Portland refocuses to drive growth
Following a difficult couple of years, Portland Consulting Engineers is bouncing back, led by its strong leadership team. Our Business Editor interviewed MD Lee Barr, celebrating 10 years at the...

Following a difficult couple of years, Portland Consulting Engineers is bouncing back, led by its strong leadership team. Our Business Editor interviewed MD Lee Barr, celebrating 10 years at the helm, to see how the company is boxing clever and driving growth.

The pandemic prompted many companies and business people to review their operations and reflect on whether they were still fit for purpose.

Gateshead-based Portland Consulting Engineers and MD Lee Barr saw the opportunity to take stock, reflect and refocus the business.

“Covid hit us and the sector fairly hard,” explained Lee. “We were busier than ever, but margins and turnover fell. There was pressure on costs across the board. Overheads went up dramatically. The supply chain grew slower, along with the approach of clients to risk and project progress.

“Lockdowns posed significant challenges for us. And while the technology was there to allow our team to work remotely from home, this still raised issues due to the collaborative nature of our work.

“It was a difficult time, but thanks to the strong bonds between the team, they were able to pull each other through. As soon as guidance allowed, a managed transition was put in place for most of the team to return to the office.”

As a former amateur boxer, Lee is used to taking a few blows. His strength of character, along with the support of his management team, helped him steer the business through the pandemic. It’s a matter of personal pride that throughout the lockdown period no jobs were lost, and nobody was placed on furlough.

“It’s fair to say we’d lost a bit of vision just prior to covid hitting. The impact of the pandemic brought many things to a head,” said Lee. “Towards the end of the pandemic, I thought it might be time to get back to basics. Whenever I need time to think, I go to the family caravan in Amble. It’s where I can reflect and look at things more clearly.”

With Portland’s continuous growth over the years prior to the pandemic, it was inevitable that not enough management time had been put against developing the business. Everyone was flat out supporting clients.

“It was a time to re-group,” said Lee. “We had to respond to changes in the market and expectations. Sometimes you must take a backward step before taking some forward steps. We are not precious at Portland. We knew we had to change and adapt, adopting new ways and a different management style while also retaining the family feel and close relationships that exist within Portland.”

Lee recognised he needed to be more ‘on the business’ rather than ‘in the business.’ He also realised that it was time to re-establish Portland’s vision and core values, which would solidify the company’s identity within the minds of all the staff.

From 2021 onwards, Lee, with the management team, undertook an office-wide consultation, involving all the staff. He said: “The process brought us all together. The staff were critical in developing and establishing an agreed vision and set of values.”

Lee also identified another weakness that needed addressing. “We didn’t do enough forward thinking. We needed to identify risks earlier,” he said.

More recently, Lee set about developing the company’s business plan, providing an ambitious framework to drive Portland’s growth over the next four years. The management team and external consultants were heavily involved.

“We looked at every aspect of the business. We reviewed our finance department, how we were marketing ourselves, our internal training systems, resource planning – everything. Being more efficient is a massive requirement for us, as well as improving our response times,” said Lee. “We also listened to the industry, partners and clients.”

Changes have included a new project management system, along with new accounts / finance software. There have also been structure changes in management and across the teams.

Portland’s structure has undergone a variety of changes over the years as staff numbers have continued to increase – currently 20-strong. Lee is keen to maintain the ethos within Portland, where loyalty and hard work are rewarded. In 2019 Mark Quigley and Stephen Hunter became shareholders in the company.

To keep pace with the evolution and subsequent growth of the company over the years, the management team has been strengthened with the addition of office manager Allison Donnelly and adding Sharon Shaw to head up Portland’s marketing and business development operations. In May this year, a new position of operations manager was created and filled by Alan Maskell which has had an instant positive impact.

Today, the company is in a strong position with the processes and systems in place to manage growth and, more importantly, a strong management team and motivated staff to drive the business forwards. For Lee, it’s an especially satisfying position as he celebrates 10 years at the helm of Portland.

He explained: “It’s been a great decade working at Portland, watching the company grow into something unrecognisable from where we started. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked alongside some fantastic people and made some great friendships over the years. Friendships both within the company and with colleagues in the industry.”

One person he particularly wants to thank, and praise is his immediate predecessor and Portland’s founding MD, John Hardy. He was the first person to give Lee a job straight out of school and with his support, guidance and encouragement has always acted as a mentor. Following Lee’s appointment as MD, John continued to work with Portland for a further year on a part-time consultancy basis, proving to be an unrivalled source of guidance and industry knowledge.

“John recognised my potential very early on,” said Lee. “I moved from being a senior technician to become a structural engineer. He encouraged me to embark on a different journey. He saw the impact I was having, the clients I was bringing in and promoted me to associate and then director. More latterly, he developed a plan to leave the business and wanted me to take over.”

Alongside the support of John, Lee also benefitted from a supportive management team, including director Mark Grant, who remains within the company. In addition, Lee inherited a business with a talented supporting team. Alongside Mark Grant remains Mark Quigley, who joined the business as an apprentice and is now a senior structural technician.

Lee’s first year as MD was a successful one, as the construction industry enjoyed a significant upswing in activity. Portland’s revenue increased by 25% and six new members joined the team. Portland secured various multi-million-pound schemes within the North East and beyond, working for some of the UK’s largest Registered Social Landlords.

Several notable schemes from this first year at the helm included work on a hydrotherapy pool for the Percy Hedley Foundation, education centres for Askham Bryan College in Middlesbrough and York, and a number of extra care schemes from the Redcare Framework.

This was followed by year-on-year growth with Portland achieving a milestone in 2017 when the company broke through the £1 million turnover barrier for the year. The business continued to grow with revenues reaching £1.5m in 2022.

Lee took the company into new sectors, moving away from predominantly industrial and housing clients to also include commercial, hotels and colleges. The diversification strategy secured the growth in fees. Portland’s growth was also based on long-term client relationships which include Karbon Homes, Thirteen, Housing 21, UK Land Estates, and Dysart.

Portland has also secured industry recognition over the years. The first significant award won during Lee’s period as MD was for work on Birtley Boxing Club, which won the RICS North East Renaissance Award and the RICS National Grand Final.

This was particularly satisfying for Lee who not only comes from Birtley but is a former middle-weight boxer and boxing enthusiast. His brother, Gary, who is a senior structural technician at Portland, boxed for England. Lee is reluctant to talk much about his days in the ring but says he won more fights than he lost.

Most recently the company enjoyed success with work on the Freeman Hospital Day Treatment Centre, which has won awards from the Institution of Structural Engineers (Northern Counties) and from Constructing Excellence in the North East.

During the last decade, one of the hardest adjustments for Lee has been the cultural shift from being a director to becoming MD and having to take a more strategic view of the business. “It was a steep learning curve initially, and that’s where John Hardy’s guidance was so helpful,” said Lee. “I had to shift my mindset from the hands-on, day-to-day approach of an engineer to taking a more helicopter view of matters.”

He admits to initially feeling everything was his responsibility. It was a burden he gradually managed to shake off as he developed a strong management team to share responsibilities. He freed up time to focus on responsibilities which best suited his skillset.

In his role as MD, Lee has become more aware of the role Portland has in improving the places in which they operate. Social value activity has always played a major part in the business, with the most recent business plan committing the company to spend at least one percent of annual turnover to benefit the local community.

One area of particular interest to Lee, one which was a passion of the founder John Hardy, is to inspire the next generation of civil and structural engineers, ensuring they have the skills and knowledge needed in an ever-changing industry. Portland maintains an active presence at school and college careers fairs throughout the North East. The company regularly welcomes students to attend work experience placements within the design office.

The company also has a long-standing partnership with the Lord’s Taverners charity, which uses specialised cricket programmes to support young people with disabilities.

Team-building and social activities are also an important part of company culture. In July, this year a team took part in a sponsored ‘Hike up Helvellyn’ – in aid of ‘Daft as a Brush’ Cancer Care Trust. More than £5,000 was raised for this regional charity.

Another company tradition is Portland’s Easter Reception, which started in 2007 and has grown to become a key date in the North East construction industry calendar. Every Maundy Thursday, the Easter Reception is held in one of Newcastle’s bars to celebrate the anniversary of Portland’s founding and to thank colleagues and clients for their continued support.

Elsewhere, Portland is taking a lead on one of the key challenges facing the construction industry – the drive to reduce emissions to create a more sustainable future. Steps include changes made to the design office to reduce emissions, while the team are undergoing a programme of CPD courses designed to strengthen their knowledge of lower carbon materials and methods of construction. With the help of SmartCarbon, Portland has developed a plan, committing the company to become a net-zero carbon consultancy by 2035.

On his 10th anniversary, Lee is confident about the future and believes Portland is well structured, with the right skilled team to adapt and respond to industry challenges.

Posted 31st October 2023

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