Having helped to grow Overbury to a £500m fit-out giant, Steve Elliott and his team at BW Workplace Experts are now committed and passionate about transforming fit-out and refurbishment and delivering defect free on every contract in partnership with the entire supply chain. Adrian JG Marsh reports.

“I was quite happy helping my daughter with her homework when I met Mark Richards and Craig Foster in 2014,” said Steve Elliott, chief executive at BW Workplace Experts. “They wanted to take BW to the next level.”

Mark and Craig had founded BW in 2001 and they had built a £50m specialist with a niche position in the high-end London fit-out market. The three talked and agreed a deal which saw Steve lead a management buy-in.

Steve set about recreating his successful team from his Overbury days. He was joined by former colleagues, including Anthony Brown, sales and marketing director.

Steve explained: “We’re about customer experience and customer care. The problem with PLCs and hedge-funded buyouts is they are often restrictive. The deal with BW was an equity swap where the management team now own a majority of shares and the founders have retained a minority investment.

“We restructured the business and built our strategy around one thing: being defect free at practical completion. There are four elements to defect free. Firstly, snag free at practical completion; secondly, completing on time; then, having O&M manuals available; and finally, achieving an average nine out of 10 with the project promoters in a client satisfaction survey. And to get nine is a big ask.”

Setting sights on defect free

The whole business is focused on delivering defect free projects on every contract. A key role is that of the BW’s customer experience director, Rob Frank, who sits on the main board. Most of this role is about working with the BW clients and the supply chain.

Anthony explained: “Rob’s role involves going around sites looking for examples of best practice and sharing these with all our staff and simplifying the way we work so we’re more efficient.

“We encourage staff to use Yammer, a software package, so they can share knowledge with anybody in any other part of the business. We have regular internal presentations and bus trips to sites to make sure everyone here can see what’s happening and can learn so we improve what we do for our clients.

“More than 50 per cent of Rob’s time is working with the supply chain and making sure we’re working with the right people, in the right way, to ensure that they have the right values and they support what we’re aspiring to achieve.”

Aligning the supply chain

Since the new team moved in, BW has realigned its supply chain. Every supplier and subcontractor are marked against a range of criteria, including health and safety, attitude on-site, quality, surveying and communications. They are then graded into three levels: listed; approved; and preferred.

If a supply chain member achieves preferred status then BW does not take any retentions; in fact, it gives back any retentions that are being held. And the BW contracts teams want to work more with them because they know they’ll get a defect free result.

“This (approach) works incredibly well and builds tremendous engagement with the supply chain,” Anthony explained. “We work with them around innovation, spread ideas about what works and what does not work, and help them plan future workload.”

Internally there is a commitment to share ideas and examples of best practice among all the staff. Steve continued: “We engage strongly (with our staff) and we regularly have one-to-one reviews and mentor individuals. Everyone is asked what they like about BW and what they would change about BW.

“There is a commitment to maintaining face-to-face engagement at all levels. We also do this with the supply chain and then we analyse the data to see if we can identify any patterns and then take steps to improve what we do.

“We have a team of design managers who are not doing first principle design but are liaising with architects, consultants and the trade contractors to ensure we have the right information so that we can design out snags before they become snags and achieve defect free projects.”

Critical factors for delivery

BW identifies the critical factors to achieve defect free on each contract at an early stage. There is a focus on the project-critical trades of mechanical and electrical, joinery and partitions, and ceilings on bigger jobs.

So, is BW successful with its defect free strategy?

Steve said: “This year, 60 per cent of contracts have been defect free – that’s up from 40 per cent last year. More importantly those that are not defect free are generally only days away from being defect free.

“Every contract is a step towards being totally defect free. Our aim is to provide a world-class level of service and we’re very puritanical about defect free. It is either defect free or it is not.”

BW is part of the Cranfield Customer Experience Forum that share examples of best practice across different economic sectors. They can measure themselves against global brands such as Apple and Carlton Hotels.

Learning from other businesses is integral to driving BW forward. Partnering arrangements with fit-out contractors – HITT in the USA and SHAPE, the largest fit-out contractor in Australia – have added an edge. They share business relationships, culture and staff exchanges.

Steve does admit that some who go on exchanges do come back…! He added, “The partnership allows us to learn what’s the latest in fit-out and refurbishments in North America and Australia. There are long-term and short-term assignments where people go and live a project. Those who go have to blog, email ideas and Yammer. So the whole business benefits.”

Anthony explained further: “We work at these partnerships and they’ve helped with innovation, especially where technology is involved. That’s how we came to adopt Procore as a construction management software, which has saved us huge amounts of time and money.”

Team focus

The BW team is packed full of new ideas, challenging its people, and bringing new technology and workplace designs to the UK. It is now competing at the top table of fit-out and refurbishment.

Revenue has grown to just under £180m turnover and post-tax margins hover around a mouth-watering five percent. Contract sizes vary from £26k to £48m and they’re targeting a £300m turnover. But what’s the ultimate aim for Steve and his BW team?

“We want to be the world’s leading interior fit-out company; not the biggest, but the best,” he answered.

And there is no reason why they won’t get there.


Photograph: Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford, London.
Photograph credit: Gareth Gardener.