Jason Davy took over the asbestos removal company founded by his father and uncle nearly two decades ago. He talks about growth and surviving the recession with Ismail Mulla.
The first thing a lot of people say to Jason Davy, CEO of Rhodar, is surely there can’t be a great deal of asbestos left?
The Leeds-based asbestos removal firm was set up by Mr Davy’s father Graham Davy and his uncle Jeff Rhodes in 1976, just around the time when removing the hazardous material came to the fore.
However, asbestos removal isn’t a straightforward procedure and Rhodar does much more than just that these days.
“Standards have changed over the years,” Mr Davy says. “Standards are a lot tighter than they were so you tend to find that buildings that have had asbestos removed have had to be cleaned again.”
Mr Davy knows all about standards. He has positioned his company to not be the cheapest but one of the best.
He was also the youngest chairman of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA) back in 2000. It’s a role that he will return to next month after being appointed for a two-year period.
Mr Davy said: “I became involved in the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association firstly because I felt it was important to try and raise the standards in the industry.
“Secondly, you have 12 like-minded business people from the industry in the same room and I always like to learn off people.
“I thought it was a good way to improve standards but also learn how other people manage themselves in that type of environment.”
While Rhodar was set up by his dad Graham, an electrician, and his uncle, who worked in demolition for Leeds City Council, he wasn’t always destined to take over the family business.
“When I left school I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do,” Mr Davy says. “I wasn’t academic.”
He just fell into the business after spending a year at Selby College doing business studies. In fact he joined the company on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) in 1987. Mr Davy said: “I learnt from the bottom basically. I spent some time on site and then I reported to the office manager for the first couple of years.”
But once he had become a part of Rhodar, he had an ambition to grow the business and grow it he did.
When Mr Davy joined the Leeds-based firm it employed around 30 people. Today it has 540 employees, 300 of which are based in Yorkshire.
Mr Davy set out his stall in 1995 by completing his first acquisition when Rhodar bought Thermac Hire, which specialises in lending equipment to the asbestos removal industry.
Mr Davy said: “When I acquired Thermac, which had been in administration, I remember going to see the administrator at the time and talking to him about the business.
“It was clearly in financial difficulties. They were a supplier of Rhodar so we were keen for them to continue trading.
“I went in and did a little bit of research and bid for the business. We ended up buying the business.
“At the time when I walked in as a 25-year-old I’m not sure they took me that seriously. In the end we bought this company. Then we restructured it and turned it into a profitable business.”
This would spark a chain of acquisitions by Mr Davy, not least buying the business from his father when he decided to retire in 1999. Rhodar bought Bagnall, a demolition specialist, in 2004.
Mr Davy added: “Again, that business was in administration. We looked at the opportunity and brought it out of administration.
“That’s one thing that I particularly enjoy. I like looking at businesses and how you can improve them. How you can restructure them. Save money. Drive profitability.
“I do get a buzz out of that because I like a challenge.”
Three years down the line Rhodar went and completed its largest ever acquisition when it purchased Life Environmental, an asbestos consultancy business that did surveys, project management and air monitoring.
“That was before the recession and banks were lending money,” Mr Davy says. “We did a large acquisition which was just at the wrong time.”
He added: “When the recession came in 2008, that hit us really hard. It’s probably the toughest five years I’ve had in my life.”
The firm slashed overheads from £15m to £10m in the space of 18 months with inevitable job losses.
“Everybody loves you when you’re building a business,” Mr Davy says. “When you’re restructuring a business and cutting jobs it’s a bit more difficult.”
Things began to ease five years down the line but the acquisition of Life Environmental proved one step too far for the ambitious CEO.
Rhodar sold Life Environmental off in 2013 to focus on its core activities of demolition and asbestos removal. It just recently added land remediation to its portfolio. Those five years may have been the toughest for Mr Davy but it allowed him to learn lessons. He said: “In some respects that five years, while it was the toughest of my life, it’s probably the best five years of my life in terms of learning.
“I learnt more about myself and my business and the people that work for me than I have in the rest of my working life.
“While it was really tough at the time, I think it was in some respects a good thing to go through.”
The greatest lesson he learnt was to be a little more cautious, even if the economy is booming.
“I’m definitely more cautious now than I was before the last recession,” Mr Davy added.
The company has adopted a manifesto of sorts called ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’. It has also invested time and money into staff development.
Mr Davy said: “One of my managing directors used to say to me that good people surround themselves with good people and I think that’s very true.”
The company has also rebranded so that all three arms, asbestos removal, land remediation and demolition carry the Rhodar name.
But what about asbestos. Surely there can’t be that much left?
“Yes it’s a finite product but I don’t see the end to it,” says Mr Davy. “We’ll still be removing asbestos 70, 80 years from now. Will it be the same level? Probably not but there will still be a market there.”
Title: CEO of Rhodar
Date of birth: August 14, 1970
Favourite holiday destination: Algarve, Portugal
Last book read: Onward by Howard Schultz
Favourite film: Black Hawk Down
Favourite song: Stand by me (Ben E King)
Car driven: BMW 18 Hybrid
Most proud of: In business, surviving the crash of 2008 is by far my biggest achievement. From a personal point of view, it would be my wife and three children I’m lucky to have such a fantastic family.
Education: I left school with no qualifications and only really started to enjoy education when I began business studies at Selby College.