Posted on Wednesday 6 June 2018 by John Mulgrew

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Ray Hutchinson isn’t a man standing still, and neither is the construction giant which he heads up.

Gilbert Ash has grown into a £165m turnover business, which Ray told Ulster Business, he expects to grow further still this year.

The firm has been behind a series of a high-profile building projects in the UK, notably the £22m Royal College of Music Scheme in London.

It’s also understood that the company is expected to soon start work on a new multi-million pound hotel project in London.

And while, like many of those in the sector now securing much of its big business in Great Britain, the company will complete several high-profile projects in Belfast this year.

Already unveiled is the new AC Hotel by Marriott. It’s a £21.5m deal for Gilbert Ash, and is helping to meet the burgeoning demand for hotel rooms across the city.

The firm is also about to hand over the keys to its £23m student accommodation scheme, owned by Olympian Homes, and based at Great Patrick Street.

“From our perspective, it’s good to be back working on major projects in Northern Ireland,” he told Ulster Business.

“The schemes presented good opportunity for high-profile projects, and getting our people back from working in mainland UK.

“It’s great to get our people back (to Northern Ireland) and show Gilbert Ash have been back home again and showcasing it.”

Speaking about the new AC Hotel, based at Belfast Harbour, Ray says: “It looks super. It’s not lost on us, that we have been involved in two big projects in Northern Ireland – one a student scheme and one a hotel.”

But despite success at home, the company is still focused on growing its business elsewhere in the UK.

And Gilbert Ash is growing still, according to its turnover figures.

“We have moved out of sustaining the organisation, to continued growth,” Ray says.

It’s growing its turnover for £148m in 2016, to around £165m in the last year, with that expected to grow further still.

“Our expectation in 2018, is that we will see that growth in turnover increase.

“I'm positive about the sector generally, and I think Gilbert Ash has been well placed in terms of the projects we have done, in particular.”

“In terms of projects at the moment, there is one at the Royal College of Music in London, the Royal College of Pathologists and the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.”

“What we say is, we are involved in projects – landmark and high-profile, those which will make an impact.

“In London we have established a reputation. The business is now known. If we went back five or 10 years, we were maybe seen at a new player from Belfast.

“We are embedded now, and have an office there, and a fantastic track record.

Aside from his role at the helm of Gilbert Ash, Ray is the current president of industry body the Construction Employers Federation.

One of Gilbert Ash’s biggest long-term relationships has been with hotel chain Premier Inn.

“Aside from those landmark high-profile schemes, we are a contractor of choice (for Premier Inn).”

“In terms of Northern Ireland, I think while we have seen some growth among some surveys, but the sector is still suffering, due to a lack of an Executive. That is having an impact on the sector.

“For the right or wrong reasons, the sector is very dependent on ton public sector spend.

“We recognised that, and changed our business model. The Northern Ireland construction industry is about 50/50, which is a lot higher than elsewhere in the UK.

“What you then have is, that lack of Executive, you have a situation where companies look to the public sector and pipelines, and now struggle.

“Businesses don’t like uncertainty, and the same goes for a lack of Executive. Business people in Northern Ireland, people in general, are better served with a local, devolved Assembly.

“The absence of ministers has led to an unwillingness for people to move things forward.”

Ray says firms have been finding it tough due to a reduction in the overall public spend.

“We have recalibrated. There isn't the same spend, and we have adapted. It has switched our focus.

“It took time, but what helped us was those landmark landscapes. We did the Lyric Theatre, Giant’s Causeway visitor centre and Waterfront Hall.

“When you are exporting your services, when you have schemes of that ilk, you start to gain the traction that you would have in London.”

Gilbert Ash employs around 175 staff directly, but supports hundreds through sub-contractor and the rest of the supply chain.

“We expect turnover to continue into 2018 and 2019. I'm very positive over its outlook in the next 24 months,” Ray said.

Speaking about the state of the economy in general, Ray says:

“Everything cascades down through. There has to be confidence in other elements of the economy.

“The very fact we are continuing to grow turnover, shows that we are confident in what we are doing.”

On Brexit, he said while there are clearly challenges, it’s not something Gilbert Ash sees as a blockage for its business.

“It’s something that we are very aware of, but at the same time, we don't see it as presenting a significant threat, and it’s another challenge to overcome. We have to move forward,” he said.

“The only effect has been the movement in the exchange rate.

“There has been no slow down in opportunity. In early stages of the vote, we did see a couple of projects not happen because of Brexit.

“But we have seen no reduction in tendering from Brexit.

“We have to adapt and continue to look at our business.”

Speaking about the business’s continued success, he said: “We have continued to focus on what we are good at, and not been tempted to move away from the core areas which we are strong in.

“We have a particular strength on arts and culture, hotels and commercial, and have to focus on that.

“What we have done is build a reputation as a company that is able to deliver. It is a continuing focus on improving.”

That spreading out to a host of different areas in something attributed, in part to the downfall of Carillion, which collapsed last year.

And what elements of the UK’s exit from the EU could have an impact on business?

“Aside from any tariffs, we have worked around the world (in more than 40 countries).

“We did that without tariffs or penalties and we would be keen to see, post Brexit, that (not changing).

“Many construction materials are drawn in from Europe, and because of that the exchange rate, there is an impact on input costs.”

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