In the last decade CIOs have debated ICT outsourcing from every angle. But for the construction and building sector, outsourcing has always been the main modus operandi. There is little point in an organisation having a team of plasterers waiting for walls to be built, far better to hire in the expertise of a plasterer as and when needed. Each part of the construction process requires specialist tools, which are never cheap. So for construction companies the advantages of IT outsourcing became a natural fit.
Andrew Newton is IT director of Keepmoat, a Doncaster-based social housing specialist. “We are experts in the renewal of social housing through the Decent Homes project from the Labour government, so we work for social housing landlords, people who have taken over the council housing stock,” Newton explains.
The Keepmoat holding company has three brands: Frank Haslam Milan, a regeneration specialist; Bramall Construction, a regeneration specialist for central England; and Keepmoat Homes, which focuses on affordable housing.
“Focus on something that you do well and do it repetitively well,” he says of the company’s route to success. “We didn’t build the Keepmoat Stadium (home of Doncaster Rovers FC and a stone’s throw from the company HQ) or this office. Construction is very segmented, just like IT. In construction you use subcontractors for their specialist tools. Construction was a pioneer of outsourcing, so applying that logic to IT is just being consistent.”
Newton has been with Keepmoat since 2004 and was tasked with consolidating the IT of the three company divisions when he joined. Outsourcing was a way of bringing IT systems together and avoiding political problems within the company. He began by outsourcing the communications infrastructure to Star, a specialist in this area. An additional benefit was that Keepmoat gained the ability to add and expand the communications infrastructure as and when required.
Construction companies are totally reliant on good communications, and as Keepmoat staff are renovating or managing communities at 250 separate sites at a time, strong links to the site managers’ offices are critical so that project leaders can connect to clients, HQ and suppliers. Each site has two or three connectivity points for telecoms and data. Newton explains that the offices that need connections can vary from a Portakabin or demonstration house through to a commercial unit close to the construction site.
“Each site needs a communications infrastructure. This gives us a central datacentre connection for the corporate network so that we have consistent Microsoft Active Directory and single virus protection.” In essence it doesn’t matter where the site office is or if staff connecting to corporate applications are in the headquarters or on site, they get the same level of connectivity.
Newton chose Star, a tier 2 provider, because it understood the scenario Keepmoat was facing and was “prepared to come up with a solution for our network” and work with partners where necessary to provide coverage. Newton says he was surprised at the way Keepmoat was treated by other network providers.
“A lot of network specialists wanted to sell to a peer type organisation; others spoke to us like we were communications specialists. Yet our view was we weren’t, we wanted someone to take all that pain away,” he explains.
Newton’s IT team of 19 is split across the three divisions of the company and has to support 1300 users. As IT director Newton reports to the efficiency director, who is responsible for the organisation’s supply chain. Newton likes the reporting line as it means both IT and supply chain are seen as ways of creating efficiency. Keepmoat uses decision analysis techniques for IT and corporate decisions, adding weightings to factors behind a decision. One area currently under consideration is the introduction of a document management system to replace the current system based on Microsoft SharePoint.
Blueprints for the future
There are challenges ahead for Keepmoat: the Labour government’s Decent Homes policy for acceptable social housing standards is coming to an end this year and so the company is aiming to become a leader in creating sustainable housing.
The construction sector has been one of the hardest-hit sectors during the recent credit crisis and it has been just as difficult for Keepmoat as its peers. “In 2008 Keepmoat lost a lot of people from the house-building division and IT was expected to follow with the rest of the business,” Newton says of the painful need to make cuts to his team. As it was, he only had to make three redundancies and reduced the team from 27 to 19 using natural attrition of project-focused people moving on from Keepmoat.
Newton cut his teeth as an IT leader at the manufacturing behemoth Unilever, “one of the well known milkround training grounds,” he says of his time there. “I was automating processes, creating a fully automated soap plant to replace 19th century processes; it was a radical change to introduce.”
From Unilever he moved into the metals sector to join the London & Scandinavian Metallurgical company, a maker of specialised metals. He worked his way up to IT director, a global role that meant he spent a long time with his suitcase.
But as with many CIO careers, events outside IT were to intervene. The company was owned by an investment house that had lent significant amounts to the dotcom startups of the turn of this century. Then the tragic events of September 11, 2001 caused a drastic downturn in the aircraft sector, the main clients of the company. Group roles were culled and Newton briefly joined a textiles company, but again he was spending a lot of time with that suitcase. So when the IT director’s role for Keepmoat was advertised he moved swiftly.
“What attracted me is that it is an agent for positive change. I used to commute from Rotherham and there was a very rough estate there built in the 1960s, it was pulled down and redeveloped by Keepmoat and then it was so much better than it was before. I thought ‘there is an organisation I’d like to work for’,” he says.
Now with time to be with the family and a holiday home in the Lake District, he’s enjoying being the IT leader of a builder that aims to reshape people’s lives for the better.