Steve Gelder: Building sky high

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Chalking-up 25 years in business and creating a £40 million construction company is impressive and certainly worth celebrating – but what happens after the back-slapping and applause fade away?

It was in anticipation of this glorious July 2013 milestone that, brickie-turned-Chief Executive Officer, Steve Gelder realised that the Gelder Group was about to hit a major crossroads.

And, after driving the nine-division group this far– which has six offices and employs 300 staff –, and welcoming Royal visitors to its Sturton-by-Stow headquarters in 2004, 2007 and 2014, Steve knew Gelder’s next chapter could not be left to chance. But, despite his entrepreneurial streak, and the fact that he is an avid reader of business manuals and tycoons’ autobiographies, he decided he needed help when it came to charting the group’s future.

What he needed was an injection of fresh-thinking, an “outsider’s” perspective, another pair of eyes – or has it happened, two pairs of eyes.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Fortunately, Steve had been introduced to Paul and Dawn Barron of Human Alchemy a couple of years ago and, when it became imperative that he needed to plan for future growth, that’s who he turned to.

“After 25 years in business, I had not only achieved my early ambitions, I’d gone much further. I’d got my house with its adjacent tennis court, was used to parking my S Class Mercedes in my driveway and had hit the £40 million mark,” said Steve.

“I remembered being impressed with Paul, (who I call ‘The Oracle’), and Dawn when I met them. A few months later I was sat down at my dining room table with a blank piece of paper, about to start writing up my vision for the next 25 years.

“Amazingly, at that exact time, Paul dropped me an email to say that he imagined that I was preparing to write up my new vision, just as I did the last one, and suggesting that there might be a better way. It’s for reasons like this that I call him ‘The Oracle’.

“I then met up with Paul and Dawn, who helped me approach the task from a completely different angle. They advised that, at this stage in the company’s development, I should be working on a three-year plan. The end of the second year would be the right time to start thinking about the next one, and that I should involve my senior management team and the staff to set the vision, not just write it myself and hand it out.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Steve said: “33 people spent seven days away from the office, and flagged-up 100 different things that we felt we could be doing.

“Ultimately we decided upon 10 goals for Gelder Ltd and 10 group-wide goals, all linked to what we wanted people to be saying about us in 2017.

“As well as defining and writing our mission statement, we created Room 2017. This is our ‘control room’, where we have displayed framed copies of our goals, open to all employees, customers and suppliers to view, and where people involved in about 40 projects to take the business forward, can meet and report back.

“We have small monthly team meetings and staff are being encouraged to take an active involvement in the future of the business. They have come up with some fantastic ideas,” said Steve.
Steve values the working relationship he has with Paul and Dawn, and the emotional attachment they now have with the business, adding: “We have become great friends with mutual respect for one another’s achievements.

“I now view the world differently, with greater focus on the numbers and recognising the value and importance of communication and relationships,” said Steve.

“Because I had achieved so much, I now needed to refresh my business model. I got asked why I didn’t simply stop, but I couldn’t be on my deathbed regretting not having tried to take the business to a turnover of £100 million.”

“It is always better to try and fail than fail to try.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Gelder’s new 20 by 17 Vision aims to grow the Group’s turnover to £70 million by 2017, but Steve has had to acknowledge that it will not all be plain sailing.

“During the initial three months of the plan, viewing the world through a new lens, I’ve had to make some tough decisions about the shape and composition of the business. This is now complete and we are driving towards our 2017 vision with renewed energy.

“Also, as part of our new way of working, we not only have a clear vision and a set of 20 goals, but I now lead a team that has absolute clarity on where it both wants and expects to be in 2017, and is committed to achieving it.”

Gelder’s 20 by 17 Mission and Vision was launched by the Princess Royal during a visit to the company’s headquarters on July 16, 2014.

However, Steve Gelder didn’t really set out to be a builder. He dreamed of becoming a professional footballer and millionaire.

“I kind of wanted them to go hand-in-hand, but at the age of 22 it was pretty obvious I was never going to become a professional footballer. I’d failed with that ambition, but I was determined not to fail at the second,” said Steve.

In the early days, Steve and his colleagues Gelder Construction Director Dave Gladwin and then apprentice bricklayer Dave Wells accepted all kinds of jobs and they regularly worked from 7am to 10pm.

And that’s a habit he hasn’t really shaken off. Steve admits that he is driven by a fear of failure, even now, and you cannot really ever see him taking his success for granted.

“This has been a fantastic journey so far, but the best is yet to come and I know that –just like before – it is the skill and dedication of our employees that will ultimately determine our future.”
Steve is married to Wendy and they have two sons. Sam is 19 at the end of March and Harry is 15.

This feature interview was first published in issue 21 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.