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Executive Report:

Surveying the scene

Alan Guthrie talks to two hirers that are successfully serving the growing survey and safety equipment hire market.

It was none other than Speedy Hire’s Chief Executive Officer, Steve Corcoran, who first detected an opportunity that the company could develop in the hire of survey equipment and related products.
That was back in 2000, when he headed Speedy Southern, and the operation has now grown to become the dedicated Speedy Survey division, operating on a nationwide basis.

Impetus was added following the acquisition in September 2003 of Watts Optronics, the hire arm of Leica Geosystems. Keith Ferguson, Managing Director of Speedy Survey, believes there is considerable potential in this market. “We are the only truly national survey hire business,” he contends. “We operate from 18 locations throughout the country and we have a dedicated vehicle fleet for deliveries and collections, because of the delicate nature of much of the equipment. This means we are not reliant on third party carriers and can control quality throughout our operation, which is ISO 9001/2000 accredited. We also offer a four-hour guaranteed delivery service in the UK mainland.”

Biggest challenge

It is the specialist nature of the equipment, and its maintenance, that represents the biggest challenge to a hirer in this market. Items have to be stored and serviced in a cleaner environment than in a tool depot, with UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service) accredited calibration equipment. A standalone facility is needed, with specially trained staff. “Technicians at each depot check and calibrate equipment between every hire,” states Keith Ferguson. “When major repairs are needed, items are transported – again using our own vehicles – to our dedicated service centre at Oldbury, in the West Midlands. We are also able to maintain customers’ owned equipment, and we undertake servicing and warranty repair work for certain manufacturers.”

Ability to specialise

Survey equipment hire is, of course, not a new market. Specialist hirers have operated in this segment for a considerable time, but they are typically local or regional businesses. Most have also developed as hire operations within equipment manufacturers seeking to serve the market, becoming separate as business grew. It is this ability to specialise that is now opening up opportunities for other hirers on a larger scale, according to Keith Ferguson. “Today there is some very sophisticated equipment being manufactured for survey professionals, which can greatly simplify their tasks. It is expensive and this creates a demand for hire.”

He cites as an example the robotic total station, an electronic device combining the ability to measure a position vertically and horizontally simultaneously. It makes surveying a one-person job, rather than having to employ a second person to carry a ‘target’ prism on a detail pole around the site. Data can be downloaded onto a computer to produce a detailed drawing. “Labour is one of the biggest costs in construction, so a machine that effectively halves this is a welcome opportunity.”

A comprehensive range is offered, including laser levels, reflector-less total stations, auto levels, pipe lasers, cable avoidance tools, drainage inspection equipment, sound meters and cavity wall inspection products. The fleet includes items from manufacturers such as Leica Geosystems (with which Speedy has formed a strategic partnership), Topcon, Trimble, Nikon, Hilti, Radiodetection, MSA and Draeger, amongst others. Most of the Survey (www.speedysurvey.co.uk) fleet is said to be less than 18 months old.

Safety equipment is also available, including gas detectors, breathing apparatus, powered respirators and escape sets. Again, much of this is expensive to buy. A radio system that is intrinsically safe for use in petrochemical installations and other sensitive sites carries a bigger price tag than a conventional one, and this again makes hire attractive. “However, it is about more than just the equipment,” states Keith Ferguson. “Our customers know that they have to meet more stringent Health & Safety regulations and they look to us to help them. They know our equipment will arrive at site on time, fully calibrated and fit for purpose.” He estimates that, by the end of the year, the Speedy Survey fleet’s net book value will stand at £10m. The business has an impressive line-up of clients, including Gleesons, Mowlem, Kier and Carillion, as well as small tradesmen and other professionals.

Speedy Survey, which is planning to open other outlets in the future, offers dedicated staff training through the group training facility in Leeds. It has also produced other initiatives to help staff and customers, such as a DVD-based resource that explains the use of equipment like a total station. “Most survey professionals carry a laptop with them, so they can play the DVD and teach themselves and their staff,” says Keith Furguson.

Having the right people

Another hirer that is making inroads into this market is Manchester-based Supply UK. As you read this, it should just have opened its third dedicated Survey & Laser UK outlet in east London, joining others in Manchester and Derby. “We entered this market approximately four years ago,” states Supply UK (www.supplyuk.co.uk) Managing Director Richard Coffey, “with a small range of laser levels and other products. But we soon realised we could achieve a lot more. The key lies in having the right people who really understand this particular market, and in establishing a dedicated operation.

“It is not simply a case of buying the right equipment for the fleet. You have to provide the backup in terms of service, repairs, and calibration. You can easily spend £25,000 or more on the sophisticated machinery you need for the workshop before you have got your first hire. Our original operation was in a corner of our Manchester tool hire depot, but it is now based in a dedicated facility in Openshaw, to the east of the city. “A clean, dust-free environment is essential for this equipment, which means you cannot operate from a traditional tool hire facility. Depots need painted floors and staff must wear clean clothing. The customer profile is different and products are handled in an appropriate way – when they come back from site, specific cleaning and testing is undertaken.” Survey & Laser UK is run as a separate business, with its own directors. Managing Director, Dave Thomas, is typical of many hire personnel in this market, initially having worked as a surveyor before joining a specialist equipment manufacturer, which also hired out products on a regional basis. “Our business is really flying, with demand across the board for equipment such as total stations, laser levels, pipe lasers, cable avoidance tools, full escape sets and safety products,” he contends.

Changes within the construction industry

“The hire market is definitely growing. The cost of buying the latest products is one factor, but changes within the construction industry itself represent another. New practices mean less time is spent on site, and contractors are hiring as necessary rather than purchasing. The customer base is also broad, including professionals in fixing and finishing trades. We service equipment that customers own from a wide range of manufacturers, such as Leica, Sokkia, and Topcon, and we sell consumables like tape measures. Another difference with survey equipment hire is that you do not need a high street presence; a depot will typically cover a larger geographical area. Our Derby outlet serves the whole of the Midlands, while Manchester can deal with customers right up to the Lake District.”

Richard Coffey has high hopes for the new east London depot, and other openings are planned. Indeed, he and his colleagues have national aspirations for the business. “We expect demand to grow steadily as the 2012 Olympic Games get closer, and with the right people and equipment in place there is nothing to stop Survey & Laser UK achieving a total annual turnover of approximately £5m within three years.”

Executive Hire NewsArchivesNovember 2006Executive Report › Surveying the scene

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