Meet the construction boss who went from sleeping in his van to building projects for the Royals

It’s extraordinary how Shaun Henley’s life changed in just a few short years.

One minute he’d left the Army and become a ‘stone fixer’, jobbing with a friend on construction projects all over the UK.

In less than five years he was building £50m houses in the south of England, winning awards for his stone work, setting up a limited company and gaining the attention of King Charles III, when he was Prince of Wales.

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In 2016, Henley won the contract to build the Royal Pavilion at Poundbury, a luxurious collection of 20 apartments, which is part of an urban extension on the western outskirts of Dorchester in Dorset, led by the Duchy of Cornwall.

Shaun Henley, owner and managing director of Henley Group in Wakefield.Shaun Henley, owner and managing director of Henley Group in Wakefield.
Shaun Henley, owner and managing director of Henley Group in Wakefield.

Prince Charles’s visit to the site was a particular highlight for him. “He told me he was excited to meet me because he’d wanted to meet me for a while,” Henley recalls. “He sat with the lads and he was a really nice person and I was very honoured to work for him.”

A contract for HSBC UK’s new headquarters in Birmingham followed – the largest glassfibre reinforced concrete project in the UK at the time.

The group also consulted for projects in Dubai but when Covid-19 it switched its focus back to the UK.

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More recently, Henley Group has completed Burberry’s flagship store on New Bond Street in London as well as projects in Manchester and Liverpool.

The Wakefield-based group, which is made up of four specialist companies - Henley Stone Specialists, Henley Remedials and Restoration, Henley Rail and Henley Granite, Quartz and Marble - recorded a turnover of £8m last year, which is expected to rise to £12m or £13m in its next accounts. The group’s target for 2025 is £35m.

"It’s mindblowing sometimes to see where we’ve come from but I’ve seen the nights in the van and the 17-hour days,” says Henley.

"We’d sleep in the van when we were working away because we couldn’t afford accommodation as all the money went into the business.

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"I’d buy a multipack of crisps on a Monday and eat crisp sandwiches every day. Friday was always a bad day because there was only salt and vinegar left.”

Meanwhile, his wife, Zoe, would do all the invoicing for the business on top of her full-time NHS job.

"We disappeared for five years because everything we had was going into the business,” he says. “But I’m proud of those days.”

He adds: “There were times when it was that hard I didn’t think I could cope any longer with not getting paid. But it gradually got to the point where a bit more money was coming through and I could employ more people. It’s been an eventful journey, but worth it.”

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Four months ago, Henley Group moved into new 6,000 sq ft headquarters at Cedar Court Office Park as part of its strategic growth plan.

It plans to add another division and it was recently accredited to work on railway projects, including the restoration of stations, bridges, bankings and platforms.

Although the construction market has been hit by inflation, higher energy costs and political uncertainty over the last couple of years, Henley insists the areas in which he operates remain buoyant.

“We’re a specialist, we don’t do normal run-of-the-mill construction so we don’t have as many competitors,” he says. “The housing sector’s slowed down, although there’s still a lot going on in the commercial sector.”

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For Henley, growing a highly skilled workforce is the main challenge. He says he has a good team of builders but as the business grows the demand for the specialist stone skills rises. To support this, he is planning to launch apprenticeships to keep a steady pipeline coming through the business.

"I think the country needs a bigger push when it comes to apprenticeships,” he says. “Trades people are leaving because a lot of people want to be on computers and things like that but the country needs people who can build – people who are hands-on.”

Henley describes himself as fair but says he won’t accept anything less than the highest quality of work from his employees. He says the company is like a family. “If you need something, you knock on the door and we help. I feel a great responsibility for the people who work for me and their families.”

Being the boss brings pangs of nostalgia for the old days, though. He admits he misses working on building sites. “The hardest thing for a working man is to come into an office and be tied down,” he says.

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“I miss the banter on site, the lads, the travelling in the van with a coffee in the morning and having a chat because I really enjoyed all that. Working on site is the same camaradarie as the Army.”

Dewsbury born and bred, Henley left school at 16 to go into the Army because he wanted to see the world. "I saw grandads in Dewsbury who’d never left and I wanted more,” he says.

He stayed for five or six years, played rugby for the Army and completed stints in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Canada, but then decided to leave when his eldest daughter was born to spend time with her.

"I enjoyed the military but I didn’t fall into line immediately. Maybe it was my entrepreneurial brain but I was always asking why, which isn’t what they want,” he says. “I made some really good friends who are now majors but I knew there was more out there in the world for me that I wanted to do.”

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However, the discipline it instilled into him is something that has followed him throughout his career. “The military background has helped me in the construction industry. If you’re doing something, you do it right,” he says.

Henley now lives in Emley, West Yorkshire, with his wife, Zoe, who co-owns the company, and their six-year-old daughter Jessica.

"I’m besotted with her but she keeps me on my toes because she wants everything,” he says. “I’m back to crisp sandwiches just to keep up.”