Home: Summer 2011 › Cover Story › The friendly face
The friendly face
01/06/2011 | Channel:
Maintenance, Health & Safety, IT / Technology, Gas, Water, Electricity, Human Resources, Equipment
With an impressive career history in infrastructure and support services, Michael Thompson, managing director, utility services & waterways services at May Gurney, is ideally placed to discuss the sector with Libbie Hammond
A chartered surveyor by background, Michael Thompson has been involved with construction, PFI and support services for 30 years. As he explained, he has been fortunate enough to work for blue chip employers on a range of exciting projects: “I started out as a trainee with John Laing, before working with Kier on some very interesting tunnelling and dams projects overseas. I then moved to Tilbury Douglas (now Interserve), and I worked for the company until late 2007, on projects such as private finance initiatives for schools, hospitals and the MoD. I then joined May Gurney in early 2008.”
Michael continued with further details as to what drew him to May Gurney: “I was looking for a different career opportunity, as I felt I had been long enough at Interserve. When May Gurney approached me and I did a bit of research, I looked at their visions and values, and what they were trying to achieve and what I found was very interesting and promising. They were a growing business, moving towards becoming AIM listed – moving from a large small company to a small large company - and what they were doing around customer focus and responsiveness to clients’ needs made me think they had great potential.”
May Gurney delivers its services through six business streams: rail services, highway services, environmental services, facility services, waterways services and utility services. These are overseen by four MDs, all of which are responsible to the group CEO, Philip Fellowes-Prynne.
Now MD of May Gurney’s Waterways and Utilities services businesses, Michael is responsible for the full day to day running of those two businesses, from P&L responsibility, work winning and customer client contacts, through to delivering
sustainable profits for the business.
He gave more details about the two areas he oversees: “The Waterways business looks after the inland waterways of the UK. We have an omnibus framework contract with British Waterways, which covers 80-150 projects each year, including a variety of asset refurbishment to items such as locks, weirs, culverts, repair work on some of British Waterways’ 70 reservoirs and also some large restoration schemes.
“This currently works out to around £25m a year turnover and as much of the work involves the heritage of the British Waterways it is a very interesting environment.
“We also have a partnership with Van Oord and Mackley Construction, which is called Team Van Oord. Team Van Oord has two framework contracts with the EnvironmentAgency, which covers all aspects of the Environment Agency capital programme, and with its partners it has a number of contracts, primarily down in the south west, and also in East Anglia and the Thames area.”
He continued: “With regards to utilities services, this division’s primary focus is on four aspects: water and sewage, gas, the power sector and professional services. In terms of the services we provide to utilities, I would describe it as covering the full lifecycle of an asset, from feasibility solutions, to design, build, inspection and testing, on to operation, maintenance, renewal and replacement.”
Michael mentioned the gas side of the business, which has recently been expanded with the acquisition of Turriff, a Scottish infrastructure maintenance company. Heexplained that this purchase has brought many benefits to May Gurney: “We saw Turriff as a great opportunity to move into Scottish utilities’ market and develop and enhance our gas capabilities. Turriff have a lot of experience in the gas infrastructure market and also have some smaller frameworks in the power sector as well, so in terms of a strategic acquisition for the company this was perfect. It provides a great opportunity for company as whole to deliver essential services in Scotland, which hasn’t been an area for May Gurney historically, and we are very much looking forward to enter this area. Going forward, getting the very best out of Turriff and enhancing May Gurney’s operations in Scotland will be one of my priorities.”
He added: “Turriff recently secured the dirty water contract for Scottish Water, which is a huge credit to a team that has traditionally been working in the gas sector, and again illustrates why May Gurney and Turriff are a great fit – May Gurney can start to support the team in the delivery of that dirty water contract, as we have a very strong track record in that market.”
Indeed, May Gurney’s strength in the water industry has been highlighted by its success in the recent AMP5 contract announcements. The company has already secured 14 contracts, with the bidding process still on-going. Michael noted that the AMP process actually results in a very cyclical market, which is both a benefit and a pitfall: “With this process we do know what is coming down the pipeline and can plan for it, but the negative is that this cycle can also result in a ‘feast or famine’ of work. There are risks around this cyclical approach - if you’re good and successful then fine, but if not then you disappear quite quickly. Year one of AMP cycles is always critical for suppliers and therefore is an issue for us.
“We’ve been through the intensive bidding process and we’ve had a good success rate, with some key wins, including South West Water, Anglian Water, Severn Trent Water and Wessex Water. We’ve also won two very important contracts with Essex and Suffolk Water with a combined value of £120 million. These AMP periods are always very intense and our team has worked incredibly hard putting this together over the past two years.”
AMP contracts typically run for five years and can be put up for extension in the next period, or get thrown back into the bidding cycle. “Most of the contracts we’ve been successful with this time have been extended, in broad terms, for another five years,” said Michael. “If we are great at what we do, which I think that we are, then there should be no reason why contracts aren’t extended as part of the original cycle.” Michael added an important point: “We have to work with clients on trying to smooth this process out, because if we don’t we’ll lose people to other sectors in the ‘famine’ times and we don’t want good staff leaving the market.”
A big part of maintaining an excellent service is a dedication to investment and innovation. “We have to look at innovative ways of how we deliver our services, and to do this we monitor what we call the three Ps: products, practices and processes,” explained Michael. “This means we make sure we have a good idea of what products are out there, make sure we cross fertilise ideas between divisions, and understand how we can best use products to benefit our clients.
“When considering our practices, we have to continuously improve our day-today
activities, working smarter and so on. The ‘Processes’ side is where technology comes in. We have a vision to bring much more efficiency to utilities companies, so for example, if we can find ways of reducing the number of handoffs between receiving a call from the customer to translating it into us fixing the problem then the process would be far more streamlined. I think that IT has a clear role in that, and utilities are starting to use the web to call off services or raise queries, and this definitely means jobs are completed more quickly.
“As a result of the benefits of technology we are investing in our own technology solution called MGConnect™. This is our innovative and market leading platform for calling-off work and scheduling activity by our front line team. It was developed inhouse, with the help of experienced external partners such as IBM. We’re already starting to see the benefits of in our highways division, and all things being equal it’s soon going live with Severn Trent Water on a contract.”
Another area in which IT is already being put to use is to help utilities address the challenge of improving customer service. Michael explained that as the public face of many utilities, May Gurney has an essential role to play: “We represent the utility company when we’re interacting with their customers, which is a big responsibility. We are the visible face of services when we’re digging holes or erecting road barriers, so if we’re not aligned to the utilities’ goals we will struggle to enhance their offering. We play an active role in helping utilities to improve their customer services, so we have to make sure that we prioritise the right way to engage with our clients, as if we don’t get that right then we will fail. We also have to help utilities drive down their cost base by delivering high quality services for less cost. It is up to us to come up with innovative solutions to help them improve their business.
“Quality customer services is an ongoing theme, and I think utilities will come under increasing pressure to improve the quality of their customer service, and our role in that can’t be underestimated.”
Michael believes that communicating the aims of the business to the front line staff is an essential part of maintaining a high quality service to utilities. “I am always thinking about how can we motivate and engage our workforce so that they can be the best they can,” he said. “I think that a lack of communication about what the business is trying to achieve is an issue for business – to achieve our aims our workforce is trained and developed to a high standard. There’s no point in having the bestproduct in the world if you can’t get your staff to be engaged and motivated by what the business is trying to achieve.”
After 30 years in the business, Michael has seen first hand how the market has evolved. He concluded with some insights into these changes: “Today the market is very different to when I started and the biggest change to me is how we’ve adopted a collaborative approach, embraced partnering, and finally seem to be understanding how we can better solve problems together.
“There is also now a recognition that long-term contracts work more effectively, and that taking a longer view, making earlier investments in change and improvements makes business sense for clients and service providers.
“I also think that although the work we do for utilities companies can be seen as very traditional, hard physical labour – literally men digging holes in the ground – the methods that we’re using to find faults or identify leaks is very technologically advanced. We’re moving from what was a highly reactive approach to a much more planned strategy and this will bring multiple benefits. More change is coming from companies such as ourselves bringing in more sophisticated solutions to a very traditional environment, and I think utilities are getting there in terms of using every tool at their disposal to make sure the job is done in the most efficient and professional manner.”