Oliver Connell & Son (Connells) is a specialist groundworks, civil engineering, architectural concrete, rail, and aviation subcontractor based in West London. Founded in 1974 by Oliver and Pat Connell, the business started out as a small family firm, which is now led by Pat’s three sons: James, Tom, and Patsy Connell. After years of experiencing consistent success, it has grown to be one of London’s leading subcontractors, turning over more than £140 million per year.
As the company has evolved, it has diversified its service offering, having expanded to include specialist rail, civil, and aviation divisions. It is one of the leading partners involved with a project at Heathrow Airport in London, for instance, and is also working on HS2, a new high-speed rail line in the UK, which has been deemed the largest infrastructure project in Europe.
After a challenging few years characterised by the Covid-19 pandemic and soaring inflation, we catch up with James Connell, Managing Director, Tom Connell, Director, and David Sheath, Health, Safety, and Environment Director. The trio tell us all about the company’s latest projects, sustainable investments, and plans in place for the third generation to progress through the business.
“Although we’re now coming out of it and returning to normal operations, it’s been a difficult few years both personally and professionally,” opens James. “First of all, my uncle, Oliver, the founder of the business, sadly passed away in March 2020. Then in the same week, my father, Pat, caught Covid and spent the following three weeks in intensive care.
“All of a sudden, we were left without either of our founders. My father has fortunately made a full recovery, but it was particularly difficult to run the business without the input of their experience and expertise, especially considering it was during a period of mass uncertainty induced by the pandemic.
“We then struggled with dreaded inflation elevating supply costs to unprecedented levels,” James continues. “Take steel, for instance, which more than doubled in price. Although the entire industry was experiencing the same difficulties, it was financially negative for us and had a knock-on impact for the rest of the business.
“We were previously on fixed price contracts, but the fluctuation of rates made it harder to plan projects and give clients accurate quotes. We’d seen inflation go up by around two-to-five per cent each year, but this particular time saw prices increase by 20 per cent overnight. We managed to secure fixed prices for the duration of the job, which enabled us to give clients an idea of the cost.
“However, this year, following the inflation, we’ve had our biggest turnover and one of the best years in terms of profits since the beginning of the company,” James states.
“It’s great to now be in a position where we’ve not only navigated the crisis but come out the other side successfully with great financial results.”
The ‘OC’ way
The Covid-19 pandemic also caused disruption in the construction industry, particularly within the residential market. But having worked with some of the leading main contractors and developers in the UK, Connells has inevitably gained a strong reputation in the construction industry. Its motto, ‘safety, quality, programme’ is at the core of its day-to-day activity, as is the ‘OC’ way; a set of visual standards and guidelines for each project to follow.
So, as market conditions changed, Connells was ideally positioned to adapt, shifting its focus from residential construction to infrastructure projects. “Although we’ve got very traditional company values, we’re also young and agile enough to adapt to the construction climate,” Tom states. “We’ve managed to keep ourselves ahead of competitors by maintaining our main stream of work, which is groundworks and concrete frames, while also taking on some big infrastructure projects.”
James elaborates: “We worked in Cambridge for a while, for instance, on the biomedical life sciences laboratories and we’re also currently the largest contractor to Heathrow Airport. We’ve been involved with HS2 for a while now, which, being a high-end scheme, was an incredibly hard process to enter, but will hopefully bolster our reputation.
“Our biggest project so far is the Brentford regeneration project, where we carried out a 20,000-cubic-metre bulk dig to the basement and multi-block RC Frame above,” he goes on. “We’re now working on various other residential projects too, including one in Uxbridge and a regeneration project in Romford.”
Aside from numerous key projects, James is also keen to tell us about the company’s investments, many of which are consolidating its sustainability efforts. “We invest in our plant every year, but we’ve made further investments this year in more environmentally friendly equipment,” he details. “We’ve recently purchased two suction excavators and converted them to be entirely or partially powered by hydrogen gas power.”
David adds: “To reduce our carbon emissions, we invested in the UK’s first Scania hybrid lorry for the construction market, which is currently operational at Heathrow. Additionally, we switched our fuel from diesel to hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO), which led to a whopping 92 per cent reduction in our carbon emissions.”
As our conversation draws to a close, James provides an outlook on the company’s future. “In terms of goals, I’m personally not motivated by turnover growth, but instead I want us to continue delivering high-quality projects for top clients,” he says. “Next year will be our 50th anniversary, and with the third generation now coming through the ranks, I’m just keen to maintain the business and keep it healthy.
“None of this would be possible without our father and uncle; we have taken over the running of the business, but it was their hard work that led to us becoming one of the UK’s premiere construction companies,” James concludes. “It makes me incredibly proud to have my family working alongside me and be able to give people opportunities to create their own success story.”