It was a dark, cold evening in the late 1990s, and Nigel Drew was busy supervising repairs on an elevated section of the M6, near Perry Barr in Birmingham.
“Suddenly we hear this sound that I can only describe as ‘BOING’,” recalls Drew, “and slowly this noise increases above the general buzz of traffic – ‘BOING, BOING, BOING’ – louder and louder. I look up and coming towards us, bouncing twenty metres high, is this huge wheel that’s sheered off a lorry at speed somewhere up the road.
“It was one of those split seconds that stretches forever as we stood watching it, mouths open, no-one saying anything. If it had hit anyone or any vehicle it would have been deadly, but it just landed in front of us, bounced high above our heads, and disappeared over the viaduct into darkness.”
This was just one of many stories – some chilling, others crazy – that Drew tells me as I explore the largely anonymous work of his highway maintenance teams at R&C Williams Ltd, who repair and clean the motorways, roads and drains around the West Midlands. We’re sharing a plate of crisps and homemade sandwiches at the company’s base at Salford Bridge Wharf, directly underneath the Spaghetti Junction, the constant drone of traffic adding reality to Drew’s tales.
“There was a skeleton we found in the early 2000s when we were clearing drains,” says Drew. “It was on Newhall Street, off Colmore Row in Birmingham centre. There we were clearing out all this sludge and a bone appears, an elbow I think, then a whole skeleton. That stopped the town, with police cordons while they investigated. It ends up it was a body from St Phillips Cathedral’s graveyard, which used to spread to where the road now is. Another time we uncovered a hand grenade and bullets when clearing out a brook in Selly Oak...”
These are the lighter moments from a trade that is mainly hard graft, involving all the activities that motorists rarely consider as they race along the motorways and main roads across the region. Like a bridge painter whose job never ends, R&C Williams keep our highways moving with basic gulley and drains cleansing, concrete repairs to barriers, parapets, viaducts, bridges, subways and underpasses, and replacing perished steelworks, fencing and culverts.
Born and bred in Cradley Heath, Drew left school at 16 to become a trainee technician at a structural engineering firm, before switching to civil engineering and starting work at the local council. He joined R&C Williams Ltd in 1982 as contracts manager, when the company employed 12 staff and had a turnover of just £500,000.
He’s now managing director, annual revenues have reached £8m, and around 60 workers and 12 ‘long-term subbies’ are employed on the roads, with another 20 management and administration staff in the office. Despite the growth, the last 30 years has been hard work, persevering through three recessions and only just emerging from the latest downturn without having to shrink the business or make redundancies.
“Before I started, the company was working directly for West Midlands County Council,” says Drew, now aged 53. “But when that was disbanded the work went back to metropolitan councils in Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull and Coventry, with Highways Agency maintaining motorways.
“I joined from the council, and my brief when I started was to manage the disbanding of the county council work and to chase and retrieve as much as possible from the seven local authorities, at the same time growing the motorway business with the Highways Agency.
“I was only in my early 20s and this was deep end stuff, but we won the first Highways Agency contract in 1983. Before long, we were the main contractor on the M5 up to the M54, on the M6 up to the M1, on the M42 up to Junction 9, and on the northern part of the M40. It’s what is called the ‘Midland Links Motorway’ and in total covers more than 500 motorway miles.”
R&C Williams continued to win major Highways Agency contracts for 15 years, carrying out all the structural and routine motorway maintenance directly until the mid-1990s, by which time turnover had grown ten-fold to £5m, and staffing was more than 50.
“But then,” Drew remembers, “in the mid-1990s the Highways Agency wanted one main contractor – the ‘big is beautiful’ concept – to run everything, so they only had to go to one person. The main contracts started going to the big boys, national firms like Jarvis, Atkins and others, and we became a subcontractor. It was the same with all the main highways work for the councils and other contracts with Severn Trent and British Waterways.
“Instead of direct contracts, we became part of these big firms’ supply chains. But because we were so central, and because of our skills, technical gear and years of experience, we were still a major subcontractor, providing 24/7 emergency cover for all those clients.”
Fast forward to 2013, and the main national company employing R&C Williams is now Amey, which holds the ‘Managing Agent Contracts’ for the Midlands motorway network, now stretching all the way to Monmouth on the M50, to Shrewsbury on the M54, to Warwick on the M40, and to the M1 and M69 on the M6.
Many local authorities also prefer one main contractor, such as Balfour Beatty in Warwickshire, Solihull and Coventry, Ringway in Worcestershire, and Amey in Birmingham – a different arm to the Amey that runs the motorways sector.
The big change, says Drew, is the nature of the contracts, which 15 years ago were awarded 50% on quality, 50% on financial aspects – with quality instrumental to winning the work. “In recent years this has swung back to between 10% and 15% quality, and between 85% and 90% price,” he laments. “As the latest recession bit hard, so costs became more important with budget-tightening, making things harder and harder. Now, there’s a relentless focus on margins and cost savings.
“Competitors start tactical pricing just to get the work, and we’ve only managed to survive because of our ability to micro-manage. It’s our own workforce, so we’re able to move resource from over-staffed jobs to others at a moment’s notice, tweaking jobs day-to-day with seven managers’ constant scrutiny to make ends meet.
“It means now, at the tail-end of the recession, we’re holding our own – just. We’ve had no redundancies, but we’ve had a pay cut and absorbed natural wastage. But the sector got too thin for many people, and quite a few competitors went to the wall. We’re still here, but we feel a little under-valued.”
At his lowest ebb, Drew wrote to Jack Dromey, Labour MP for Erdington, Birmingham, whose constituency covers R&C Williams’ base, to tell him what it was like “at the coalface” in the recession.
“I was determined for someone to tell people down in London what it was like. There was a general lack of spending on highways maintenance in the West Midlands and we were being squeezed on contracts we did have, which meant a lack of resource for apprentices and proper training.”
Drew, who’s vice-chairman of the Midlands Civil Engineering Training Group, and is also on the Midlands council for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, shows me the letters he sent to Dromey. They include his own costs-benefits analysis – based on employing each of his staff, versus what it would cost the state if they were out of work.
“I showed him how unemployment would cost the country £500 a week for each worker, and he was so impressed with the commonsense of this calculation that he asked to use it in the House of Commons as part of his ‘back to work’ campaign.
“I’m not political,” adds Drew, “but someone needed to know. We’re coming out of recession, but I think the West Midlands is still the UK’s most underfunded area for highways and infrastructure management. I see it every day in drains not been cleaned by councils with no money to spend.”
But he can’t remain serious for too long, and before I leave he tells me another ‘story from the roads’: “There was this West Indian lad called Clive who worked for us is the 1980s. He got arrested by the police for riding his bike home along the hard shoulder of the M6 – I mean cycling, on a bicycle, with all those heavy goods vehicles thundering past him! Apparently he’d been doing this for weeks before the police finally spotted him...”
A business built by brothers
The name R&C Williams comes from its founders, Ronnie and Charles Williams. The Aston-born brothers followed their father into drainage bricklaying as labourers after the Second World War, helping to repair bomb-damaged streets and housing estates, before starting their own firm in 1957.
Ronnie passed away six years ago at the aged of 74, but Charlie, at 77, is still the company’s main shareholder and chairman. And he’s not the only Williams still at the firm: there’s Steve Williams, Ronnie’s son, a contracts manager; Debbie Slater, Charlie’s daughter, a credit controller; and Paul Williams, Charlie’s son, a site manager.
Joining our chat over a sandwich, Charlie says: “Our dad, George, was known as ‘Flash’ Williams because of his reputation for laying 3,000 bricks a day. I wanted to do as well as dad did – and I managed 3,000 a day, but not that often!
“I remember catching the tram, tools in my pocket, shovel over my arm. To have come from that to this with my late brother, Ronnie – my partner, my best mate – makes me extremely proud.
Back then, we’d never have thought we’d be working for the clients we have, doing the work we’ve done.”
Drew also has fond memories of Ronnie: “Today procedures are really complex, nothing like what they once were. In the old days, Ronnie used to open up the cardboard from his empty pack of Park Drive cigarettes and, literally, detail a job on the back of his fag packet!”
Drew also remembers how, when he joined R&C Williams, Ronnie taught him the importance of getting staff paid. “When he and Charlie first started, workers used to queue up to be paid in cash by the public works department. But they only ever brought so much money out, and there often wasn’t enough to pay everyone. So it was important to get to the front of the queue.
“From that experience, Ronnie always remembered the priority: ‘The lads have got to be paid. We’ve got to make sure we pay the people that matter.’”
Drew is proudly married to Jan and has a son, Sam, aged 25, an electrician, and a grandson, Ollie, aged three. That’s his family, but he’s just as passionate about his staff: “They’re all local people,
all paying their tax and spending income locally. We care about the workers because they’re incredibly loyal – their average length of service is 14 years.
“I tell them: ‘You are our cutting edge, you’re the people that everyone sees in R&C uniforms.’
We treat our people how I’d like to be treated. And we feel responsible for them, as over the years we’ve got to know their families.”
Charlie, who has three children and “whole clans” of grandchildren and great-grand children, adds: “Late payments from our customers are a big issue. It means we’re literally financing their work. The Government should really be putting some effort into this. We’re valuable – but sometimes feel used and abused.”
Drew nods in frustration at how much time the company spends “chasing money for work that’s done and delivered,” and estimates that R&C Williams are always owed between £1m to £1.5m on overdue invoices.