“I’m a bit of aworkaholic,” admits Tom Herwood, owner of Future Construction based in Tuam, Galway. “We are crazy busy,” he adds, which is a welcome change from the downturn that was lockdown when things went quiet.
Herwood describes his background and growth through the industry, starting by trade as a plasterer in the vein of his uncle. He went on to learn more about granite surface installation and ultimately carpentry.
“My grandfather was a stonemason and my uncle a plasterer, who I started off with on the weekends when I was only a young lad,” he says.
“I always wanted to become the type of builder that was able to step up into any role should the need arise on the day. It’s how I run my business now. If on the day something happens, that there’s a need to get something done, I’m there to do it.”
Herwood describes a discomfort with being the type of contractor who might “stand off to one side while the work is being done” – something he says he tried once, overseeing work without actually partaking, “but it didn’t suit.”
“I need to be on the site myself and at the work myself with my own hands.”
It’s more than just a fear of his own idle hands, for Herwood knowing the quality and craft of a trade is crucial when it comes to knowing who best to choose to work with.
“It helps to have the knowledge myself,” he says. “The experience of doing the trade myself. It means when it comes to finding subcontractors, I know for myself the quality of the work they are producing. I understand it as my own.
“It’s not unusual for a contractor to have only one trade behind them, or some even none at all, and they’re relying on an assumption of the quality of the work that I prefer to know for myself from experience,” he adds.
Priorities in business
Discussing the priorities for how he runs his business he says: “It might sound a bit old-fashioned but the way I feel about it is that the client’s satisfaction is the highest priority.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist in my own craft and from the long relationships we’ve built together I know the guys I work with to be excellent as well.
“But I have always put the client’s satisfaction up top, and that comes back to you. Some might call it karma even, but ultimately a happy client comes back to you for the next job and that’s no harm too.”
Herwood is also a supporter of inclusion and diversity when it comes to how the industry approaches recruitment and talent, as well as the implementation of EDI policy across the board. Women as just as capable too when it comes to the trades, he adds.
“I welcome it, just as I think the whole industry should be a welcoming place,” he says of the drive towards increasing an awareness of EDI in the construction sector.
“In all my experience, female trades for example, have been every bit as capable as any other. At the core of it, if you’re interested in the job, then we should welcome you into it and do right by you,” he adds.
Herwood talks about how the business gives him the opportunity to be creative with his work, and because of the relationships he has built with his clients, “they often give me the freedom to make creative decisions for their project, because they have come to trust my judgement. That’s a great thing to have.
“There is no better feeling when you do go out and make that creative choice and the client comes back to say they’re happy with the job. I love the creativity of the job.”
Describing his own personal philosophy, he says: “I don’t ever say I know everything because I’m always learning, I’m always curious for knowledge or other ideas, no matter what. If I see something new on a site I’ll go over and ask of it and try to learn more about it.”
This philosophy was handed down to him from his father, who offered him solid advice in his youth. “My dad always told me to ‘listen to everyone, take out the ideas you like, pick the best one that suits you and then do it quicker and better’.”
There are challenges facing the smaller contractor in the industry. While material supply and skills shortages are not unique to SMEs in the industry, they do exert a unique pressure on SMEs that larger businesses might not be as concerned about.
“Materials today is maybe the hardest thing for us now, both in terms of cost and delays,” he says. Some smaller businesses he admits are forced to wait as material costs and delays have risen so high as to becoming impossible to work with. “In that sense it has been one domino of disruption after another.”
First came Brexit, interrupting deliveries from the UK, then Covid forcing lockdown, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine throwing European geopolitical stability in disarray has dealt a heavy blow to material supply security.
“These are hard and challenging times for all contractors and builders,” he adds. “The good news for ourselves is that it’s busy but materials and the availability of skilled workers is a serious concern.”
He describes one exceptional circumstance that exemplifies the challenges facing SMEs. In order to be able to confidently finish a job for a charity organisation recently, he was forced to buy all supplies in advance of his need, to be stored on site carrying all the risk associated.
“That was an exceptional circumstance to help a worthy cause but it’s not a viable strategy for the size of our business,” he says.
Though with a note of optimism in an otherwise difficult landscape he adds: “We’re happy with the work we can do, and we make sure to do it right. But these are some of the pressures that will stick with us for some time yet.”