Steve Radcliffe’s claim to fame is that he has walked around the perimeter of the London Eye.
“When I tell people that, they think I have climbed over the top of it, but in reality it was lying down in the River Thames at the time,” he admits.
The project, which he describes as his “dream job”, came to fruition during a 17-year career at Tilbury Douglas Construction, which was the main contractor for the tourist attraction in 1999.
He was in charge of the team building the wheel.
These days, the construction market is very different and many firms, including Clugston Construction, which has offices in Scunthorpe and Leeds, have had their fair share of misery.
In 2010/11, Clugston Construction, which is part of Clugston Group, made a £3.96m pre-tax loss and turnover was £53.4m, down from £71m the previous year. The figures were hit by £1.3m of exceptional costs resulting from a settlement on a major project on which completion was delayed due to the failure of a nominated specialist contractor.
The firm is expected to bounce back in its 2011/12 accounts, boosted by a number of energy from waste projects. But Radcliffe remains cautious about the future.
“The construction market as a whole is still very difficult,” he says. “All of the optimistic economic indicators talk about very small increases, or possibly flat.”
The company was set back by a number of energy-from-waste schemes which took longer to start on site during the downturn, leading the company to reduce its workforce to 300 staff, down from a peak of 500 while it waited.
The fall in work followed one of the best years for the firm in 2008/9, despite the financial crisis. “Even when someone turns off the tap you have still got ongoing contracts,” says Radcliffe. “The tap was turned off in 2008/9 but we had a £124m turnover.”
Even though business was booming, Radcliffe knew the pain would soon come. “If people are short of money, they stop building new things so we certainly knew it was coming,” he says. “Whether we would know how severe it would be, I’m not sure.”
Last spring, however, the firm turned a corner when a number of schemes started on site. “Like London buses, three came at once and it made things more comfortable for us as a company,” says Radcliffe.
The company is currently working on three energy-from-waste schemes in Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Staffordshire, which are expected to boost future turnover and bring the company back into profit.
It has already secured £80m worth of contracts for the next financial year.
“I don’t want to be complacent, but we are sitting fairly comfortably at the moment,” says Radcliffe. “Turnover will be 20 per cent up this year and next year. Employee numbers have increased to 400 in the last three months and there are another 80 people on short-term contracts.”
Radcliffe, who joined the company as managing director in 2007, has developed a two-pronged strategy for future growth – to develop local relationships through its regional offices, which also include one in the North East and another in Peterborough, and to get closer to the local supply chain, while also focusing on energy from waste and its new facilities management division.
The division operates four hospitals in Nottingham, Newcastle, Sedgefield and Daventry which it also built under the private finance initiative.
“I think the facilities management side fits in well with the construction because you build the building and then look after it,” says Radcliffe.
Facilities management is an area in which Radcliffe is hoping to expand. In the last six months, Clugston has picked up contracts in the industrial sector including one to provide industrial support services to stainless steel supplier and manufacturer Outokumpu in Sheffield.
Radcliffe hopes the increased focus on its specialist sectors will go some way to making up for the reduction in public spending.
Public sector contracts, particularly schools and hospitals, have led to a good supply of contracts for Clugston in previous years.
However, spending cuts are having an impact and the number of contracts is falling.
In addition, the company is working with a number of private clients in the industrial, commercial and retail sectors with clients including BP, Vivergo and Morrisons.
Clugston Construction prides itself on being a regional contractor. “While potentially we would look at other geographies, we would not want to become a national company,” says Radcliffe.
Until last year, Radcliffe was chairman of the Northern Policy Board of UK Contractors Group, which represents a group of leading construction companies in the UK. He is also a member of the regional council of Yorkshire and Humber Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
This year, Clugston Group celebrates its 75th anniversary. The family firm was established in the 1930s and was initially involved with the iron and steel industry.
In 1937, the firm, called Clugston Cawood, was incorporated and pioneered the development and use of recycled blast furnace slag from Scunthorpe’s iron and steel plants, which was later used for the construction of RAF runways in the Second World War.
This led the company into civil engineering, road construction and sea defences on the east coast and it gradually expanded into other new areas.
In 2007, Clugston Group restructured so that the trading activities of Clugston Construction and Clugston Distribution became established as limited companies in their own right. In addition, Clugston Estates is involved in property developments. “It’s a fantastic achievement to reach this milestone,” says Radcliffe.
Born and brought up in Penrith, Cumbria, Radcliffe was the son of a regional organiser for Save the Children charity.
“I didn’t have a construction background but I always knew I wanted to build bridges,” he says.
He studied civil engineering at City University in London. The course included a six-month placement with John Howard & Co, which saw him working on the construction of the Humber Bridge during the seventies.
After graduating, he stayed with the company and was based in Kent. During his 10 years there, he worked his way up to the position of contract manager before leaving to work for Tilbury Douglas where he ended up as associate director for civil engineering.
He worked at Tilbury Douglas, which later became Interserve, for 17 years in total, with a brief break in the middle when he went to work at Barhale in Walsall.
It was at Barhale where he met Stephen Martin who went on to become Clugston Group’s chief executive and later headhunted Radcliffe for the top role in his construction business.
He commutes to Scunthorpe from Mansfield where he lives with his partner, Lesley, whom he is to marry in May, and his two stepchildren, Emily, 17, Alex, 15.
In his spare time he enjoys running and has completed both the London and Edinburgh marathons. “I’m 57 now and I’d like to run one when I’m 60,” he says.
Other interests include cars and his prized possession is his 1980 Panther J72. “I shouldn’t admit it when Clugston is pushing its green credentials but I’m a petrolhead,” he says.
Steve Radcliffe Factfile
Title: Managing director
Date of birth: July 23, 1955
First job: A member of the yard gang at the British Gypsum Works in Cumbria
Education: Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Penrith
Favourite song: Afterglow, by Genesis
Favourite film: Lord of the Rings
Last book read: Greavsie: The Autobiography, by Jimmy Greaves
Car driven: Jaguar XF R100
Favourite holiday destination: Venice
Most proud of: My contribution to the London Eye