Brimsful of confidence

Brimsful of confidence

A name from the past provides the springboard for a business with a healthy looking future as Richard Wood tells Brian Nicholls.

Company names come and go – that’s business life. And death. yet occasionally a name interred rises again to win contracts and awards. Such is Brims - or Brims Construction as of now – a name prominent in business until the early 1990s.

Now it’s here again, with 130 years’ heritage, a reassuring order book and three regional awards for quality in its first six years of revival. Soon Brims Construction will learn if it’s won a national title or two.

It’s already won Project of the year in the North East Renaissance Awards decided by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Success came through its £6m conversion of the former Maynards toffee factory, a once derelict building now a creative business hub for Newcastle.

This gained a second award for best regeneration project too, the judges’ chairman - chartered surveyor David Furniss – calling it an outstanding example of regeneration that epitomises all a modern building should be.

It also won, at Leeds, the North of England heat taking it to the final of the 2012 British Council Awards for Offices, this for its £5m “best refurbished” workplace - Nepia House, home of marine insurers North of England Protection and Indemnity Association. This stands on the Quayside, just a mile or so from the Toffee Factory.

“We’re surprised to have done so well so far,” says Richard Wood. What chance of national successes? “We’re not sure,” Richard replies modestly. “you never know, we might get something.”

He, brother Jason and Ian Clift are Brims’ revivalists. The company is purposely without a chief executive, managing director or chairman, yet is again a growing force in North East construction.

All three previously worked for Tolent, the successful Gatesheadbased firm founded in 1983 by its present chief executive John Wood. John, an engineer, is also Richard and Jason’s father. Coincidences pepper Brims’ revival. John had previously worked for Wimpey, Balfour Beatty and Brims.

Richard says: “Around 2000 someone he’d worked with at Brims mentioned the name was available. “He bought it out of sentiment, having worked there.” When Richard, Jason and Ian announced plans for a business, John Wood said: “I’ve got this name if you’re interested.”

“We weren’t aware he had it,” Richard says. “It had been tucked away. “We all thought: ‘This is a no brainer.’ For a start-up business trying to get credibility, we couldn’t really go wrong.”

It transpired Ian’s father had also worked for Brims & Co while Richard and Jason’s father was there. “We didn’t know they’d worked for Brims at all,” Richard says. The new Brims opened in 2006, getting two good years in before recession. The initial £5m turnover doubled to £10.5m. The third year dipped to £8.5m then hit £12.5m and, last year, £16.5m.

This year, with clients stalling projects through funding scarcity, Brims’ revenues may be £11m or £12m – “unfortunate,” Richard observes, “because we’d prefer a consistent progression. Other than one year, we’ve advanced consistently so far.” Ironically, Brims itself is cash rich. It recently provided short-term gap funding of £1m for a client urgently wanting his office development built at Blyth.

“Presently, for the right plan on paper, we could gap-fund up to £2m for a client and still match that on our own behalf,” Richard says.

Credit where due (in both senses): While many banks remain reluctant lenders, particularly for construction, Brims lauds Lloyds, Santander and Handelsbanken, supporters all.

The first Brims was opened at Newcastle in 1882 by David Nicholas Brims, a dock and railway contractor who’d migrated from Scotland 10 years earlier. With WE Jackson alongside - a colleague from Edinburgh - he had Brims 1 (shall we call it?) make an early mark on Tyneside, building Dunston coal staithes (1890), the former Co-operative Building now Malmaison Hotel on Newcastle Quayside (1892) and Union Quay at North Shields (1900).

David Nicholas Brims’ son Charles William Brims later ran the company until he died in 1942. His son David couldn’t succeed him as he was being held in a German prisoner of war camp after enlisting to fight for the Allies. Between 1942 and 1946 the company was run by Charles William Brims’ brother Robert Wilson Brims. In 1946 he handed over the running to David Brims.

When shipbuilder Swan Hunter bought the company in 1961 David became executive vice- chairman, with Sir John Hunter chairman. Between then and the 1970s – the motorway era - Brims and roadbuilding were synonymous.

Brims won, for example, the M1 bridge over the River Trent, the A1/A66 Scotch Corner junction and the Gretna bypass requiring 11 bridges and dual carriageway completed between Glasgow and London.

It also built part of Southampton Docks in 1966. When shipbuilding was nationalised in 1969, and Swan’s was divested of non-core assets, Brims was sold on and continued to excel. It built Newcastle Airport Hotel in 1972, and was a noted factory builder (Dunlop, Team Valley, and Flymo, Newton Aycliffe). Abroad in the ‘70s it built Tripoli’s Grand Hotel. Less aesthetic but practical was its multi-storey car park on the north side of the Tyne Bridge. Quite a performer, then, before shutting shop in 1993.

Today’s triumvirate - Richard, 40, Jason, nearing 43, and Ian, 44 – are also setting a pace with diversity - Bishop Auckland football club’s new stadium and a health spa for Longhirst Hall Hotel near Morpeth, for example.

Their biggest completion is Sunderland’s privately funded Quay West Business Park, a near £9m development where Austin and Pickersgill’s shipyard once stood. An inspiration of developer Ian Baggett (Brims’ non-executive director) and his Adderstone Group, the 110,000sq ft design and build project was ready to occupy just as the economy buckled.

Yet Quay West’s 53 units are almost fully let, and further phases, perhaps a 25,000 sq ft office building and 10 more units, may follow soon. High profile work is promoting Brims. The Toffee Factory and Nepia House stand within a mile of each other, and Nepia House is a stone’s throw from the Malmaison, Newcastle’s first concrete framed building when Brims 1 put it up for the Co-op. “They’re all on a prominent route into the city,” Richard observes.

“We had Brims banners up everywhere. It was good getting comments from people like: ‘I see you’re trying to take over the Quayside.’”

The banners at the recently opened second Tyne Tunnel, where Brims did around £2.25m worth of work, signalled a wheel turned full circle; Brims 1 had worked on the first tunnel there between 1961 and 1967, with Richard and Jason’s father occupied on its approach.

The present Brims, for the second tunnel, provided housing for fire control and water tanks to supply the sprinkler system. Those tunnel banners also launched a movement akin to Eddie Stobart’s fan club on the roads.

Richard explains: “We got so many calls from guys who’d worked for Brims before. People sent us centenary and other old brochures and mementoes. Newsletters also. One guy whose father had passed away sent in a boxful of Brims memorabilia.”

Someone recalled an old Brims crawler crane abandoned at a Hetton scrapyard, from where management was able to photograph the original Brims logo font for its letterheads.

One of the Brims family, spotting the banners, told Lt Gen Robin Brims, the Newcastle-born great, great grandson of the original company’s founder. He’d been 10 when Brims 1 was sold to Swan’s. He’s since become a client and a fan. General Brims had won a DSO leading the 25,000-strong 1st Armoured Division of the British Army into Basra in April 2003.

Earlier he’d served 10 years in Northern Ireland, where he was chief of staff leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. In Bosnia he’d commanded a multinational division. He’d returned to Baghdad in 2005 as deputy commander of the Coalition Forces, and on leaving the Army in 2007 returned to Iraq for two years as vice-chancellor of a university.

Now, back home with time to revisit family roots, he wrote to the new Brims, delighted at seeing the family name flaunted again. He showed the new management a century old Brims boardroom table in the kitchen of his new Tyne Valley home, also a 125-year-old tankard presented to the company in 1887 by Queen Victoria.

There were pictures too: his father being received by The Queen on opening Southampton Docks project, also a portrait of WE Jackson, which had hung in the boardroom of Brims 1 for many years, a mysterious character until Ian Clift in research confirmed his role in the history.

Having just bought the Old School House at Dalton village for £500,000, Robin Brims invited Brims to tender for a contract worth £250,000 to renovate this 1830s building. It’s Grade 2 Listed, closed as a school in the 1950s and was converted into a house about a decade later.

“We had to pitch for the job and it was probably quite close in the end. But I think Robin would have been disappointed had we not got the job,” Richard says. “We gave a few ideas to save some money.”

The client, holder now of several nonexecutive directorships, agreed: “Their work on the Old School House would certainly have met with approval from my forefathers.” Another historic tie emerged at Shepherd Offshore in Newcastle.

Richard explains: “We did work there recently, and they’d bought a lot of Brims’ assets. Bruce Shepherd had a Brims plaque in his office, cast iron, which he’d had blasted up. It came from the old plant yard they’d bought on Hadrian Road.”

Nostalgia doesn’t pay bills though and, as Richard points out, it’s a balancing act to keep staff together in the industry presently.

"Brims has 25 staff and a crew of about 30 directly paid tradesmen and labourers, plus reliable sub-contractors. “They’re a good team and we don’t want to lose anyone,” he says. “So it’s a matter of ensuring everyone’s kept productive.”

Expectations for the sector may remain tight for 12 to 18 months longer. “Until there’s more money in the market, and nervousness among clients fades, I think it’s going to be tough. But housebuilding seems busier. That normally triggers other things,” Richard adds, hinting at optimism.

About £13m worth of work has been lined up through intensive tendering since last October, and about £2m worth is on site. Starts are awaited on nursing homes at Newcastle and Selby, and discussions are ongoing about a third.

A £3m office refurb on behalf of BT’s pension group is on the books for Pearl Assurance House, the tower on Northumberland Street, Newcastle. And news is awaited on projects for the University of Northumbria, plus smaller ones. The firm’s also pricing school works. Having done one-off residential projects, Brims is looking at higher-end bespoke housebuilding.

It has registered a Brims Building Group. This will also tackle civils and maintenance. It’s bidding on sites with developments of six to 10 houses in mind, and expects progress by year end. Expect more Brims banners to fly soon.