Esme Flounders was recently appointed Business Development Director at Barclay Roofing. We put the questions to Esme and talk all things roofing, including working on projects throughout the past year, how the company has taken the issue of attracting new roofing talent into its own hands, challenges and opportunities within the sector, and why planning ahead is more important than ever before…
Q: Can you tell us a bit about Barclay Roofing and the types of projects you get involved with…
EF: Barclay Roofing is one of the longest established and largest roofing contractors in our region with a footprint that spans the North; from the Borders down to Leeds and going East to West coast. We work in all sectors, from housebuilders and private developers to main contractors, Local Authorities, domestic customers, and everything in between. As a result, the kind of projects we get involved with are very varied. However, we’ve really built up a reputation as specialists in heritage work and have some of the best lead workers and slaters, tilers and specialist joiners in the region. We’re also known as a ‘go to’ contractor for anything particularly challenging, mainly because our management team is one of the most experienced in the business. In a nutshell, the types of project that get us up in the morning can be typified as being…difficult!
Q: What was your path into construction and to your current position?
EF: I’m actually very new to the industry. Until nine months ago, I was Marketing and Communications Director at Sage Gateshead, the internationally renowned concert hall and one of the biggest charities in the North East. However, when Covid hit, it became clear early on that mass gatherings were not the business to be in, so I took voluntary redundancy and decided to have some time out to focus on the family and home schooling.
My father, Paul Trelease, owns Barclay Roofing, and it has been a big part of my life since early childhood. When Dad suggested that I do some project work for him on a freelance basis in late 2020, I jumped at the chance as I have always been interested in the business. The scope of work very quickly grew, and by February this year we had decided I would move into position permanently as Director of Systems and Business Development.
Q: You mentioned that the team at Barclay Roofing are renowned for difficult projects, are there any in particular that stand out?
EF: The difficult projects are always the ones that help to grow knowledge and skills and are therefore a really important part of business growth. As an example, we were contracted to complete roofing and cladding work on a particularly large, complex University building in 2015. Architecturally stunning, the project was not without its challenges. The project took over a year to complete, and required all of our technical know-how to translate the beautiful design into a functional building along with other contractors. We learnt a huge amount from that project, and our workforce benefitted too.
Q: What about difficult customers – do you get many of these and how do you deal with them?
EF: We’re actually pretty lucky when it comes to difficult customers. Whilst we face occasional challenges, everything is quick to be resolved. We’re honest people and have built a reputation on doing things right. That ethos spans everything from our approach to quality and workmanship to the way we treat customers and suppliers. If anything crops up, we fix it. Sometimes when you’re running a business, these things can be inconvenient and sometimes expensive. However, as the old adage goes, if you do things right, things come right in the end.
Q: Tell us about a current project you’re working on…
EF: We love working on heritage projects and are known as a ‘go to’ contractor in the region for anything particularly complex. At the moment, we are working on the full refurbishment of Darlington Indoor Market, a building that is being completely renovated inside and out. It is one of the oldest covered markets in the UK, and the refurbishment is going to bring it bang up to date, create a town centre space for the modern age. In addition to traditional market stalls, it will also feature social spaces, restaurants, and bars. The work itself is right up our street – complicated, technically demanding. There’s lots of problem solving and our slating and lead teams are having a field day.
Q: How has the last year been working during the pandemic; how has it impacted project delivery and are things getting easier?
EF: It’s certainly been a challenge, and throughout the pandemic, work has not stopped. Indeed, it’s been as busy as ever. Like all contractors, we had to turn on a penny and introduce new systems, processes and all new H&S precautions. At the same time, we had to reduce gang sizes, arrange staff into bubbles and increase the size of the fleet. The to do list in those early days was enormous. Of course, we also had to deal with workforce interruption as staff needed to self-isolate. Taking all of the necessary precautions was worth it, though, as we’ve had a very low rate of infection. Moreover, we delivered on every project – and all got a few new grey hairs to boot!
Q: Issues around supply of materials such as concrete roof tiles and timber are well documented, often leading to longer lead times and some price rises – has this been your experience and how have you adapted to ensure projects run smoothly?
EF: Forward planning has been essential as far as possible, but of course in construction things can change in an instant. We’ve had to really focus on customer communication too, and managing expectations. We’re lucky that we have very well established relationships with our suppliers, all of which have been excellent at keeping us informed. There have certainly been a few hairy moments, and more are bound to come. But, with good planning and communication with both customers and suppliers we’re in a strong position.
Q: What have you learned about the business from working during the pandemic – has it impacted the way you’ll approach work, the supply chain and the types of projects you might get involved with going forward?
EF: Although it’s all been difficult, the pandemic has certainly prompted us to do things in different ways, and some of those ways will be here to stay. We’ve increased our forward planning even further out, for example, and will keep much of this practice in place as it gives us a better oversight in the business. We’re also working more flexibly, some of us from home, which has been effective. Communication with our operative workforce has also had to improve along with our use of technology, and this is something that we’re keen to keep in place.
Q: The skills issue is a perennial problem which has been compounded further by Brexit – you’ve recently got involved with an interesting initiative with AAA Roofing and have also appointed two degree level apprentices – can you tell me what prompted you to make these moves, plus how you see the initiatives progressing and benefiting the business?
EF: Quite simply, we can see our workforce needed to grow, and it’s not as simple as hiring more staff. The skills don’t exist, so we needed to develop a programme to grow our own whilst increasing the profile of roofing as an attractive trade career. We’re not great publicists in this sector, but roofing is a great trade! In terms of growth, we dream of having our own skills academy, so watch this space! In the meantime though, we are fortunate to be working with some great partners who are bending over backwards to give us, as local employers, what we need in terms of training.
Q: With this in mind, would you say skills and attracting new entrants to roofing is the biggest concern for sector currently? I’m sure there are others!
EF: Skills and attracting talent is a constant challenge and we hope the work we are doing now will shore us up for the future. It’s a long game. The most immediate pressing challenge as I see it is closely linked to this – managing the supply/demand issue. Demand for us is as high as we’ve seen it in some years. The challenge is in servicing the work that’s out there, either because a lack of suitably skilled labour, or most immediately, the issues the sector faces in terms of materials supply.
Q: What’s the most frustrating thing about your job?
EF: Not having time to do it all. There is so much opportunity out there, but there are only so many hours in the day.
Q: And the most satisfying?
EF: I love winning work, and the more challenging the better. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing a complicated contract brought to life because of the solutions we have been able to offer and the quality we bring. I also love seeing our staff develop and achieve their potential, which is why I love working on the skills development agenda so much.
Q: What’s your most important tool, either in the office or on site?
EF: Phone. Laptop. In that order!
Q: In what has been a challenging year, are there reasons for the roofing sector to be optimistic going forward?
EF: Lots of reasons! I’m excited about the retrofit agenda and the developments in environmentally friendly products and practice in particular. The best thing I’m finding about construction is that it’s quietly a very innovative sector. Whilst some things may never change, there is always someone pushing the envelope. And that means opportunities…