Monday interview: Simon Phillips of Esh Border Construction

Simon Phillips joined the construction group in 2014. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Simon Phillips joined the construction group in 2014. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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‘Leap of faith’ to take on role at construction firm targeting significant growth in Scotland

Simon Phillips describes himself as more applied than academic, with an aptitude for seeing things “built and ­created” over the intricate detail of their design.

The Central Belt is where the opportunities for our business are

Simon Phillips

It’s a skillset that’s brought him to the role of regional managing director at Esh ­Border Construction, which was created when Durham-based construction and ­property company Esh Group acquired Border Construction in 2014. Phillips came on board that year, seeing the opportunities created by the deal, and considering it a “very strong business”.

Nevertheless, he admits it was something of a “leap of faith” to jump ship to a ­company inaugurating its presence in Scotland.

That said, the move looks to have paid off, with the company opening up a base in ­Livingston early last year, and clocking up year-on-year turnover growth of 30 per cent in recent years with the ambition to increase this further.

In 2015, turnover reached £275 million and pre-tax profits £8.6m, with its workforce now numbering about 120 in Scotland. Wins for the ­privately-owned business include a £645,000 deal with City of Edinburgh Council for ­renovations at East Craigs ­Primary School and working on phase two of the Calton Hill observatory project, including a new cafe and gallery space.

It has also been appointed to Glasgow City Council’s framework for public-sector ­construction works, with project values of up to £15m.

While Phillips says the ­business has been more ­successful in the public ­sector at the moment, with social housing a key focus, it’s also looking to grow its private ­sector work.

He said: “We’d like to be a ­significant player in the ­Central Belt but in the same size of market sector that we’re in now, which is the £2m to £10m schemes. We think there’s a niche area there.

“The Central Belt is where the opportunities for our business are, which is why we put the resources into Livingston.”

Esh ­Border Construction’s primary Scottish office is based in the West Lothian town and it has just moved to new premises in Fairways Business Park after outgrowing the previous site. There is a second office in Scotland at Galashiels.

The Central Belt and the ­Borders certainly seem to be providing plenty of work, so “it would be crazy to talk about any expansion beyond that. We’re really only scratching the service and we don’t want to be spreading ourselves widely”.

Additionally, as part of Esh Group, the company is placed at 54 on the Sunday Times BDO Profit Track 100, which ranks the UK’s private companies with the fastest growing profits over three years.

Despite such rapid growth and strong ambitions, Phillips stresses that the focus is on the long term. “We’ve grown quite significantly but we could have grown faster. We’re not looking for an explosion, we’re looking for sustainable steady growth.”

Phillips says his time with the firm has been “very rewarding” and while its ambitions for growth are “the challenge”, he enjoys this aspect.

He also explains that while others in his family were ­civil engineers, he opted to buck the trend slightly and go below rather than above ground by studying mining engineering at the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall.

With his primary background in building materials, his roles before Esh included managing director at Hope Construction Materials.

Amid an industry battling a shortage of suitable skilled workers, with Phillips saying recruiting the right calibre of staff is one of the biggest challenges, he highlights its Building My Skills employability programme in Scottish schools.

This unites school pupils and prospective employers, ­having grown to cover 12 ­businesses and 11 schools in the current academic year.

On the back of the project, the firm has been shortlisted in the corporate social responsibility category of the Scottish Business Awards taking place next month in Edinburgh.

Phillips says: “We are a ­relatively new presence in Scotland, so to be shortlisted at this early stage is testament to how far we’ve come in a short space of time.”

Regarding the business’s outlook, he says: “We really want to develop it to become a ­recognised, respected operator in Scotland with a scale which reflects that.”

30-SECOND CV

Born: 1964

Education: BEng, MBA

First job: Materials ­technician

Ambition while at school: To travel

What car do you drive? Audi

Favourite mode of transport: Train

Music: Heather Small

Kindle or book: Book

Reading material: A gift from my sister-in law: How it Works – The Husband and How it Works – The Wife. Really true to life and very funny

Can’t live without: My family

What makes you angry? Unacknowledged poor ­service

What inspires you? ­Sustainably growing our business

Favourite place: I have great memories of Namibia! Being 40 miles from the nearest dirt track road is special

Best thing about your job? The people I work with

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