Family builds business on firm foundations
HBS Group Southern is aiming to turnover £45 million by 2020. That might sound like an ambitious target for a business that plumber Harry Bull began in 1950 from the back of his house in Netley, Southampton. But reaching such a milestone is more than achievable for this third-generation family business.
“We have the building industry experience and a supply chain structure covering plumbing, electrical and renewable energy services to facilitate further growth,” explained Harry’s grandson James Bull.
What HBS also has are the business values established by Harry that earned him widespread respect among Hampshire’s construction companies. “He always said make sure you back up quality work with good service. And he treated staff fairly – after all, you’re only as good as the people you employ,” said Bull.
Harry’s son Kevin had the vision to extend the company’s horizons and his three sons now support him. As well as responsibility for business strategy, James Bull specialises in renewable energy services. Alex Bull brings an accountant’s financial acumen to the table and Charles Bull is spearheading the potential move into small-scale housebuilding after working for Balfour Beatty.
“There’s no better business partner than your father or brother. We’ll disagree on things, but we all share the same goals for HBS,” said James Bull, who joined the business in 2005 after a serious injury
HBS Group Southern’s success is based on its dedication to customer service and timely entry into new markets. Commercial director James Bull (pictured) tells Tim Wickham how the family-owned business intends to maintain its impressive track record.
playing for Exeter City’s youth team cut short a footballing career.
Expansion and challenges
Harry Bull & Sons was renamed HBS Group Southern in 2010. Today, the group operates from a modern head office near the M27 in Whiteley. A team of nearly 100 employees is supported by a national network of around 200 sub-contractors who carry out plumbing, electrical and renewable energy services. HBS’ clients include eight of the UK’s 10 largest housebuilders.
Annual turnover rose dramatically from £11.8 million in 2015 to £21.5m in 2016, thanks largely to revenues from new business streams, although plumbing still accounts for around half of that figure. Turnover was nearly £20m in 2017 and Bull forecasts it could rise to £45m by 2020.
Success hasn’t been without its challenges. “It was ‘damage limitation’ for us during the tough years of the recession in the noughties. We battened down the hatches, introduced salary caps, but didn’t make redundancies. My father was keen that we were ready to seize new opportunities when the market picked up again, particularly by investing in renewable energy services,” said James Bull.
Growth at HBS has been mainly organic, with two significant acquisitions that accelerated expansion in different areas. An electrical company was bought in 2012 to create HBS Electrical and a solar energy business was acquired in 2015 to expand it’s commercial renewable operations across the
UK. Customer service is so important that a dedicated division, HBS Aftersales, was set up to provide plumbing and electrical maintenance services to homeowners.
The group is expanding beyond its southern base by establishing a national network of HBS-approved solar panel installers. Last year, it put solar panels on over 2,000 new homes and is aiming for a five-fold increase in installations within two years. A lot of new business comes from the national housebuilders who HBS already serve in the south. Major solar panel contract wins include property portfolios for Anglian Water, BUPA and Coal Authority, as well as a production facility at Jaguar Land Rover.
Commitment to apprenticeships
The group has always had a strong commitment to apprenticeships and demand is high for the 50 to 60 places a year on its programme. This helps HBS blend youth with experience in its workforce. One of Harry’s apprentices still works for the business, which is a great example of the strong loyalty staff have for their employers.
HBS has no plans to relinquish family ownership. James Bull thinks his grandfather would be proud of their achievements, driven by the philosophy that you should only take on a job if you can do it well.