Interview with Savvy Group MD, Stephen Dunne

By Nicholas Newman Energy journalist, content writer and editor



Established some twelve years ago, Savvy Group is an Oxfordshire-based construction, renovation and maintenance business, working for a range of clients including many Oxford Colleges, local architects, surveyors and residential owners. Much of Savvy’s new business comes from word -of -mouth from delighted clients and is concentrated within 60 miles of their new Horspath headquarters.





Unique selling point

Pausing for a moment, Steve attributes their success “to the hands-on approach of our directors, in providing a personal touch, ensuring collaboration with our clients at every stage of the project, from initial planning to project delivery. The point is, we don’t take advantage of our clients. We pride ourselves on delivering what we say and we promise what we will do.” As many of our readers with recent experience of builders will admit, this is indeed unusual, in this industry.

Key Successes

Customer retention and repeat business from major clients in Oxfordshire is the bedrock of the business as Steve reflects on the “vast amount of repeat business we have from our major clients. In fact, we are building on that year-on-year, so we must be doing something right there.  Also, we continue to add new clients each year. I think this is because of doing what we say and the quality of our work.”

Recent projects

Savvy Group are especially proud of their ongoing and extensive work for Jesus College, St Johns College Porter’s Lodge as well as the Grade 2 listed building at Belsize Court. In addition, the group has just begun work on an  £8 million conversion of an old abandoned orphanage into 25 flats in Chertsey, Surrey.



Challenges

In common with the construction industry as a whole, Savvy shares the problem of a shortage of skilled and unskilled recruits. Added to which Savvy, as a medium-sized builder, places particular emphasis on “picking the right staff for our team. It takes a lot of time to find the right person. In that, we have been very lucky in being able to retain our employees.”


Business success required new premises. “The challenge of designing and building  our new headquarters to provide the right work environment and meeting facilities for both staff and clients was quite time consuming, but it is working well.”  The underlying philosophy of the business is to treat both staff and clients well and this shows up in customer and staff retention, repeat business and the bottom line. Needless to say, there have been the perennial project management challenges of any project – “that of ensuring that all the right resources arrive at the right time and place, to show to our clients we are up to the job.”

As for the onset of COVID

Before COVID the business was doing extremely well. A good reputation with clients allowed Savvy to compete with long-established businesses in Oxfordshire and gain a place on a lot of tender lists. “In December 2019, we were doing around £1 million of business each month and we're expecting 2020 to be even better. COVID had a gradual impact on business. The construction industry was not ordered to close down.  Savvy adopted the new health and safety advice for working safely.  However, many of their suppliers and subcontractors were interpreting the government's health and safety advice differently, which meant Savvy had to spend time accommodating to their needs.  “The uncertainty of the situation made it especially difficult to plan, especially when we could have up to 50 men on the site.”







“Because of the impact of COVID, we've had to tender for work much harder and smarter in order to achieve the same volume of work as previously.”  COVID has hit the firm’s profits, winning new business through tendering has become harder and adopting all the new COVID-related health and safety regulations including the provision of PPE on-site has added to costs. “Our goal of £15 million turnover for 2020 is, in all probability, likely to end up at around £12 million this year. “

COVID

Last year, thanks to the uncertainty of Brexit and the results of the upcoming election, the business was already preparing for a slowdown of the economy. But, since Savvy Group “runs a tight ship” they were prepared for uncertainty and were in a good place when Covid-19 struck. Needless to say, the group adopted all the prescribed COVID-safe work practices and business continued albeit at a more subdued pace.

“In the next few months, we expect things to improve. Further ahead we are more cautious since, it must be remembered that many of our projects are typically 6 to 12 months in length with some even 18 months, so we have plenty of work at present to complete. “Current projects will keep the firm busy for the next year at least.

“As for the prospect of a possible 2nd wave of COVID, I expect that we will take a similar approach in adapting to COVID, as we have done already, but it is difficult to predict the future. But one thing is certain, we are being cautious. But we will continue to work hard to ensure the prosperity of the business and the safety of our employees and clients.”

Uncertainty

Like others, the business faces uncertainty but has to plan for the future. “We are presently trying to write a new 5-year business plan but, given the current business environment because of COVID, we are finding it very hard to do.”  Nonetheless, Savvy has found a silver lining from all this uncertainty and upheaval. It has brought the firm new opportunities “as some of our competitors have ceased trading due to COVID.” Steve admits that “we are cautiously optimistic about the future. In effect, fortune favours the brave.”




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