Family values at the heart of Business of the Year Breheny Civil Engineering

Chairman of Breheny Civil Engineering, John Breheny (centre) and colleagues after the company was an

Chairman of Breheny Civil Engineering, John Breheny (centre) and colleagues after the company was announced as Business of the Year at the Suffolk Business Awards 2018 - Credit: Archant

Suffolk is full of great family businesses and Breheny Civil Engineering is one of them.

Breheny workers on-site

Breheny workers on-site - Credit: Archant

The Needham Market-based firm, which specialises in major infrastructure projects such as highway and bridge construction, as well as projects in the marine, utilities and energy sectors, was earlier this month named Business of the Year at the Suffolk Business Awards organised by the East Anglian Daily Times.

And like many family businesses, there’s a great story behind the company, which was started in 1963 by Jack Breheny who was born in Ireland as one of seven children, and left home at 21 with £2 in his pocket to find work on building sites. He launched the company with a single item of plant: a back hoe excavator - a far cry from the business’s situation today where it owns in excess of 3,000 pieces of equipment.

His son John Breheny is the current chairman, taking over the role when his father died in 1999 and developing the business to the point where he now oversees a £100m turnover operation employing 460 people and up to 200 sub-contractors at any one time.

But John remain modest about his achievements.

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“My father started the business and I’m just a caretaker for it,” he said modestly. “He was the one who did all the work - anyone who starts a business is the real hero.”

Further afield

Work carried out by Breheny Civil Engineering

Work carried out by Breheny Civil Engineering - Credit: Archant

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But while Jack worked on projects mostly in Suffolk and Essex, changes in the civil engineering sector over the past couple of decades have meant that Breheny must now go further afield to get work and the firm today has offices in Kent, Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire.

“It can take quite a long time to establish yourself in an area because you have the local contractors who you are competing against to win work and they know all the local supply chains,” said John.

Because we have our own labour we can be more productive compared with other contractors who sub everything out - our people are better, more experienced and their productivity is better, so you can go in and finish the job quicker and cut down on overhead costs.”

Large projects that Breheny has been involved with locally include the Bury St Edmunds Eastern Relief Road that opened up the Moreton Hall area of the town and £18m Bedford Western by-pass.

John continued; “A lot of jobs today are fixed price or risk, which means you have to get the pricing right. We have experienced estimators and planners who over time have built up their knowledge but you never can tell - sometimes the report might not be clear on ground conditions, for example, so there is always a risk.

“If it is good ground then fine but if it is poor ground – a high water table or running sand - then you obviously have more things to do.

“Also when it comes to working in more locations, you can’t always guarantee there is going to be a lot of work in any one place. That’s the hard thing - moving your resources around and keeping everyone going sometimes.”

Work carried out by Breheny Civil Engineering

Work carried out by Breheny Civil Engineering - Credit: Archant

Fantastic achievement

Recent developments for the company include the launch of ground works and utilities arms of the business that will enable it to install footings, foundations and paths as well as gas, water and electric connections alongside the road building and bigger infrastructure work it has traditionally carried out.

“The utilities market is now deregulated and it enables us to offer a package,” said John.

“That is what the house builder or developer wants – to have all their problems taken care of and to only need to deal with us.

“What we would like to do in the future is larger and more technical jobs. Maybe ten, twenty years ago the average price of a job was around £250,000 and today its £3/4m to £1m.

We would like to get involved with larger jobs with larger customers.

Work carried out by Breheny Civil Engineering

Work carried out by Breheny Civil Engineering - Credit: Archant

John said the growing offshore wind sector and port development projects in this region offer opportunities for the business which has also tendered for infrastructure work connected to the planned Garden Suburb development on the northern fringe of Ipswich off Henley Road and Adastral Park housing development.

When it comes to being named Business of the Year, John said: ”You try and go in every day and do the right thing but we work in isolation and it’s only when you come to awards like these that you measure yourself up against other people.

If you win, it’s a fantastic achievement but it’s for everyone who works for us - it’s the team that does it, not me – and I’m sure they will get a boost from it.

Promoting talent

It’s clear that John see Breheny’s success as a team effort and he is keen to build on that by bringing the next generation through.

Another recent award win - this time the Promoting Talent award from New Civil Engineer magazine - demonstrates he is on the right track.

He continued; “Like everybody else, particularly in construction, we have an aging workforce. All our best people are in their 50s, 60s and some of our supervisors are beyond retirement age.

“We’ve always had apprentices and brought through young people as plant fitters and operatives. We sometimes have members of the same family working with us - in one case we have a father, son and daughter working together - she operates a large digger and we are very proud of her.

“Our managing director started with us as a site engineer. There is a path for people who want to make their way up, or to get as far they want.

John says the most important thing about running a family business is setting out the framework of how it should be run: how to do business, how to treat staff - and then “to leave it to the directors to get on and run the business” and says he hopes at least one of his three children will pursue a career in the business and continue the family line.

However, he warned they would have to learn the ropes first.

He added: “I wouldn’t bring someone in as director straightaway or anything like that. You have to earn the respect of the other people around you.

“It can be tough – it wasn’t that easy for me. All I ever got when I was young was; ‘If you were half the man your father is..’ My dad was quite a big character - he’d come in and dominate the room. I’m not like that – I’m more quiet and thoughtful.

“You can’t pretend to be anything other than who you are in business.”

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