It’s not the oldest but it has certainly blossomed from a couple of plasterers plying their trade in North London to become a dynamic and innovative business. Today, Stanmore Contractors combines a range of inter-related services to work not just as a traditional subcontractor but increasingly as a prime contractor for building envelope and interior works. Adrian JG Marsh met Raj Manak to find out more about a business celebrating its diamond anniversary.

“Try to be the best at whatever you do, and work hard to achieve it” is the advice Raj Manak, the 52-year-old managing director and owner of the Stanmore group of companies, would give to any aspiring 20-year-old planning their career.

Raj’s vision has transformed a traditional plastering and drylining contractor into a multi-skilled specialist with a range of services embracing interiors, architectural metal work, glazing, and building envelope engineering and construction. In 2017, sales were in excess of £120 million and margin at a level that tier 1 contractors only dream of.

Stanmore through the years

Back in 1958, Leo Tuohey set up Plastering Contractors Stanmore, in Stanmore, Middlesex. The business took advantage of the boom in housebuilding and worked across London, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, gaining a reputation for reliability and quality. George Wimpey was then a key client and today, as Taylor Wimpey, it remains a Stanmore client.

Leo wanted to retire in 1979 and sold the business to a management team. By the late 1980s, Don Leavey and Chris Brown were running Stanmore from its new home in South East London. While work expanded, housing work was the real engine for growth. Turnover was around £3 million a year.

In 1989, a young Raj Manak entered the construction industry as a labourer and then worked as a plasterer for his father, a subcontractor. The father-and-son duo began working for Stanmore in 1991. At the same time, Raj was studying for a Civil Engineering ONC at Erith College on day release, pursuing his ambition to become an engineer.

The business grew to around £4 million in the mid-1990s and Chris finally persuaded Raj to move from the tools and become a supervisor and manager. He had identified how Raj shone with attention to detail and a grasp of time, cost and quality. On completion of the ONC, Raj began a Quantity Surveying degree at the University of Greenwich as he progressed to contracts manager. He worked his way through all parts of the company, becoming construction director on completion of his degree in 1997.

Raj recalls his early management career. “I always liked systems to monitor and control costs, and when combined with my trade experience we developed ways to improve efficiency and profitability,” he said. “I was running all the construction when I was offered a chance to buy into the business. It was a lot of money for me at the time, but I was always confident that this business had the capability to do a lot more.”

“The economy was growing and there was a lot of work available, but I always wanted to make sure that we didn’t just concentrate on plastering and that we expanded into other related areas, at first into insulated renders, metal stud partitions and SFS,” Raj added.

By the turn of the century, turnover was up to £7 million with clients including Wimpey, Lovell, Berkeleyand Laing Homes. Stanmore also carried out commercial work on colleges, offices and hospitals. At the same time as Chris planned for retirement, Raj became managing director and acquired more of the business, finally taking full control when Don retired in 2006. By then, annual turnover had reached around £30 million.

Growing with the business

Staff retention has been high thanks in part to the management and engineering team at Stanmore constantly having new challenges presented to them. Stanmore’s move into full-scale facades, window installation and architectural metal work has provided individuals with the opportunity to develop and grow with the business.

Raj commented: “If you want to add value to people and to the industry, you should be able to provide a very good service, and to do that, you need a lot of talent within your business. You must also be able to put a lot of packages in your offer (to clients). That way, you make it easy for clients to deal with just one person rather than with six or seven.

“Having multi-related packages in our business, plus a pool of very talented people, allows us to have the best service in the industry. If you stand still, you might go backwards, and we want to keep moving forward to attract talent and grow the business with the right people. Nobody has to leave Stanmore to progress their career.”

Moving into facades and metal work in the noughties took Stanmore to a new level: it was a seminal period. Stanmore’s senior team stopped thinking like a reactive subcontractor and started to look ahead, planning more like a manufacturer and taking a proactive leading specialist role.

Management control procedures and techniques have developed from the techniques Raj created during the 1990s. These ensure that jobs are estimated carefully, planned in detail from tender, through construction and onto final account.

Raj highlights the importance of technology. He explained: “We’re working on some 150 sites and we can find out what’s happening on any job at the touch of a button. We manage each contract carefully, which means we avoid shocks, both for us and our clients.”

Close-working team

Stanmore’s fortnightly contracts meetings are legendary and allow the whole team to share experiences, but they also serve to keep Raj close to his staff so that everyone remains focused on contract objectives.

“I still know 95 per cent of the people who work here,” said Raj. “Most of my senior team have grown with the business. We don’t hire and fire – if we make a mistake, we find ways to correct it, and we learn from it. We also learn from others.”

Raj is clearly passionate about his business, and his ambition is as strong as ever. He said: “I’d seen how professional main contractor clients had been, trying new ways of working to get better and become more competitive. I wanted us to be as professional as any main contractor or housebuilder.

“To take full control of our work packages, we had to manage safety and quality to a high standard; if we did that, we’d stand out above other subcontractors.”

At 60 years old, Stanmore is now on the cusp of its next stage of sustainable growth. It is putting in place a new group structure that meets the changing needs of the market. Drylining, facades, glazing and metal work businesses are being joined by a unitised facades team and a modular construction operation.

“We’re now growing outside of London. We’ve set up operations in Swindon to cover the M4 corridor and in Manchester to work with customers in the North West. And we’re now looking at a Midlands base,” Raj concluded.

Does it work? Well, let the numbers speak; in just one month during the spring, Stanmore secured £28 million of new business, including its first new unitised facades appointment at Wood Wharf in Canary Wharf.

Without doubt, people are the real sparkle that has made Stanmore a true diamond at 60 – and it’s not stopping there. The next target is to become a £200-million business by 2023.