Harnessing the power of people

Harnessing the power of people

Marcus Aniol insists that good people are the secret behind his success story at J S Wright & Company, the building services engineers. Steve Dyson finds out more.

When Marcus Aniol joined J S Wright as business development director in 2004, the Birmingham-based building services engineering firm was turning over £8m a year. By 2006, he was managing director, and by the end of the current financial year the company’s turnover will reach around £38m – an impressive growth of some 375% since he joined. By 2018, he predicts annual turnovers will reach £50m.

“It’s all down to our people,” says Marcus, aged 55, a father of two grown-up children, who lives with his wife, Dominique, in Stourbridge. “If someone comes to buy this business and you strip out the people there’s nothing. Some companies have stock and products, but ours is all about our people and their knowledge, loyalty and attitude.”

It’s a worthy sentiment, but surely he’s done something different to shape those people at a business that’s more than trebled operations in the past decade – which included the toughest recession for 80 years. “When I started, I did a business review,” Marcus concedes, “formally and informally. J S Wright was a very traditional firm and I found no business plan, no budget and no understanding of what the company was good at.

“We used to quote for any potential business that came through the door. But my review found what we were particularly good at, and that was repeat work. By that, I mean fitting out the electrics and plumbing in multi-storey buildings where the floors are the same, such as hotels, student accommodation, care homes and multi-residential buildings.

“Those were the things where we were competitive and were getting good margins, so we decided that’s what we’d concentrate on, breaking the business down into specialising in the design and installation of heating, plumbing, ventilation and air conditioning systems for different sectors.

“Also, there was an incredibly flat structure in terms of organisation when I arrived. The owners had picked three managers to help run the business, but beyond that there were no tiers. And small things like company cars mattered. It used to be that every company car was a Rover 200 or 400 – dreadful. And decent people didn’t join us as a result. So I changed all that.”

In those few sentences, Marcus draws a picture of dragging an old-fashioned firm into a modern world. But now he pauses and is earnest about the owners of J S Wright & Company – Peter Marsh, Edwin Moore and David Osborne, all in their 70s. The trio bought the company, founded in 1890, from local engineers Newman Tonks, and by 2004 were determined to find a new, dynamic leader.

Marcus recalls: “I met Peter on a golf course and he said: ‘Have you ever thought of running a contracting business?’ I said: ‘I’m not an engineer, I’m a businessman.’ And he said: ‘Exactly – you don’t need to be an engineer, you need to be able to work with people.’ They knew exactly what the business needed, and they went out and got it.

“They’re good to work for because, while understanding the industry, they’ve not interfered, and have given me complete freedom to operate as I see fit. For example, I planned to open a London office, and phoned Edwin to explain the initial set-up costs, and he more or less said: ‘Why are you ringing me? If you think that should happen, just do it.’

“They’re good guys: they know you can get a bad month, a bad job, when we lose money. But consistently we’ve not done that. In fact, we’ve made money every year. They see that and understand it. I think it must be impossible where people have to work for corporate financiers without that insight.”

Having explained the business transformation, and having underlined that he’s got supportive owners, Marcus is soon singing the praises of his main ‘people’ asset again.

“From the start, the staff were fantastic,” he says. “They’re loyal – many tradesmen have been with us for more than 40 years, and we’ve some second and third generations working for us. But when I arrived, because of how things were organised, it was difficult keeping all 80 or 90 staff gainfully employed. Now all 135 staff are always busy.

We did this by being much more choosy about who we worked for and what we did, developing a selection matrix. And we built better relationships with customers, so instead of being one of six firms bidding for jobs, we became one in three, and we negotiated reasonable amounts of work.”

That word “reasonable” is modest, but Marcus qualifies it by admitting the company experienced “flat-lining” during the recession, with turnovers between £15m to £19m for five or six years, although still profitable.

Describing how better customer relationships were formed, Marcus refers to the design
and estimating team, who considered their job ‘done’ once they’d completed an estimate. Now they follow through, visiting customers and helping with paperwork, understanding that “every company is different”.

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Another great boon is J S Wright’s “unusual” ability to design its building services for 50% of jobs. “Normally, a builder’s consultants provide designs for things like pipework, so this is a huge, unique selling point. We’ve also grown our workforce, while most competitors use more sub-contractors. We do also, but the bulk of our work is done by people who work for and care about J S Wright.”

Remaining on the ‘people’ theme, Marcus tells me how J S Wright takes on several apprentices each year in trades like plumbing and engineering. They join an ‘academy’ which has two or three team-building meetings a year, including overnight stays to take part in exercises like raft-racing.

There’s another ‘academy’ for the company’s foremen, because although J S Wright had some very experienced supervisors he found that most had just learned on the job, with few formal qualifications.

“With all the legislation and paperwork you have to be aware of, this just wasn’t acceptable any more,” says Marcus. “So we identified people who needed help, or foremen of the future, and developed a three-day programme, covering everything from role-planning to presentations.

“The difference in confidence is remarkable. One told me that he ran a football team in his spare time and that this training really helped him improve how he did that. Another’s daughter was getting married and he was worried about speeches – but now he felt fully prepared.

“We also invest in effective communications, effective leadership and high-impact presentation training. We say to all our staff: ‘You don’t have to go – this is for you. It’s a tool for your own personal development.’”

Another ‘people’ initiative at JS Wright is mentoring: “We’ve got some very long-serving guys. For instance, Roy Gould, a design engineer extraordinaire. He’s 63, and he can work here as long as he wants, but it scares me to death that at some point he’ll walk out the door with all that knowledge.

“So we developed a mentoring programme, asking where we needed to grasp knowledge in the business. And we identified ten mentors and ten learners – although it’s the learners that drive the process, not the mentors. They want to understand people like Roy’s knowledge and ability. For instance, in a plant room, with all those pipes and wires, Roy’s a genius at laying it all out. How do we get that knowledge into apprentices’ heads?”

Moving on from people, Marcus talks about the future of J S Wright, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. As well as targeting £50m annual turnovers, he wants to change a trend that’s recently seen around 90% of work focused in and around London.

“We’ve taken on a business development manager,” says Marcus. “He’s going to make a difference, taking us into different sectors like utilities and energy, bringing more work back to our West Midlands roots, and developing us as a national business, with UK depots.”

J S Wright has now opened a branch in Bristol, and appointed a quality engineer two years ago – licensed to go anywhere in the business to carry out spot-checks. This was unpopular at first, with staff thinking they were being spied on, but Marcus says it’s a powerful way of improving customer satisfaction.

As I’m preparing to leave, I ask for his top tip for other business leaders, and he again focuses on people – with a tougher edge: “Sort out the wheat from the chaff. Look at your workforce. Who’s on-side, wanting to progress? Get them close to you, promote and cherish them, and invest in them. Those who are not, just let them go. It’s hard, but it has to be done.”