Two of the biggest challenges facing contractors are the ability to secure enough work to sustain the company over a given period whilst, at the same time, retaining reliable staff in a competitive marketplace.
The days of securing long term contracts have all but disappeared. At best, contracts are now reviewed bi-annually and, often, annually, and there are no guarantees that any re-bid will be successful.
Local authorities and public organisations now have to demonstrate that they are spending their money efficiently. Not only do they require guarantees and qualifications, but there is now pressure on them to 'take the lowest price' regardless of the consequences.
And, in a competitive marketplace, contractors' clients are faced with making cutbacks on services which, in turn, affects the value and, in many cases, the duration of the contract to be awarded. When I was managing landscape contracts for the Ministry of Defence, three to five year Measured Term Contracts (MTC) were awarded, that could be extended if necessary.
These longer term contract allowed a contractor time to get to know the site and build up a working relationship with the client, with the aim to continually improve service provision over the course of the contract period. It also enabled the contractor the opportunity to train his staff and ensure they had continuity of work.
However, in more recent years, the industry has seen the demise of MTCs, and contracts are now awarded over a smaller period of just one or two years.
In addition, the diversity of the work included in the contract has been reduced. Many have been reduced to merely grass cutting, pruning and 'keep tidy' regimes, with little or no additional work programmes being implemented.
Many contracts used to operate on an 80/20 split, i.e. 80% of the contract was ongoing maintenance and the other 20% was for unforeseen or additional works. That is rarely the case anymore.
The sheer competitiveness of some contractors has also caused problems for other contractors. How can they compete with larger multinational companies who quite often put ridiculously low rates in to do the work which are, in most cases, subsidised by other parts of their business.
The nett result of taking the lowest quote is often, in my opinion, poor workmanship. At the end of the day every contractor, regardless of their size, has operational costs - staff, fuel, machinery and vehicles, along with company and public liability insurances, ongoing training etc., and, it goes without saying that, you get what you pay for!
In recent years, most public sector organisations will require contractors to complete a long and detailed Pre Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ), from which they shortlist contractors to submit tenders.
PPQs require companies to produce a wealth of information about their company and staff to provide evidence that they are competent in all areas of the work they are tendering for, have fully trained and qualified staff, certificates of competence and achieved relevant accreditation, all of which comes at a cost. By not complying, contractors will have little chance of securing the contract on offer.
I recently caught up with one contractors who had the misfortune to lose the chance to tender for work, because they could not supply the relevant information and accreditation.
Marcus Young runs a landscape grounds maintenance company, not surprisingly called Marcus Young Landscapes. I first met Marcus a couple of years ago, and he was keen to explain how not getting the chance to tender for a large contract drove him to undertake complete accreditation.
You only need to spend a few minutes with Marcus to understand that he is totally driven by quality, and wants to provide the best possible service with trained and motivated staff.
Based in Milton Keynes, Marcus has built up a thriving business, servicing in the region of one hundred sites. These include housing associations, factory units, parish councils and schools, along with a number of private properties. The work centres around landscape maintenance and tree work. Therefore, all of Marcus's operatives, including himself, are fully trained and have the relevant industry qualifications to use various machinery and equipment - mowers, tractors, chainsaws, spraying equipment and hand tools.
Marcus set up his company in 1984. "It was not long before I began taking on additional staff to cope with the work, all the time sticking to my core values of providing a quality service with added value."
"The added value comes in the form of additional services that, in most cases. Things like setting up gardening clubs, arranging trips to arboretums; that sort of thing."
Marcus explains the reason why he decided to attain accreditation, even though he has a relatively small company.
"We work closely and have long-term contracts with housing associations and parish councils, maintaining their green spaces and landscaping. The crunch came when we failed to retain a contract worth £50,000 because we didn't have the procedures in place to tick all the boxes in the PQQ,"
"The turning point was when I spoke to the regional Business Link service, who arranged a subsequent meeting with one of their advisers. He helped me to appreciate that my business was good and strong and my company ethos was sound. But, he also made me realise that I had to have this recognised in a formal way. Without this formal recognition, I was losing valuable points in the PQQ process."
"Business Link identified and helped us access a funding stream which part-funded a consultant who worked with the company to completely overhaul our procedures and policies. In ten months, they rose to the huge challenge of gaining three accreditations: BS EN ISO 14001:2004 Environmental Management System, BS EN ISO 9001:2008 Quality Management System and BS OHSAS 18001:2007 Occupational Health and Safety Management System."
"It was tough, really tough at times, and it gave me sleepless nights. But, I never doubted this was the right thing to do, for me, my family and our employees. And, all the time we were scrutinising everything we do, writing new policies and procedures and going through training, we still had to keep the business running efficiently."
"We can now show we are responsible contractors with good quality systems. We have really strong foundations and we can build on those. The systems we have for running a company with six employees will work just as well if we win larger contracts and increase the workforce to fifty."
"I will now approach PQQs with confidence. We may not win the next tender, or the one after that, but we are fit to compete with much larger contractors now."
Marcus runs the company with his wife Sarah, and he was keen to take me out to meet his staff and see the type of work he undertakes.
The company's contracts manager is Michael Leathersich, who has been with them for seven years and, like Marcus, has obtained a Level 2 worked based diploma in Horticulture and Landscaping. With his thirst for knowledge Marcus has now gone on to study for his next challenge; an NVQ Level 4 in Amenity Horticulture Management. All have the team have the appropriate training - chainsaw, PA1, PA6 certificates - to enable them to tackle most jobs.
Our first site visit was to see one of the latest contracts to be awarded - Middleton Primary School - that Marcus hopes to bring back to condition by correctly pruning the shrubs, more frequent mowing regimes and improving the presentation of the sportsfields.
I was also taken to see some private residences, parish council sites and a special needs school for children, and it was clear to see the attention to detail Marcus and his team concentrate on. "Often it is the little touches that make the difference," said Marcus.
"We also carry out tree surveys, and are able to undertake all the maintenance needs of small, semi mature trees - crown thining, lifting and shaping to help each tree reach its potential."
"I am convinced that the balance of having good horticultural experience and knowledge, along with a creditable and recognised code of conduct, is the making of my company. The balance of having the right paper trails in place, training and other key indicator practices has been well worth the hard work and expense."
The company are inspected every six months to ensure that the standards and procedures of each of the three accreditations are still being met. "It's not everybody's cup of tea," stresses Marcus, "but, I honestly believe that, whilst we may not have 'enjoyed' the experience, we are ready to face any new challenges that contracting has to offer, with confidence."
Marcus is also proud that his company has been recognised by receiving a Certificate of Achievement - in 2009 and 2010 - from Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards Milton Keynes under the category Business of the Year less than £1,000,000.
Editor's footnote: The essence of this series of articles is to highlight that our industry has stimulated the market for contracting services, it follows that we should invest our money in those who care and have proved their credentials by delivering quality services. I see too many contractors getting a bad name from a minority of poor contractors who really should not be able to tender for work in the first place.
All too often a client looks at the bottom line, or is promised standards that the contractor simply cannot deliver. A better understanding is required by the procuring officers. In too many cases, local authorities, organisations and sports clubs do not have the knowledge and understanding of the work they are asking for.
There is plenty to consider. However, the first call should be to invite the appropriate contractors in the first place, and then ensure that they have the pedigree to perform.