Looking to the future
The worst of the downturn in construction demand is hopefully behind us, and new BCSA Director General Sarah McCann-Bartlett is looking ahead to future challenges, as she tells Nick Barrett.
BCSA’s new Director General formally took over her new job only from January but has become a familiar face to many members in a relatively short time, shadowing Derek Tordoff since September as Director General Designate. Becoming familiar with the detail of how steelwork contractors work and what their main strengths and concerns are is a steep learning curve, but one which a background in the Australian construction industry helps with.
“I was Deputy Commissioner of the Building and Plumbing Commissions so I appreciate the sorts of issues that contractors have to grapple with, as well as a good understanding of how regulatory systems can affect them,’ Sarah says. “It has been fascinating though learning the detail of the contribution that steel construction makes to the UK economy.
‘We really have a first class steel construction sector in the UK and it is no surprise that steel has a 70% market share of multi storey building and almost all single storey industrial buildings are built in steel.
“I knew of the UK’s reputation as having the world’s leading steel construction sector but it has still been a surprise to learn from BCSA members about the scale of the investment they have made over the years in things like the machinery needed to manufacture to the high quality standards that they routinely achieve, and the big advances in design thanks to research and development and other cooperation across the steel sector between BCSA, Tata Steel and the Steel Construction Institute.
‘I am also impressed by their determination to make things even better, continuing to invest even in the teeth of the worst recession any of us have ever experienced. When the turn comes BCSA members and their clients will be able to steal a considerable lead as a result.”
Securing wider acknowledgement for that effort and the quality of the steel construction performance that results is one of Sarah’s main aims. ”Providing quality steelwork at a competitive price is only possible if the playing field is level, but our members are competing at times against fabricated steel from overseas which is not necessarily fabricated to the same quality standards as that from the UK. Overseas contractors who come into the UK have to be made to operate to the same very high standards in terms of health & safety, sustainability and product quality. We’re proud that the steelwork sector’s safety performance is the envy of other sectors of the UK construction industry and sets a benchmark for others.”
Procurement can sometimes be a tick box process, but the BCSA wants to see a more transparent process to identify the best suppliers of all types. “BCSA members belong to legitimate quality schemes that have rigorous assessments, such as the Register of Qualified Steelwork Contractors, and have proven commitments to health & safety and environmental policies. Clients should ensure that overseas competitors coming into the UK market also invest in these processes or the UK based suppliers will be at a disadvantage.
“We need to see procurement standards rigorously applied to suppliers regardless of where they come from. Fair procurement is all we are insisting on, not any special treatment or concessions.”
Other important issues facing BCSA’s members include attempts by main contractors to impose difficult contractual and payment terms on specialist contractors. Pay when paid clauses, although outlawed by legislation, are still finding their way onto contracts and the practice of retentions has been growing. “These practices are detrimental to a healthy construction industry,’ says Sarah, ‘ and we are working with our members and partners in the Specialist Engineering Contractors Group to bring them to an end.”
Some hopes for the future are pinned on the government’s infrastructure investment led growth plan. “Our members are local companies from across the UK, employing local labour in fabricating facilities, so supporting their workloads is an excellent way for the government to achieve their economic stimulus objectives.”
An eye for quality
After graduating in International Politics and Economics from the University of Melbourne, rated in the world’s top ten in employer surveys, Sarah’s first job combined both subjects, analysing and forecasting demand in China and India for woollen products for the Australian Wool Corporation. Wool is a key industry in Australia and the product is world renowned, party thanks to the Woolmark brand name.
After three years she relocated to its UK office in Ilkley, where she focussed on the European market, later taking over the global market research function. This work included measuring the effectiveness of advertising and marketing campaigns promoting Woolmark.
Sarah says: “Woolmark is regarded as a mark of quality, just as constructional steelwork produced by a member of the BCSA is. Ensuring that quality message about steel is heard in the market is a key aim of the joint marketing initiative that we have with Tata Steel. Being a BCSA member differentiates steelwork contractors from those that may have less commitment to quality and sustainability.”
After Ilkley Sarah took a posting to New York for three years before going back to Australia where she joined the Building and Plumbing Commissions, working on the introduction of the country’s first sustainable building regulations for housing and ensuring that the State’s building and plumbing industry professionals registered for quality assurance. By the time Sarah was ready to come back to the UK her job title was Deputy Commissioner.