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By Phil Ascough
This year, we celebrate our 25th birthday and to mark the occasion, Phil Ascough looks back at the last 25 years at Sewell Facilities Management:
As they reach their historic quarter-century milestone a fair question for the team at Sewell FM might be whether they, as a business, have achieved the “day one” quality standard which they set for the schools, health centres and other buildings in their care.
In truth, they have exceeded it. By any measurement you apply, the company is hitting targets, setting new ones and doing really well at things that weren’t even invented when it started.
Take facilities management itself. The sector barely existed in the UK when the directors of Sewell Group decided in 1994 to partner with another Hull firm, Cleaning & Paper Disposables Ltd. Paul Sewell, now Chairman of Sewell Group, had come across the concept while on holiday in Florida and saw it as something which could add value to the work of his construction business.
The new company was launched on the basis of potential, and a flick through the Yellow Pages at the time showed there were no other FM companies to learn from. So the approach was one of caution, with one man and his tools drawing on the staff and sub-contractors of Sewell Group and CPD as and when required.
Mick Coxon was there from the start, left for a few years and then went back. Now a Mobile Maintenance Engineer, he remembers their repertoire.
He said: “We looked after any maintenance that came up, central heating systems, bathrooms, plumbing and heating. It was just me and some contractors and it was like that for the first few months and then we started to get other contracts. Hull Daily Mail, EWS railways, various housing associations, bigger projects than we had worked on before.”
A significant one-off job in the mid-1990s was the clean-up after a major fire at the Waterfront Hotel and nightclub in Hull. But it was the lower profile deal with BP Chemicals to look after the sports and social club at Saltend and Lambert House, their private hotel in Hedon, which was described at the time as the tip of the iceberg, partly because of the scale of BP’s operations in the Hull area but mainly because it showed that the penny had dropped.
BP acknowledged that they were great at producing chemicals but didn’t afford the same priority to their ancillary areas. Other prominent local businesses including the Royal Station Hotel and Princes Quay Shopping Centre bought into the FM philosophy. The game-changer came in 1999 with Sewell Group’s confirmation as the preferred bidder for the 25-year agreement to design, build, finance and operate Victoria Dock school in Hull – the first in the UK to be provided under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).
Martin Stead is another who left Sewell Group to gain experience of different disciplines and later returned. He first joined the company in 1993 as a management apprentice, relishing the move from school straight to a building site.
He said: “It was sink or swim, communicating with experienced trades people who were significantly older than me.”
Martin swam. The company put him through university and he broadened his horizons working as a quantity surveyor in Australia and then for UK construction giant Birse, helping them build the KC Stadium and, on completion, burying his battered shoes in the embankment behind the East Stand. His return to Sewell Group in 2007 and his subsequent elevation to the role of Managing Director of Sewell FM came as the company was about to take off. In the seven years which followed, the workforce grew from below 10 to more than 100.
Martin said: “By 2007 Sewell FM was fairly well established. They had Victoria Dock School, three schools in York and the first three health centres opened under the NHS Local Improvement Finance Trust (LIFT) initiative.
“The beauty of the business is the longevity of the work. Contracts of 25 years enable you to make long term decisions about how you will do things and the investment you will commit. In exchange for that security, the risk of the building not being operational is passed down to us. If it’s not operational we are penalised financially. It’s in our interests to keep the buildings as well maintained as possible.”
Hence that commitment to day one quality, and with it the evidence to present to critics of PFI – the system works if it is implemented properly.
Martin said: “I would challenge anyone to go down to Victoria Dock Primary School 20 years after it was built and guess the age of it, because it is looked after so well. The key is that we are a local business and we can’t afford to do a shoddy job because people know where we are.
“The other aspect is the relationship between the construction company and the FM company. If that’s done well you can allow the FM company to influence the construction, with the focus on quality and making sure that things are not going to break down and are still well maintained. Where PFI doesn’t work well is where that relationship isn’t very strong.
“We could probably have achieved higher profitability if we had taken a different approach but we wouldn’t have had the same level of repeat business and the commercial market would dictate that we couldn’t perform as we want to perform. We would have had more problems.
“Experiencing our approach with my team on a daily basis is really important. I have had various back to the floor days and I can confirm that cleaning is hard work. If you are asking a cleaner to clean a foundation stage classroom in a certain amount of time you need to stand alongside them and see the challenges, like picking Play Doh out of the carpet!
“We want to expand geographically and we are working on that. We would still stick to our guiding principles, working with someone rather than for someone.”