Playful chatter behind scenes 
of company steeled for success

Mark Smith, CEO of Billington Holdings.
Mark Smith, CEO of Billington Holdings.
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When Lincolnshire-born Mark Smith first joined Barnsley-based structural steel firm Billington Holdings, he was a bit gob-smacked to find himself referred to as “that Southerner”.

However over the past year he has managed to get his own back by creating a secret book of impenetrable Southern Yorkshire phrases.

“I’m still not really sure what a full bag of mashings is,” he confesses. “I think it’s showing someone a good time.”

With a perfect Barnsley accent he tells me: “‘Give us a Friday night – we’ll take you out and show you the full bag of mashings!’ I thought it was something you ate. I was thinking maybe I can get away with just half a bag.”

Banter is something that comes naturally to the head brass at Billington. After a tough few years when demand ground to a halt, the company is well and truly back on its feet.

Profits more than doubled in 2014 and the firm has just paid its first dividend in five years. All divisions are back in profit for the first time since the downturn and the order book is strong.

On his best behaviour, Smith told reporters in March: “I’m very encouraged by the way the team is working together. We are in a really strong position with a good management team across the board.”

But behind the scenes, Smith gives his new colleagues as good as he gets. While I get coffee for Smith and his PR adviser, I can hear them cackling away as they plan how to catch out finance director Trevor Taylor with a horribly early start the next day.

The banter is obviously paying off as analysts are predicting further profit progression this year. Analyst Matthew Davis at WH Ireland has increased his 2015 earnings estimates by 15 per cent and the group’s shares have nearly doubled over the past year.

The firm, which supplied the steel for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s award-winning Stratford-upon-Avon theatre, is now working on a new major distribution centre in Doncaster for fashion retailer Next. Construction started last month and the job will involve 5,000 plus tonnes of structural steel.

Following a dismal few years for the sector, Billington believes that price is no longer the only factor contractors are looking at.

Like other structural steel firms, Billington was hit hard during the downturn. While many failed, Billington managed to survive after a restructuring that included 90 job losses.

But the group is now recruiting again and Smith warns there will be an industry-wide shortage of skilled labour unless manufacturers step up their apprenticeship schemes.

“The skills shortage will be a restriction on growth. It’s not just in the factories, it’s white collar workers,” he says. Smith joined Billington as chief operating officer a year ago from arch rival William Hare Structural Engineers.

He has a long career in the sector and was seen as the obvious successor to the highly regarded former CEO Steve Fareham, who steered the group back to health. Smith duly took on the top role at the beginning of the year.

“Although Billington is a large PLC, it trades like a privately owned company, which is my background,” he says.

“The PLC part I’m learning, but the friendliness and co-operation is very similar to what I’ve experienced. In Billington, the directors are all operational, very much at the coal face. You can trust the information you get round the board table.”

Despite the obvious language barriers, Smith admires the fact that his Yorkshire co-workers like to call a spade a spade.

“There is very little internal politics. Yorkshire people don’t suffer fools gladly,” he mulls.

My favourite of Smith’s anecdotes is the one about his introduction to commercial director Martin Goddard, who has been with Billington for over 30 years: “He said to me with a very stern face (cue Barnsley accent), ‘Your job here is the same as my job and it’s the same as his job and the same as his job. It’s to make money. He makes money, I make money, we all make money’.”

Smith says that such brutal honesty has turned Goddard into one of the most respected players in the steel sector.

“There’s Martin and there’s contracts director Brian Turton – two of the longest serving Billington Structures directors,” says Smith.

“Martin and Brian spar off each other. Martin and his team sell the project and Brian and his team deliver the project. I arbitrate between the two and Trevor makes sure it makes money.”

Billington’s roots lie in servicing the once great coal mining industry in South Yorkshire and it’s sited in an area that suffered badly from the collapse of the sector.

Many of its older workers were in the industry and Smith says that sometimes he has to battle with their concept that it’s management versus staff.

“As a management team, we’re not scared to get our hands dirty,” he says.

Smith describes his school days as “awful” and he left at 15. His break came with a job at the now defunct steel firm DA Green at the age of 17. He then went on to get the necessary training and qualifications to get on in the industry.

Throughout our interview, Smith is wary he doesn’t say anything that his colleagues can use for “banter”. (He’s still trying to get over being described as “seasoned” by one journalist).

But on being asked what book he’s reading, he makes the fatal flaw of admitting: “On my Kindle I’ve got Fifty Shades of Grey.

“Oh, I inadvertently downloaded it. It was very boring and unrealistic,” he tries to backtrack desperately.

I dread to think what jokes will be waiting in store for him tomorrow...