Meet the company looking to become the ‘John Lewis’ of the construction industry

Gary Sheppard, Helm Construction

Fresh off the back of winning an award for building contractor of the year, Helm Construction is fast becoming a major name on the South West building scene.

Its founder and CEO is Gary Sheppard. Not from a construction background originally, Gary previously worked first in retail and then in telecoms, an industry he was headhunted to join.

He was amongst the technology pioneers who brought mobile phones to market, before heading up many mergers and acquisitions and becoming a director of a FTSE 250 company.

Not all plain sailing

Gary’s successful telecoms career was ended after he had a major car accident that saw him taken out of action for over a year: “A few months away from telecoms is like a lifetime away because things move so quickly in that market,” Gary explains. 

“Back in 1999 I’d saved some money from selling my business, and my wife and I had started to invest in self-builds. We bought some land, built on it, sold it, and then repeated this a few times.

“After the accident I was wondering ‘what am I going to do next?’ and I thought that I would get more actively involved in property. It seemed like the natural thing to do.

“A lot of the projects we were working on were similar, so we developed a kind of model: you get to know how much you’ll spend on buying the house or land, how much you’ll need for the build, and how much you’ll sell it for.”

Helm Construction

Utilising this experience, at the end of 2013 Helm Construction Ltd was officially created. Fast-forward to today and the company now turnover over £15m and employ over 50 staff.

Regarding the future, Gary says he is cautious about making predictions for the company, but is clear about his vision for the business.

He explains: “All my experience has shown me that construction is a difficult industry to be in – people consistently buy on price rather than service. In our own way, we’re trying to change that model.

“We are quite a small company, but we don’t want to be the cheapest. My vision is to become the ‘John Lewis’ of the construction sector and this gives us a good reference point of how to approach service.”

Gary comments on what a typical Helm project looks like: “The average price for one of our projects would be between £1.7m and £1.8m but we’ve completed projects priced anywhere between £400,000 and £3m.

“At the moment, we’re biased towards residential developments but that’s mostly because of how prevalent these opportunities are, not because we have specifically targeted that market.

“Mostly, we work with small to medium-sized developers. However, if someone approached us and said that they had a small plot and they’d like to build a couple of houses on it, we wouldn’t necessarily dismiss that.”

Service = growth

One of the secrets to Helm’s success and exponential growth, has been this unrelenting commitment to service.

Gary elaborates: “Our competitors often talk in terms of product – they talk about the quality of the product, or the standard of the build they’re going to complete, the time it will take them, the price they will charge – and they’re very product-centric. In contrast, we tell our clients that the product is a given.

“They should expect as a minimum that we’re going to build it to a good standard: we will complete a build in the time we agreed, for the price we agreed. Shouldn’t they just expect that? Why should we promote that?”

The future

Gary says the future is bright and the company will continue to grow and expand, with younger staff members taking on more leadership and management responsibilities as the company grows.

Recruitment is also less of a problem for Helm than many other construction firms claim it to be.

He concludes: “Recruiting is tough. The market’s tough, and construction is a difficult industry – I would be lying if I said otherwise. But we don’t struggle to find the people we want.

“Sometimes people come to us and they don’t understand the company’s concept – in the past we’ve made the mistake of recruiting people because, on paper, they seem like they have the right skillset but actually they don’t have enough experience on the service side of things and they don’t necessarily last. In general, recruitment is not a problem, but we are fairly selective now.”

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