Founder series Q&A

Fergus Adams, DBA managing director

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Name, position, company

Fergus Adams, managing director, Dougall Baillie Associates, East Kilbride

What does your company do?

We provide Consulting Civil, Structural and Transportation Engineering Services.

What do you do there / what is your role?

Managing director

If you started the company, what was the aha moment that led to the company founding?

I led the MBO as a result of personal ambition and the opportunity that it afforded both the company and me. I was, and continue to be, exceptionally enthusiastic about running a great business.

Give us a brief history of the growth of the company

The company was formed by Willard Dougall and George Baillie in 1985. It is now in its fourth generation of ownership. George was a neighbour of my family in Burnside, south Glasgow when I was growing up. He started the business when I was at school and, following the death of my parents, he took me, along with my brother, on holiday to St Andrews with his wife and his own children. Some years later I chatted with him at a 21st birthday party and asked him if there were any jobs going. By then, I was a graduate civil engineer and so had an interview with Willard. At the same time, I was pursuing a job in London with the Department of Transport’s Highways Agency who offered me a position. I decided instead that I would take a job with DBA. Originally based in Bath Street, Glasgow, DBA did a lot of work for the East Kilbride Development Corporation, later absorbed into South Lanarkshire Council. As a result, Willard and George decided to open a bigger office in East Kilbride, where we are still based. In 1993 I started in the firm’s Transport Department then moved over to the Civil Engineering side. In 1999 four associates in the firm agreed an internally funded management buyout of George and Willard who remained for a while as consultants. I became an associate in 2004 and together with Robin Duncan and Norman MacLean staged a second buyout of the business in 2009.

In December 2018 I bought out Robin and Norman and appointed three directors and three associate directors, all of whom have share options in place. Following that third buyout the new management team has been helped a great deal by Kirsty Bathgate whose Gearing for Growth programme focuses on people working together for the same shared vision.

Have you taken any external funding? If so from who and when?

Our MBO was self-funded from business capital reserves and future profit; no external finance was sought.

So, what does it look like now with regard to staff and turnover?

£3.5m with 41 colleagues

What’s the difference between when you started and now in your marketplace?

There are fewer medium-sized consultants in the marketplace – they have all been swallowed up by multinational firms, so we find ourselves competing with smaller consultancies which have lower overheads for smaller projects and the multinationals for large projects.  The competition for smaller jobs tends to be from micro-organisations / sole traders. It is difficult to be competitive with sole traders when we have the company overheads.

Many public contracts would appear to be designed to favour large consultancies by requiring a range of experience / capabilities that small or medium-sized consultancies find hard to provide in-house. This makes it hard for SMEs to win public contracts.

Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a real increase in speed of demand for information and consequently less time to prepare properly and to achieve the required quality standards. Technology, electronic communications, and delivery methods have undoubtedly speeded up the world!

Whilst the design process has speeded up over the years, the approvals process has slowed significantly. Scottish Water network constraints, planning delays and protracted roads consents delay the delivery of sites.

What is your target market – Who is buying your product / service?

Anyone who wishes to build.  Most of our clients are major national housebuilders, including Barratt, Bellway, Cala, Lovell, Miller, Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey and Stewart Milne. Private housebuilding represents around 70 per cent of our work and infrastructure projects the other 30 per cent. I would like to grow the infrastructure and public sectors. In the BC (Before Covid) era, the Scottish Government, via Homes for Scotland, was targeting 35,000 new homes a year and I would like to see a revived determination to achieve that goal.

What is your background?

I had been in the company since graduating from Glasgow University in 1993, gaining an understanding of infrastructure design, the industry, and the business challenges. In 2003 I completed an MBA at Strathclyde Graduate School of Business, following which I was promoted to Associate Director. The second, and most significant ‘plunge’ was in 2018 when I took the opportunity to do the second buyout – this time to take over the company myself. I have now built a strong, well -structured management team to support me. A solid foundation on which to grow the business.

What are your goals for your business?

To be the first-choice civil engineering practice in central Scotland.

What are your biggest current challenges?

Easy answer – The shock and uncertainty of Covid-19.We have elected to put a quarter of the team on furlough and have gone down to a four day week; we have also become totally flexible on hours of work to suit everyone’s personal circumstances.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

To navigate through the Covid-19 crisis, then through the inevitable recession. Before the lockdown we tested our systems to ensure that we could effectively work remotely. This involved upgrading our IT systems and some software packages. Once lockdown was confirmed all 41 members of staff began homeworking, which was a seamless transition.

We have adopted a rigid communication structure, with each department holding programming meetings on a Monday morning. This then feeds into a management meeting in the afternoon, at which time Directors and Associates discuss the current workload, opportunities, future projections and any industry / client news. All meetings are held via Zoom or Teams.

We have constant discussions via Teams to maintain camaraderie and for information sharing, which helps manage loneliness, which could affect those who live alone. It also maintains the staff bond. This is further enhanced on Friday afternoons when work stops early and we (virtually) meet for a pub quiz, with a beer or glass of wine. The situation has undoubtedly improved our communications and programming across the business, ensuring that all members of staff are fully employed, wherever possible.

No matter how hard you try, there is no substitute for face to face contact, even if it is just to show off my lock-down beard! Despite it all, I am tentatively positive and keen to re-commence our growth plans, alongside maintaining high quality professional standards, once the economy start-up again.

What do you do outside work?

Currently garden projects and spending time with the family, before the lockdown I played a bit of tennis and golf, but not enough to be any good at either!

What do you know now that you wished you had known earlier?

Hard work counts. Success is not something that comes to you, you need to invest time and effort.

What is the secret to good leadership?

I think trust is the key to respect. To lead a strong team, the members must know that they can trust you and can rely upon your support. The leader needs to be honest and transparent and be able to listen the thoughts, concerns and ideas of the team, otherwise the team members will feel undervalued, impotent and will ultimately become stifled. This not only limits the development of the individual but dilutes the strength of the team.

Where do you see the company in five years?

Thriving, successful and continuing to do great work.

How can the Scottish start-up/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?

For our sector, ensure that support continues to be there for first time buyers and continue to invest in infrastructure to help the construction industry make a full recovery as quickly as possible. As we know from the last recession, investment in construction results in economic growth for the country. More generally, encourage young people to think like entrepreneurs.


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