Something cooking in construction

Something cooking in construction

Cooking and building can equally delight and both skills deserve fairer encouragement, Graham Howard tells Brian Nicholls

Yes, but Graham Howard's more than a restaurateur. He's a chameleon careerist - scientific assistant turned teacher, turned building boss, turned bistro owner. Besides running the fashionable Howard's restaurant giving Mediterranean ambiance on the cobblestones of College Square in Stokesley, he's starting a two year term as president of Northern Counties Builders' Federation, and campaigning on behalf of members who unanimously elected him in their wish to sponsor more financial incentives for young people entering construction.  Should he greet you at Howard's, you may feel reminded by his orderly hairstyle and neatly trimmed grey beard of a very slimmed down Richard Griffiths, the award winning actor from just up the road at Thornaby.

You may remember Griffiths died earlier this year having impressed his talents into the memories of television viewers who enjoyed his Pie in the Sky series. Griffiths as Henry Crabbe combined police detection with running a restaurant. Howard combines running a restaurant with running A Howard and Sons, a long running family firm of builders at Domesday mentioned Brotton in Cleveland, a coastal village that once bred ironstone miners. "Yes, yes, yes," Howard laughs. "I well understand the similarity you mention. But I'm more often likened to Richard Branson. I've changed my hairstyle now but when Branson was buying businesses to turn into Virgin Hotels I was feted at a superb hotel in Spain. I was pampered with a beautiful meal that had all the works - flambeed strawberries at the table and all that, the maitre d' looking after us personally. "As we were leaving he brought out all the kitchen staff and lined them up, about 20 of them, and we shook hands, my wife and I, with all of them. I don't know whether other customers there had suggested it. But back at the local bar I was told it was widely thought I was Branson. The maitre d' probably thought I was sussing the place out to buy. I still laugh about that." His laughter is hearty too when he suggests he was one of the few, if not the only, baby born in the old Cleveland Cottage miners' hospital in Brotton.

It reminds him from his day one, literally, that being indispensible at work holds rewards. He recalls: "My grandma was a cook there and had asked for leave because in 1947 lots of babies were born at home. She planned time off to look after my mother and me. But then they told her: 'We can't have you going Aida - we can't do without your cooking.' She said: 'Well, the only thing you can do is give our Violet a bed in here.' They did. So the food still got cooked and my mother and I got looked after." Howard is something of a rarity: someone with insights, both as a former academic and as an owner of two companies, about what motivates young people.

A mystery of current academia and training he's determined to solve, is why universities, colleges and training organisers are slow to take up his federation's offer to finance more awards that he says will help young people to raise their self-esteem and standing within the industry. Recently the federation has supported popular schools competitions to model a river crossing and an Olympic stadium (both competitions won by Wellfield Community School, Wingate).   Earlier it backed a poster design competition to raise awareness among schoolchildren of the perils of playing on building sites. It also laid on an escorted tour of the House of Commons as part of the winner's prize on that occasion. Besides its broader financial support for the annual Constructing Excellence in the North East Awards, it sponsored the Young Achiever of the Year prize, won by Thomas Coneely of JK Property Consultants in Newcastle. Coneely learned coincidentally he could also call himself a chartered surveyor, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors having confirmed his pass in professional competence at first attempt - a feat only 40% of candidates achieve.

Howard, citing how more jobs have had to be shed relatively in the North East than elsewhere, says: "Thomas is the sort of   young person deserving encouragement. “Awards can particularly benefit young people in times like these when young folk mustn't be left to feel they're treading water, and when for all of us a little financial encouragement is always very welcome." Yet, he regrets the fact that the federation, in trying to engage with young people, has met difficulty in getting through to the recognised institutions and training establishments. "i don't understand it. it's as if the training establishments - the colleges and universities - are frightened of the money we offer. "We'll welcome approaches on this because we see a good future for the industry once this downturn's over. Construction produces adaptable people. Experiences in it are life fulfilling at all levels, people you meet as well. There's great job satisfaction." Howard himself came relatively late to the industry. He was 38 when he took over the family building business. in his youth he'd passed the 11-plus at Brotton and gone on to Guisborough grammar School for A levels and onc certificates.

"I worked in ICI laboratories for two and a half years in the 1960s as a scientific assistant in the nylon works. But I've worn various hats. i firmly believe you have to keep options open. I thought I'd like to give teaching a try. "if you had qualifications to train for teaching then, you could teach as an unqualified supply teacher, like teachers' assistants they've brought back now. You got on-job training for a week then were put under a mentor in a school. i went to South Bank Primary and was given a class a week later with another teacher watching me. "I decided 'that's for me'. i went to Bede college at Durham university for formal qualifications. i intended to use my main subjects, chemistry and biology. But I enjoyed the primary education much better. So i concentrated on that then taught at primary schools. i taught at Brotton and Saltburn for nearly 15 years." "having been a teacher, and a chairman of governors until four years ago, explains why i’m still interested in education. I’d been interested in construction as a student too. As a lad I'd always helped my father. When he died in 1982 I couldn't bear to see our  building company close. "I went in part-time at first. i kept the business going and still taught, working all hours. When I secured a decent sized contract, I decided a full time manager was needed so I left teaching in 1985 and went to Teesside Polytechnic for formal building qualifications. I was 38, studying with 21 to 23 year olds. now I've had 26 years in building." in RA Howard & Sons Ltd now, his wife Julie and both sons are also stakeholders.

His sons entered the business five years ago, having trained elsewhere in construction. Keith, 33 and a trained shopfitter, is the main carpenter joiner and on-site general foreman. Richard, 38, a quantity surveyor and graduate of Northumbria university, is the computer techie. the two run the business 80% now. "I've become a bit of a figurehead," Howard, 65, says modestly. But he's still managing director and majority shareholder. Julie, 63, is company secretary, and they continue to live in the Stokesley area.

Last year marked 50 years for the business. The sons run the restaurant with Howard too. But how did Graham Howard's foray into catering come about? He explains: "I'd always enjoyed going out for food. Over the years Julie and I had considered businesses to do with small country pubs and hotels. "She had run her own business as a subpostmistress for 12 years from 1976 to 1988 at Brotton. She was probably the youngest sub-postmistress in the north east when appointed. She was 26 and had banking experience, albeit banks and post offices were completely different. "We decided for a while to concentrate on the building firm and on raising our sons. “As they grew and went off, Julie and i carried on looking. But by then we didn't want all the hours of a full pub life. “My accountant mentioned a restaurant for sale. I looked into it. I said: 'right, I'll have a go.' Julie said: 'You make the decision. I've retired.' "She eats there of course, but mainly she's my sounding block now. And she’s very good. not being directly involved, she listens and offers fresh reaction. “She either supports me or not and it works well. I'd been about to retire but wasn't really ready to." For customers that's good for building and for eating out.

Hands-on work pays twice over

Graham Howard Hands On

Graham Howard says whatever he’s worked at he’s enjoyed. “I wouldn’t do it otherwise Sometimes you think: ‘Dear me...’ You get out of the problems though.”

He’s enjoyed particularly taking the building firm to another level and surviving what’s now its second experience of recession. Building gives pleasure he and his fellow federation members want to share with young people.

“There’s satisfaction in seeing something completed,” he suggests. “I got it when I was young.
I see after all this time houses my father built. Tradesmen who also worked on them can look and say: ‘I’m part of that.’

He also enjoys the contrast in building and restaurant customers. “In the bistro you meet and chat with more everyday people. Then you talk to building customers in a different way, whether you’re building their house, an extension or just doing repairs.”

Entirely different markets with an entirely similar problem presently: namely a lack of opportunity because of banks. “Construction and hospitality are both no, nos with them,” he complains. “Yet both are big employers. Fantastic advances in construction and catering still exist. But you need people to deliver.

“Unfortunately, the Government doesn’t realise either that if people are working in these hands-on sectors money comes back to it through tax and national insurance payments. This Government does now recognise the importance of infrastructure, yet overdrafts are still nigh impossible to get for it, whereas you need overdrafts because everyone recently has been living off their fat and now there’s no fat left.

“When banks say no-one’s coming forward to borrow money it’s because you got rebuffed before so don’t bother again. Interest charges and setting-up fees are astronomical and you can’t get those charges onto the price of the job.”

By employing 16 restaurant staff and seven in construction (26 in better times) the Howards know they’re still giving work to people who’ll put their wages back into the local community, while pleasing the customer. If that’s not being in it all together, what is?