Plaudits for family firm built on firm foundations of fair play

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UPHOLDING the values of honour, honesty and fair play have led to success in business through good times and bad, according to the chairman of a family-owned building firm which is celebrating its 130th birthday this week.

Houlton, based in Hull, is marking the occasion with an exhibition charting its journey from sole trader to East Yorkshire stalwart over five generations of the Houlton family.

“Being fair to people is very important. If you say you are going to do something, you do it. And never be afraid to say ‘I’m wrong’. I know I have been on occasion,” said Richard Houlton, the chairman, on the eve of the exhibition’s launch.

It was curated by his son Thomas, a non-executive director, and tells the story of the company, its people and projects over the last 13 decades.

Alan Johnson, the Labour MP for West Hull and Hessle and former Home Secretary, opened the show at the Arc architecture centre in Queen Street on Friday.

He told the Yorkshire Post: “I am delighted to have been invited to attend this exhibition. It’s fantastic to learn about the history of such a well-established Hull business and I wish them every success in the future.”

Like every business in the construction industry, Houlton has been affected by the recession. Turnover has fallen by nearly half over the last five years, but the company is seeing some signs of recovery in demand.

Mr Houlton senior, 63, said: “We hit the lofty peak of around £60m about four or five years ago, but it was not sustainable turnover and we knew that.

“Around £30m-£40m is our aim and with the recession we are down to around £30m, but we are looking to take people on again, which is good.”

The company employs 130 people, including labourers, bricklayers, joiners, site managers, office staff, surveyors and estimators, down from 200 in 2007-08, but up from 120 at the depth of the recession.

The company expects to recruit another 10 in various roles, said its chairman. Mr Houlton, speaking about current levels of demand, said: “We are seeing more interest from the private sector. The public sector is going to be cutting back for the next year, but we are fortunate the Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme in Hull is continuing – albeit cut back a little – and hopefully we will be getting something out of that as one of the lead contractors.”

He is hopeful that Houlton will get “a few scraps from the table” when Siemens, the German engineering giant, begins work on its new plant for manufacturing offshore wind turbines in Hull.

Of the current turnover, £6m comes from building and maintenance work. The majority comes from contracts including the £6.5m refurbishment of the Scarborough Spa venue, new school projects in Grimsby, Hull and Doncaster, the refurbishment of the KP Foods production facility in Billingham and the construction of 60 affordable homes across East Yorkshire.

Mr Houlton said: “We had a couple of years of stuttering, but managed to make profits. This year, which ends at the end of April, we are hoping to show quite a good return.” Asked what happens to the profits, he said: “We try to reinvest in the company.”

He is proud of the low turnover of staff in the company; more than 20 employees have each served 25 years or more and one member of staff is three years away from a half century with the firm. That trend is “contrary to most building companies”, he said.

He added: “We are very fair to the people we employ. That helps. We look after them if they have got health problems and if their families have health problems, if we can help, we do help. That’s the ethos that runs through the company.”

Houlton is the only building company in Hull to have a directly employed health and safety officer, according to the chairman. The emphasis on health and safety represents one of the main changes in the industry over the years, said Mr Houlton. The other big changes over its history are the improved organisational and management structures and a vast reduction in waste, he added.

The son of past chairman Dick Houlton, Mr Houlton joined the business in 1970 after a spell with Sheffield builder Longdens. He became managing director in 1981 and chairman in 1996.

Looking back, he said: “There was a bit of the boss’s son syndrome. I think I have managed. I got out on site. Got my hands dirty. Men respected you a little more for that.”

Paul Dickerson is the current managing director.

LINEAGE THAT GOES BACK TO VICTORIA

born in 1854 into a Lincolnshire family of farmers, craftsmen and Methodist preachers, George Houlton senior founded the family firm 130 years ago.

His predecessors went on to build many of the mills and silos during Hull’s boom period in the 1890s and 1900s. Key projects of the 20th century included the British Vinegar Factory, now BP Saltend, Ideal Standard and and Reckitt & Colman.

Thomas Houlton, 27, the great, great-grandson of George, was appointed a non-executive director last year.

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