The Big Interview: Fred Story, founder of the civil engineering business Story Contracting

Fred Story started his construction empire from a Portakabin in the back of his garden in 1987. Story Contracting now has turnover of �120m and 600 staff
Fred Story started his construction empire from a Portakabin in the back of his garden in 1987. Story Contracting now has turnover of �120m and 600 staff
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He may not be a household name, but Fred Story has ranked among the 1,000 richest people in the UK after building up an empire that spans high-profile infrastructure projects and high-end housing, with ambitions for significant growth in Scotland.

Story and his family is believed to have amassed a fortune of £182 million, up from £150m in 2017. His Cumbria-based family business group encompasses Story Contracting, which has turnover of £120m and 600 staff, and Story Homes, where turnover in the current financial year is £260m and staff number 400.

He started it as a construction firm from a Portakabin in the back of his garden in 1987, funded by his mother-in-law after being turned down for a bank loan. It came after he graduated as an engineer and worked for John Laing. While he had never harboured ambitions to set up on his own, by the age of 28 he “was making more money buying and doing up houses than working for another business”.

As orders picked up, a trip to the local pub would see him bump into one of his customers, which “drove a real culture of accountability”, he says. More than three decades later, “we’re always looking to grow on the back of our reputation”.

Starting out, he tried to get on tender lists and began doing roadworks and bridgeworks for local councils and winning contracts for local factories. He then bought his own plants and diggers, which paved the way for entry into the railway industry, lending out specialist machinery.

In 2012 he demerged the Story Group into Story Homes and Story Contracting, and the following year the latter bought the rail plant division of Lothian firm Caledonian Industrial in a deal that doubled Story’s in-house fleet to more than 50 vehicles, saw it take on 17 staff, and prompted a refurbishment of the Edinburgh depot in Bonnyrigg.

Story says the acquisition gave access to the market north of the border, and the group has recruited 50 people for its plants hire business in Bonnyrigg and 70 in the Glasgow area for its rail and contracting business, “so Scotland’s been a fantastic success story for us”.

The group’s Scottish civil engineering division based in Uddingston this year laid out a five-year plan to double turnover to £40m as it broadens its horizons beyond the rail sector.

Known as Story Scotland, it is now expanding its civil engineering work into other areas, including construction and plant hire. It aims to increase its rail contracting workload, and looking to do work with Transport for Scotland.

“We’re broadening our offer because it allows you to employ people directly. [Rather than using agency staff] our model is about permanently employing people, looking after them and then really making sure that they deliver the job effectively for the client.”

Story Scotland is led by John MacArthur, and Story says that for the four years he’s been in charge turnover has increased from £1.5m to £25m.

Story Contracting was in April named best-performing Network Rail Contractor for 2017/18, “and that was driven in the main by the performance of our Scottish team – so they’re really flying the flag for Scotland”.

Story Scotland’s rail projects include the £5m Glasgow Queen Street tunnel track slab replacement for Morgan Sindall, the £2.5m Stirling station canopy replacement for Network Rail and improving the station facilities at Dundee Station for Abellio ScotRail.

It has also worked on the St Ninian’s level crossing replacement in Stirling, the renewal of canopy glazing at Inverness station, the platform extension at North Berwick station and the installation of Access For All bridges at stations including Blairhill in Coatbridge and Elgin in Moray.

In March it won the contract to deliver the £23m Edinburgh Waverley platform works on behalf of Network Rail, involving platform extensions, building refurbishments, and installing walkways and escalators to get ready for the new longer electric trains set to carry some of the 30 million passengers each year that use the station.

It is clearly a “very high-profile” project, says Story, noting that it involved taking over from Carillion as the main contractor, taking on 15 of the collapsed infrastructure firm’s former staff.

And he cites the advantage of being able to take on staff from some bigger, established contractors.

It comes amid concerns over not only the outsourcing model generally but also a skills shortage in construction intensifying after the UK leaves Europe, with the Federation of Master Builders this year calling for a “serious” delivery plan to be put in place for a post-Brexit skills and immigration policy.

Story is nonetheless optimistic about staffing from his own standpoint, citing his “very focused” team, and correcting a previous report quoting him as pro-Brexit. He says he in fact wondered at the time if anyone knew the right option (about staying or leaving) and could see the benefits of leaving and the benefits of staying, so he “wouldn’t like to say one way or another”. He adds: “Does anybody know now? I don’t think anybody’ll know until five years after the event as to whether or not it was good decision or a terrible decision.”

Something the 6’8” boss is keener to admit was not one of his best decisions was his time as owner of Carlisle United, a responsibility he evidently sees as having taken his eye off the ball regarding his day job. “Everybody’s ego trips them up now and again,” he says. And while he was proud of what he did for the team, “it wasn’t a good business call – you live and learn”.

He is far more positive about the prospects of another Story business, Reiver Homes, which launched as Story Contracting’s housing division in 2015 and specialises in small to medium-sized luxury developments in Cumbria and south-west Scotland. Developments include March Mount in Dumfries, which includes two-bedroom apartments, three-bedroom semi-detached homes and four-bedroom detached houses.

Story points out that 960 houses are being built by Story Homes this year, including in Dumfries and Biggar, with ambitions to move into the Central Belt and with plans for medium-term growth north of the border.

Looking more broadly to the future of Story’s empire, he says: “We get plenty of people looking to buy the business, because it’s a very successful business, but we’ve no intention. It’ll stay family-owned for the next 25 years.

“We reinvest in kit, in training, in our people, so that as a family-owned business we can think long-term rather than worrying about short-term share price to the City and dividends because investors are demanding their pound of flesh. We can think much longer-term, which gives us a real advantage, I believe, over the competition.”

Those on board include his daughter Emma, who is set to return to the Story Contracting business, and will ultimately own it.

Her father says she is “very focused on equality of opportunity for women and we’ve got some really strong women working in the business”. He has observed a real change in the attitude among the male workforce, certainly over the last decade, regarding how “accepting and respectful” they are towards female colleagues. “It’s a much healthier atmosphere,” he says.

According to one estimate, women make up little over a tenth of the UK construction industry’s circa 2.1 million workforce.

Story’s own duties have seen him until recently hold the role of chairman of both Story Contracting and Story Homes, “so my time was pretty evenly spread”, although he has stepped in to lead Story Homes of late after the chief executive left.

The aim is to find a replacement so he can focus his attentions on his chairman roles, as the firm reinvests its profits with a view to its long-term health and to keep it “stable and solid”.