Huw Jones

Huw Jones of Jones Bros Civil Engineering

Engineering a bright future

Huw Jones, founder and chairman of Jones Bros Civil Engineering, reveals the secret to growing a successful family-owned business and succession planning.

Huw Jones has established himself as a household name in the civil engineering sector since launching his own plant hire and civil engineering business 40 years ago.

Starting off as a one-man band on his family farm at the age of just 21, Huw has since grown Jones Bros into an award-winning civil engineering business employing over 350 people across the UK.

However, having led the company for four decades and taking it from a start-up to a £90m turnover business, Huw decided to step up from his role of managing director to chairman three years ago.

Despite this, as he proudly points out, his enthusiasm hasn’t diminished in the slightest and he is determined to ensure the company continues to build on the solid foundations he has put in place.

He caught up with BQ to talk us through his entire career from starting out, to winning his first major contract and succession planning for the future…

Tell us about Jones Bros, what is it the company does?

We are a family-owned and -run, award-winning civil engineering contractor. We carry out heavy engineering jobs. We’ve developed a reputation for undertaking construction work in some of the UK’s most demanding environments.

Our areas of particular expertise include energy, such as construction of wind farms and hydro schemes, as well as work for traditional energy generators; highways and infrastructure; coastal and marine infrastructure such as marinas and sea defences; waste remediation recycling facilities and reclamation of brownfield sites.

What does your current role as chairman involve?

I am passionate about civil engineering, and the family company. I have grown it over 40 years from a start-up to a £90m turnover. I stepped up from MD three years ago, but my enthusiasm hasn’t diminished. 

I carry out the typical chairman of the board role. I am lucky to have a brilliant board, comprising managing director, John Dielhof, a civil engineer with whom I’ve worked for 15 years; daughters Ruth James, a chartered accountant; and Helen Morgan, a quantity surveyor; plus son-in-law Rob James, a chartered accountant, who is finance director.

How has your career panned out – where did you start, how did you move on?

My late father, Glyn, and his late brother, Elwyn, were originally farmers and had built up an agricultural contracting, plant hire and machinery sales business from the family farm in Caer Groes, in Ruthin, North Wales. 

When I was growing up, my ambition was to drive a tractor, which I did when I first left school at 16. When I was 17, after passing my test, Dad put me on a digger. When I was 19, my dad took on a civil engineer and I wanted to help him. 

I remember telling Mother that civil engineering was what I wanted to do. Before I knew it, she’d enrolled me in the local technical college, in Wrexham. I went on day release, to study for my ONC and then HNC, in civil engineering.

Dad loaned me the money to buy a bulldozer, and aged 21, with Dad’s encouragement, I set up a separate plant hire and civil engineering business.

We did a lot of small civil engineering jobs at the start, for farmers, local authorities or as a sub-contractor to a bigger contractor.

Then, in 1981, we got a more significant job, as a sub-contractor to John Laing, which was building a new general hospital in Wrexham, preparing the site for construction.

During the late 1970s and1980s, there were a lot of large civil engineering jobs in North Wales.

They included the Dinorwig hydro-electric power station in Snowdonia, and the dualling of the A55 and A483. We got lots of work hiring plant and carrying out sub-contract work for the main contractors on different jobs.

We were also doing lots of work for local authorities. We did lots of reclamation of old colliery tips and old slate tips.  We landscaped them or turned them into business parks. 

We branched into coastal reclamation and sea defences. 

We also got lots of experience in constructing through difficult terrain, building tracks for hill farmers in North Wales, and forestry tracks for the then Forestry Commission. 

So when the renewable energy sector lifted off, we were well placed to build infrastructure – access roads and turbine bases – for wind farms, which are often in remote and inaccessible locations. 

Jones Bros has grown into one of the UK’s biggest contractors for wind farms. We’ve built them from the Hebrides to Cornwall and Essex. We’re just completing a 76-turbine project in South Wales that is the biggest ever built in England and Wales; plus a 56-turbine site that is an extension to one of the biggest wind farms in Scotland.

Since those early days, the majority of our work has been design and build, with only a small amount of sub-contracting and plant hire.

We have always completed 100 to 200 jobs per year; it’s just that the jobs have got bigger.

We found that sometimes, working in partnership with other contractors is good, so long as we look for a partner that has complimentary skills. 

So far, we have successfully done this on five separate contracts, totalling £250m.

What do you believe makes a great leader?

We’re in a potentially dangerous business, and you have to be uncompromising on your order of priorities: firstly, health and safety; and secondly, environment. Third is making sure you deliver a quality job, while still making a profit so you can pay people.

Finally, you must have good people around you; you also have to be able to pick winners to work for you. People follow a winner because they want to win as well. 

Not only do you have to pick good people, but also invest in training them. People coming into the business now are the people you are going to need to run it in years to come. 

You need to find people that are passionate about what they do and have the right attitude that they want to do a good job.  This way, you are certain to get the next generation of supervisors and senior managers coming through.

Overall, you need to be good at all four of these points, all the time. If you fail on any one of them, you aren’t succeeding.  It’s an on-going challenge.

What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?

It is important that we target jobs that use all of our skills, including design, project management, and delivery using our plant and labour, while minimising the use of subcontractors; or partnering with other contractors with complimentary skills. 

This vertically integrated approach reduces the number of people trying to take a profit from the job, which allows us to provide our clients with a safe, quality, job at a competitive price.

We can still be cost-effective as a sub-contractor when we concentrate on our core skills.

How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?

By making sure I pick the right team, with people that can meet all our expectations to carry out the project for the best result for the client.

Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?

Doing a bad job. We don’t want to be doing a bad job for anyone. We want to have happy customers. It’s important that you keep customers, so you get repeat business. A lot of ours is repeat business.

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?

I will have handed over my business to the next generation.

The plan is under way, and I’m particularly enjoying mentoring the next generation of my family now on the board.

Because my father had a business, he got me to understand how to run a business. My Dad was good at giving me responsibility and opportunities when I was very young. I hope I am as good at doing that with my daughters while they are young.

I also like visiting our sites across the UK to encourage and pass on what I’ve learned. We’re lucky to have an incredibly loyal team of 350 operatives and engineers. They are also the company’s future. 

What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?

If you are running a civil engineering business, your absolute priority must be that, when you’re doing well, not to let it go to your head, because when you are doing badly, you’ll need a buffer of cash to dig your way out.

So, when you have good times, save for a rainy day. I learned this in the first part of my working life. 

Our type of business is big turnover and low margin. Run it badly and you’ve had your chips.

Keep looking ahead and adopting new technology and ways. Keep sight of the fact that no sector is exempt from being Ubered in the way the London black cab drivers have been.