2020 was meant to have been a strong growth year for Barrhead-based contractor AC Whyte, but following the lockdown that will knock about 30 per off of annual turnover, managing director Jennifer Phin says break-even will be a “great” result for the current financial year.
Yet she is far from downbeat about the prospects for the family-owned firm, which generated £15.1 million in revenues in its last financial year. Throughout nearly 12 weeks of being shut down, AC Whyte was able to top up furlough payments so that all of its 160 staff received 100% of their regular pay. And with sustainability high on the agenda, there remains strong demand for its home energy efficiency solutions as the construction sector emerges from its spring slumber.
The company is currently operational on 22 sites across eight local authority areas on behalf of its core social housing client base. Among these is a £5m contract announced earlier this month to upgrade 490 homes in East Ayrshire by September of next year.
“Yes, the financials have absolutely taken a hit, but I am very positive about how we have emerged from this,” Ms Phin said.
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“It gave us a pause, it gave us all head space and breathing space to reflect on how we operate and what we could do better. It has allowed us to come back stronger.”
The daughter of one of the company’s founding directors, Robert Phin, Ms Phin grew up with the business as “very much part of my life”. But like many children of parents running their own business, she struck out on her own in the early part of her career.
After earning an Honours in business management from the University of Glasgow, she joined a local advertising agency and spent the next five years working in marketing. She returned to AC Whyte in 2011 as the company’s commercial director, and took over as managing director in December 2015.
During the lockdown lull, the company turned its attention on the organisational health and well-being of its staff. One of the keys here, Ms Phin said, was to improve communications by checking in regularly with people and boosting morale.
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She said AC Whyte also took the opportunity to bolster training and professional development, particularly in the critical area of health and safety.
“We wanted to support our people,” she said. “It was not their fault they were sitting at home.”
Along with site works, lockdown also put a temporary pause on the progress of 2019’s cohort of apprentices through AC Whyte’s Skills Academy. Half a dozen from that year returned to college last month, along with 12 new starts in the 2020 cohort.
Run in partnership with West College Scotland, the AC Whyte Skills Academy launched in 2018 in a bid to bring more qualified tradespeople into the business. Of the 12 from that first year, seven went on to become full-time employees.
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“For our business, it is predominantly roughcasters that are in demand,” Ms Phin said, “and that is a skill that needs to be developed over time.”
The Skills Academy has become increasingly important as the UK moves towards the end of the Brexit transition period. About half of AC Whyte’s workers are originally from the EU, and amid the uncertainties of both Brexit and the pandemic, some have returned to their native homes for good.
But Ms Phin adds that the pressures on securing the skilled people needed to overhaul in the region of 1,200 properties a year have been present since the EU Referendum took place in mid-2016.
“The impact of Brexit has been felt by us for a lot longer than people understand,” she said. “It’s been more of a gradual sort of thing for us – not something that happened at a point in time.”
What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
One of my favourite trips was to New Zealand on honeymoon. It’s such an incredible, vast place which appealed to my sense of adventure and we felt very much at home. Nowadays, as long as the kids are happy we’re happy. We recently hired a VW camper van and travelled to some beautiful beaches on the West Coast of Scotland, it was nice and chilled and the kids loved the freedom so we plan to do this more often.
When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
A doctor, lawyer, marine biologist, astronaut, the list went on. I’m not sure what these occupations have in common but by the time I left school I was pretty set that my interest lay in business and psychology and my first full time job was in advertising.
What was your biggest break in business?
Joining A.C Whyte when I did. It was a big shift from advertising, but fortunately I was able to utilise the skills and knowledge that I had developed in an area where the business was lacking. It was the right time for me and the business and I’ve never looked back.
What was your worst moment in business?
I find in this job you are exposed to the highs, lows and everything in between, so I try not to dwell on the bad and instead focus on what learnings we can take from situations. The things that tend to affect me most are people related issues. As a business we invest a lot in our people and it really matters to me that we create the right environment for them to thrive.
Who do you most admire and why?
My husband for putting up with me. Honestly I couldn’t do the job I do without his support.
At the moment I am inspired on a daily basis by those around me (physically and digitally). When faced with adversity, I feel it really has brought out the best in a lot of people and there are so many fantastic examples of resilience, creativity, drive, people doing incredible things for others and adapting businesses and individual roles to meet the needs of rapidly changing market places.
What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
I’ve just started a new book by T.M. Logan, I can’t say how good it is yet, although it did come recommended by my Mum. I read every night before bed to switch off and my mum passes me all her favourite books, she is a much quicker reader than I am. I like a variety of music but it has to be upbeat unless I’m working in which case classical or Ibiza vibes.