer of management in the construction industry can be extremely hard to tackle because whilst there’s many people making their way up from the tools, they’re not being given the necessary training to make that progression. This is why we’re focusing so strongly on this particular area.
“We’re also equally committed to our apprenticeship scheme to futureproof our organisation. It’s only been going for five years but we’ve already got somewhere in the region of 20 apprentices and it’s gained a great deal of credibility within the industry. With the wider skills shortage, it makes a deal of sense for us to develop our own people in-line with our own standards. This is vital to maintaining the quality and service performance that we’ve become known for. Ultimately if your employees fully understand your culture and your beliefs then you’re going to get a good product at the end of the day.”
With such a strong infrastructure in place, Sovini Group is now looking to build on last year’s fifth anniversary celebrations by achieving another strong performance in 2016.
“The main objective is to achieve further growth,” concludes Mr Pemberton. “We’ve had a really successful couple of years getting onto frameworks including Fusion 21 and Procurement for All. We’ve also very recently been put onto the framework for Blackpool Council and we’ve got a few other live bids at the moment. In addition, we’re working for a number of other housing associations in collaboration with some of our competitors, as well as local contractors. It’s about building on those relationships and opportunities and striving to move the model forward. We’re looking to push those geographical boundaries at the moment and we’re also exploring other work streams to see what else we can do to diversify our offer.”
It is clear that Sovini Group has covered a tremendous amount of ground in the past five years but it is equally apparent that the company is only just getting started as it continues to develop its presence within the wider marketplace.