If one of the characteristics of a well-run business is its ability to retain its staff and ‘bring them on’, then Billington Structures can cite the perfect example. Steve Fareham joined the business as a school-leaver in 1968. Today, he’s the company chairman.
In 1968 Billington Brothers of Wombwell, Barnsley, was a typical metal-bashing business. Its main activity was fabricating steelwork for the coal mining industry which, in those days, formed the backbone of the economy in South Yorkshire. Billington was very much a family business, run by brothers Rex and Arnold Billington. It was a small company in which craft skills took precedence over technology; but things were changing. A general manager, Dave Morris, had just joined the firm with the remit to broaden its scope and find new markets. Morris (who was one of the founders of the consulting engineer White Young Green) was looking for new talent. “I was Dave’s first apprentice,” explains Fareham.
Morris clearly saw something in his new recruit although, on paper, he was not much of a catch: “I took maths, chemistry and physics A-levels and failed miserably,” admits Fareham.
Under Morris’ guidance, Billington Brothers started to reduce its dependence on mining and started pursuing work in the building and construction industry.
It was good timing for Billington, and for Fareham. “The first few years were amazing,” he recalls. “I was working one-to-one with Dave and the business was growing.” Despite the unfortunate business with the A-levels, Fareham proved to be a talented engineer and at Morris’ instigation Billington sponsored him through a civil engineering degree course at Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University). Fareham graduated with a first-class degree. But if the theory of structural steel design and fabrication was becoming more sophisticated, many aspects of the industry still lagged behind, recalls Fareham.
“The site-based activities were something else,” he says. “It was completely different to what it’s like today.” Steel erectors in the 1960s and ‘70s were complete strangers to PPE, with the possible exception of the occasional pair of steel-capped boots, says Fareham: “They’d be shinning up columns, walking the top flange of beams…it was the norm. To be able to do that was a badge of honour. I spent six months on site with these guys and they tormented me constantly because I wouldn’t do those things.”
Back in the workshop, things were a bit more civilised, but it was still basically a manual business. “It was all about drilling, sawing and welding – there was no CNC machinery in those days,” Fareham recalls. As it evolved, the company spread its wings way beyond the narrow confines of the Barnsley coalfields. Soon it was competing for contracts internationally and Fareham found himself flying to exotic destinations; places with names like Mosul, Kirkuk and Erbil. Not many British firms vie for work in Iraq these days, but Fareham points out that the UK has long been a world leader in structural steelwork and Billington was in good international company.
For 10 years Fareham rose through the ranks as Billington prospered. Then came trouble. “We grew rapidly until recession hit in the back-end of the 1970s,” says Fareham. “The industry nearly died a death.”
With the business struggling, the Billington family decided to cut its losses and in 1982 sold out to AMCO, a general engineering group with interests in shaft-sinking and the mining industry from which Billington had been so studiously distancing itself.
But AMCO wanted to develop its construction arm and Billington was the key to achieving this. “In 1984 we acquired a Bristol-based steelwork company, Modern Engineering,” says Fareham. “We still have a plant in Bristol.” Meanwhile a new business, AMCO Structures, started trading in Scarborough.
AMCO, like Billington a decade earlier, used the constructional steelwork sector as an escape route from mining – and just in time to avoid the devastation wrought during the 1984 miners’ strike. There followed a period of sustained growth in the construction industry, and steelwork production peaked at 1.4 million tonnes in 1988/9 just before the ‘mini-recession’ of the early 1990s.
Between 1992 and 2007 growth was steady and sustained, says Fareham. “There’s a whole generation of people in our industry who’d never seen a recession until the collapse in 2008”. The recession that followed, however, was deeper and more sustained than anything Fareham had seen before. Output more than halved to less than 700,000 tonnes in just one year and this time, recovery has been slow. “Current output is between 800,000 and 850,000 tonnes and Tata Steel has said it doesn’t expect it to reach 1,000,000 tonnes until 2017,” says Fareham.
Despite the crop of high-profile, high-rise London projects with daft nicknames like the Shard, Gherkin, Walkie-Talkie and Cheesegrater, the steel industry has lost a lot of capacity. These big landmark projects are outside the scope of all but a handful of large steelwork firms. “The biggest driver has always been industrial construction – petrochemical, manufacturing, warehousing. In the past 10 years the rise of the data-centre has been more valuable to the steelwork industry than the big London projects,” he says.
That said, the recovery seems to have taken hold and things are also looking up for steel fabricators, says Fareham. “We’re seeing increased activity in the Westcountry with projects in Plymouth and even Cornwall,” he says. “In fact there’s activity all over the country, not just in London. Even spec offices are coming back – we’re currently doing one in Leeds.” Having been in the industry so long, it was almost inevitable that Fareham should eventually find himself elected as president of the British Constructional Steelwork Association. He served in this capacity from 2000 to 2003, an experience which he says gave him a rare insight into the global steelwork industry.
“I visited loads of businesses in loads of countries and it was fascinating,” he says. “Because really, what I found was that the world still looks to the UK; we are exemplars. Our ability in this country to grasp new technology and link it all together is second to none,” says Fareham.
So despite the ravages of recession, the UK’s steelwork industry retains enough of its character and expertise to repeat past triumphs on the world stage, such the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Tokyo’s Kansai Airport. Fareham has another year to go at Billington Structures but when he leaves next year, he won’t be mourning the industry’s decline. “Actually, I’m quite surprised – despite some notable casualties – how few of us disappeared during the last recession. Around 150,000 tonnes of capacity has gone out of the industry, but the supply-demand balance has been maintained. We’ll bounce back.”
This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of The Construction Index magazine. To read the full magazine online, click here.
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