Marketing message paid off for Robin

3:58pm Thursday 19th January 2012

By Maggie Hartford

T imes have never been tougher in the construction industry, but one Oxfordshire builder has been growing continuously, despite the downturn — thanks to a carefully thought-out strategy.

Sporn Construction, a family business based at Stratton Audley, near Bicester, winner of the Heart FM Small Business of the Year award in the 2011 Oxfordshire Business Awards, has taken on more staff and grown turnover to £2m a year after investing in public relations (PR) and new computer systems to grow the business.

The company — founded 50 years ago by Bernard Sporn, 70 — is now run by his son Robin, 37, and Robin's wife Debi.

When Robin joined in 1998 after working as a civil engineer on large infrastructure projects, the company employed just four people. Now it has 18 staff, plus another half-dozen specialist sub-contractors.

He said: “At the beginning of the recession, we took a long hard look at things. Our PR budget was miniscule. I was quite old school and did not believe in marketing, but we ended up spending a lot more on PR and we have won several awards.”

As well as the Oxfordshire award, the company was a 2010 Master Builder of the Year winner for the multi-million pound conversion of two 14th-century barns near Brize Norton into a wedding venue for owners Amanda and Richard Matthews.

The judges described it as “a real reflection of the spirit of the age: neglected historic farm buildings revitalised to generate new income, in this case as a romantic and environmentally friendly rural setting for weddings”.

There was also an extremely tight eight-month time frame, with no possibility of this being extended as the very first wedding — of the Matthews’ daughter Kate — was scheduled for two weeks after the completion date.

Stonesfield roof slates were stripped and re-used, with shortfalls made up with matching slates salvaged from other barns.

New arrowslits were formed using salvaged stone and oak trusses were restored. The finished project “epitomises Sporn Construction’s stated aim of combining the historic soul of the barn with a contemporary twist”, said the citation.

Robin Sporn said: “2011 was the first year that we entered the Oxfordshire Business Awards. Before that, we never had faith in ourselves. We invested in staff training and a contract management system. We are still in tough times, but we have put a lot of time, money and effort into the company and it has definitely paid off. Profit margins are still not as good as I would like, but I think everyone is in the same boat."

Since it was set up in the 1960s, the company has specialised in extensions and renovations of period buildings.

"We do some commercial projects and some new build but 70 per cent of our work is domestic, a lot of it with listed properties, where you have to work to a very high standard.

“The value of each contract has gone up over the years. There has been a massive change in building methods in the last five years and things are still changing rapidly, with people much more interested in saving energy.”

He has been interested for some years in the ‘Passivhaus’ concept of improving insulation and air-tightness of buildings, and this side of the company's work has grown, with more clients demanding better insulation.

"If you have a very old building fabric and sometimes it is listed you are limited in what you can do — it is a lot more challenging to overcome these issues. Every job we do is different.”

Bernard’s wife Debi joined the business from a legal background, having worked as a barrister and he says her input is particularly valuable.

“She has a very keen eye — she has a completely different outlook to me. If you are immersed in a project, on site much of the time, you cannot see the wood from the trees sometimes and you need a different spin on things.”

As for husband-and-wife working he said: "It's fairly harmonious most of the time. There have been big changes in the last few years.

“We have invested in new software and we offer higher levels of service than you might expect from a small company, yet we have a more hands-on approach than a bigger organisation. We try to offer the best of both worlds.”

As for the future, he hopes the recent investment will see them through the next few years.

“We have managed to expand — turnover has grown, we have taken on more employees and we constantly look at efficiency savings to improve profit margins. The company is doing very well. I am very pleased at how things are going, but we did plough a lot of money into improvements.

“Standing still and doing nothing is the worst thing you can do when times are tough.”

* Contact: Sporn Construction, 01869 277222 Web: www.spornconstruction.com

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