Having joined the industry more than 24 years ago and held key UK and European roles with Lafarge and then Etex, Neil Ash has just been appointed to run the company’s building performance division on a worldwide basis. Stephanie Cornwall spoke to him about what the future holds – and what we can learn from the past.

Before packing his bag and heading to Belgium to take up his new global role, Neil Ash has been monitoring a solid investment on UK turf, in the place where it all began for him, and will be watching with interest as it begins to take shape over the next couple of years.

Neil was born in the Bristol area, where Etex is developing a new £140m manufacturing plant (its third in the UK),
scheduled to be operational in 2022 (subject to planning) so he takes personal pride in the company’s latest investment.
Growing up in the area, Neil’s family ran a service station/car dealership and the expectation was that he would eventually join the family business. But Neil decided at an early age this wasn’t for him.

He said construction called to him because it gave him the chance to see something built and created from scratch.
Having begun his working life as a plasterer and drylining contractor, working as a subcontractor on installations, before
joining Lafarge/Etex and working his way through the ranks over the next couple of decades, Neil declares “My heart is in gypsum!”. He said. “Putting 30 bags of plaster on a wall may seem very different to where I am today, but I got a tremendous amount of satisfaction from that.”

Investing for the long-term
Investment is key to driving change and meeting long-term UK needs and Neil believes the new manufacturing facility is the perfect example of how things can move forward while making best use of existing know-how and facilities.

“We can talk as much as we like about productivity, but if we don’t put new capacity in place, to solve the supply and availability issues that the market has seen in the last year, there is a risk that productivity will be lost owing to shortage of product. That is why, even in an uncertain market, we believe it is right to invest significant amounts of money because the long-term need for construction is there,” he said.

Currently Etex uses two UK locations for manufacturing – one plant in the north of England at Ferrybridge, and one in Bristol. The decision to build a third in the southwest was down to market needs and supply, so while it will keep on growing in the north, it can service more of the south in line with demand once the new facility is operational in two years’ time.

“It is a good news story for the area. It is a brownfield site. It is currently used to import coal. We will clean the site up and build the plant there. We will use some of the existing infrastructure. It was in place for coal, but it is perfectly located to
import gypsum into the UK. We have got a tremendous team of people in Bristol, with great know-how and experience.

“When it is at full capacity, it will create another 50 permanent jobs, mostly in manufacturing, alongside the labour used during the actual building project, so it’s a good news story in terms of local employment.”

Keep on learning
Having started on the tools, Neil is a firm believer in a combination of practical and classroom training to gain the best skills set, and believes it’s never too late to learn. “I was always told I was academically gifted but I was very lazy and not interested in education as a teenager. However, I always had a sharp mind for business. I probably found education later on in my career, when I really enjoyed developing myself,” he said.

As Neil’s career progressed and he moved through the ranks, his roles saw him working and travelling throughout the UK
and Europe. The advent of Brexit brought back a nostalgic moment for Neil, who was working in Poland following Lafarge’s acquisition of a state-owned company there, when it first joined the EU. It was there he met his second wife.

“It was interesting for Lafarge to take over that kind of business and rebuild its culture while instilling the values that kind of business wanted to have there,” he said. “It was a tremendously interesting part of my life. Poland was a very different country then to what it is now. It was a great challenge to do something in a market that was evolving quite differently to what I had seen in Europe when I’d worked in the UK. It was not even part of the European Union then – that actually happened while I was out there.”

Investment in people
Investment in people is just as important as financial investment, Neil stressed, recalling the day Etex bought the Lafarge plasterboard business in 2011 and he became Managing Director of the business in 2014. That move enabled him to invest
more in people and create a more engaged workforce – something he stresses is key to any good business.

“Having great people who are motivated and engaged, is what is going to enable us to give great service and solutions for our customers,” he said.

So what message would Neil give to those new to the industry? Persevere, take advantage of all the training opportunities
that are far more readily available nowadays and keep on learning through experience, he said.

“I borrowed the fee from my mum to pay to put myself through college. I just didn’t have the money to do it when I was
younger. I went to Brunel Technical College where I got an NVQ in plastering. There are a lot of people who start off without taking that route. They learn to be a plasterer or a dryliner without doing the qualification.

I felt it was important to give myself that grounding. I am a firm believer in colleges and skilling people up to do the right thing in a professional and safe way on construction sites. It teaches you more about the basics of construction, while the academic part teaches you more about the different forms of construction. It does it in a light way but it gives you a fuller picture. I found that interesting but I also liked the application side of things and learning to do that.”

Hard work and determination, coupled with an appreciation for the work of others, are key to becoming a fit-out specialist, whatever the chosen profession, said Neil. “I started at a really junior level in the organisation, but through hard work and determination on my side, and great investment in me to develop me by both Lafarge and Etex, I see myself now taking care of building performance on a worldwide basis. We are now looking at how we are now going to grow and develop the business in Latin America,” he said.

“This is nothing like the way I saw my life panning out back in the early days! It has been a fantastic journey, working with great people and with great customers in a great industry.”

The father-of-five had one solid piece of advice to share with FIS members in the UK: Never lose sight of the real picture. “I have always encouraged people to spend time on job sites and to spend a day in the life of a customer, seeing how they
do things and talking about what makes a great day for them, or what makes a bad day for them. Through that understanding we can create better products. Too often innovation is what someone thinks is a good idea when they’re in an office or an R&D department. What I would rather look at is what is going to make us create better buildings in a sustainable and more efficient way. It may sound like a cliché but that is what I encourage people to do. We don’t
learn about the market by sitting in an office – we do that by talking to customers and understanding the challenges they face.

“I think we’ve done a really good job of that together as a team over the last few years and I know that, even as I move on to different things, that will stay with the business. It is not just a UK thing – we are trying to drive that everywhere we go now because that is what makes us a good manufacturer at the end of the day.