BAM, the ‘well-kept’ secret of the building industry

John Phillips, regional director of construction firm BAM, in the auditorium of Leeds Playhouse which is being renovated by BAM.  Picture Bruce Rollinson
John Phillips, regional director of construction firm BAM, in the auditorium of Leeds Playhouse which is being renovated by BAM. Picture Bruce Rollinson
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What do the Royal Opera House, the Churchill War Rooms and First Direct Arena in Leeds all have in common?

Answer: They were all built by BAM – the construction giant which is celebrating its 150th year in business.

According to Yorkshire regional director John Phillips, BAM is a well-kept secret outside of the industry, even though it has built famous landmarks over the decades. “People on the street often haven’t heard of us,” he said.

The company can trace its roots back to the Netherlands in 1869. It started building in the UK five years later when it was known as Higgs and Hill. It has had a Leeds office since the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 when it built the huge Royal Ordnance Factory near the city. The building, valued in today’s money, would be worth £244m.

Since then it has constructed a huge number of landmarks in the region including Leeds Crown Court, the Jubilee Wing of Leeds General Infirmary and Leeds Grammar School.

It has also built for virtually every Yorkshire university, major developments for hospitals, as well as offices, shops, hotels and theatres.

The Royal BAM Group has become a successful group of companies with activities worldwide.

BAM Construction reported a £153m turnover in Yorkshire last year and expects to make £170m in the current year.

There are 15 to 16 projects currently on site, including the redevelopment of Leeds Playhouse, and eight schools. Eighty per cent of the company’s work is in the public sector. It has just completed work on the new HSBC offices as part of Sheffield’s Heart of the City II project.

Mark Slattery, BAM spokesman, said: “If you look at the work BAM did in the 50s and 60s, what’s interesting is that it was working in sectors that don’t really exist anymore.

“There were a lot of factories and industrial buildings for companies that no longer trade.”

During the 1980s, supermarkets and education became popular contracts. “That has always been a large market for us,” said Mr Phillips, who has worked at the company for 30 years. “We had some big clients back then who are still clients now.”

The biggest change in BAM’s lifetime has been the move into the digital world. “That has been huge,” said Mr Phillips.

“When you are trying to explain problems in a project, having a 3D model of the building that everyone can see is a gamechanger.”

He added: “The other massive chan-ge is the fact that the client can use virtual reality to make decisions about way in advance of the build.”

Competition amongst builders to provide the cheapest price is something that needs to change in the industry, according to Mr Phillips.

“It’s a race to rock bottom sometimes,” he said.

“You see some contractors struggling financially. They are not bad people, they just created a situation for themselves where they went too cheap.”

Mr Phillips said his favourite BAM job was when he was construction director for the First Direct Arena in Leeds. “It was such an honour,” he said.

“I know how hard it was for Leeds City Council to build that arena and that was where BAM came into its own.

“We had never delivered an international arena before but we worked with partners who had. It was a great job, delivered on time and a massive success.”

The company imports from Europe and said it is stockpiling some materials ahead of Brexit.

He said that BAM had not seen any delays in projects due to political uncertainty. “The challenge for us is winning the turnover,” he said.

Looking ahead, Mr Phillips said: “We are looking for opportunities to increase our private sector work. However, I still believe that education and health will still be a huge part of our turnover.”

Recruiting more women into the profession is also a key tar- get.

“Construction is trying to reverse 150 years of male domination but we are making progress,” Mr Phillips said.

“You’ve got to create a talent pool of people who want to come into the industry and stay there. In 10 years’ time I think it will look a very different place.”

He added: “We have a low turnover of staff and people like working here but it also holds us back because it takes longer for people to come through.”

Mr Phillips said the secret of BAM’s success was the quality of people who worked there and the behaviour of the company on projects, which he believes is less argumentative than some other contractors.

“You can teach experience but behaviour is something else,” he said.