John Clugston: A lifetime of achievement

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Some people dream of the days when they will be able to finish their final day of work before going into retirement to concentrate on their hobbies, or just spend time with their significant other exploring the world. John Clugston, 77, is not one of these people.

Still dedicating his life to the family business, Clugston Group, after starting as the third generation in 1958, he has put his heart and soul into not only his work but the 20 plus different institutes and organisations that he has been a member of or invested in.

Clugston Group has grown and adapted over the 77 years that it has been going, in a battle to change and survive through difficult times. Consisting of several different branches, the group now operates in construction, distribution and commercial property.

“We’re in tough industries,” said John. “When you see the results of some of these big construction companies this last year or so they haven’t been making any money, you look back at it and think ‘why aren’t they?’

“I think that when the recession came, they just weren’t buying work. We didn’t either and we suffered. We suffered badly for a year and we had to make 200 people redundant. But we survived it!”

John’s grandfather set up a builders’ merchants, timber and joinery business and transport company, JG Clugston Ltd, in 1922. But when all the iron and steelworks in Scunthorpe closed down in 1924, the company was invited to work on one of the slag banks to help create employment on road construction for the town.

John’s father realised that slag had huge potential for something that was seen as a waste product at the time, so he created Clugston Cawood in 1937. This is where John started his career, working for his father but also working in steelworks in Germany and France from 1958.

“I grew up in the slag industry, taking blast furnace slag from the steelworks and developing products for it. It was a waste product in the ’30s. It was only then that we got into it, because it was waste. No one wanted it.”

Photo: Sean Strange for Lincolnshire Business

The test of time

Clugston Group is a company that has made its mark in history, playing its own part during WWII. It took on simple contracting work, such as erecting poles in large fields to stop enemy gliders landing, as well as the construction of air-raid shelters and the building of anti-glare pits.

John worked his way up the company starting as Assistant to Works Manager on production matters in 1961 and becoming Chairman of various divisions of the company until eventually he became Chairman and Managing Director of Clugston Holdings Ltd (now Clugston Group Ltd) in 1984.

Within this time the company has grown significantly. Contracts now include schools, hospitals, reinforced concrete reservoirs, supermarkets and much more. But having gone through several recessions, John has done well to continue the growth of the company.

“When there’s a recession, it’s always the construction industry that goes into it first and it’s always the last one out. We’ve had our ups and downs with the company and lost money in some years. We hadn’t been doing very well in the last few years with transport but I think we’ve got it right now.

“As life’s gone on, a lot of the steel plants have closed. We’d been in construction all of our life, but in a small way during the war. It got to the stage where we said ‘we’re going to have to concentrate on construction.’

“One has to adapt. That’s the point. I think we’ve done remarkably well to survive it all as a private company.”

Moving towards construction was obviously a good idea, despite the difficulties, as now Clugston Construction alone has a turnover of £143.8 million. Distribution on the other hand has a £15.3 million turnover.

The group has also started to concentrate on energy from waste plants as joint ventures with various other companies. This has provided a £250 million overall turnover last year; a record breaking year. The year before, John was celebrating record breaking profit.

As times have changed, and the company has adapted, John knew that keeping the business in the family was the right idea. The Clugston family currently owns 47% of the shares in Clugston Group, with several partners owning a smaller percentage.

“We don’t want a merger with anyone if we can help it. I think there’s a culture in private companies that people like working for private companies. We’ve got second and third generation people working in this organisation and I think that says something for the culture of the company.”

John has recently celebrated the win of an £11 million contract with Siemens, which will support the employment of 250 people, for a logistics facility at Hull’s Alexandra Dock.

“Siemens said that they wanted a local contractor. I think we won it on our design and the most competitive rates. We’re pleased to have got in there because there were one or two other contractors in there.

“It’s important to use local contractors because they have a lot of local knowledge and that’s the reason that you set up a regional office. If you don’t people say ‘Well you’re not in the area.'”

Along with other schemes, like energy from waste projects in Oxfordshire, Staffordshire and Lincolnshire, John has strong ambitions to continue to grow and expand the group further with the help of his Chief Executive, Steven Martin.

“We’re looking to expand the facilities management because it’s in construction but it’s a separate operation. It’s around about a £5 million turnover, it’s gone up this year to probably £6 million and it’s a business that we want to expand because there are better margins involved.”

Photo: Sean Strange for Lincolnshire Business

The achievements of a lifetime

Much of John’s life has been about creating a better place to do business in Northern Lincolnshire. He has been part of many different organisations including becoming President of Lincolnshire Iron and Steel Institute, Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce, Humberside Branch of The British Institute of Management as well as Director of South Humberside Business Advice Centre Ltd and a school Governor.

He also played an integral part in the setting up of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), of which he still has a part in now. One of the main concerns which he is addressing is the national, and local, skills shortage.

“It is a major problem. I sit on the LEP Education and Skills board and it’s something that we’re discussing all the time. Hopefully the UTC, North Lindsey College and the education people now realise that it’s no good turning out hundreds of hairdressers when that’s not the skill labour that the industry wants.”

Trying to get companies to take on apprentices, to try and combat the shortage is a difficult process. “The small SMEs can’t afford to take people for work experience because you’ve got to remember, when they’re working in a company, someone’s got to supervise them all the time.

“So while they’re doing that, they’re not doing their complete job either. It’s easier in the bigger companies, but it’s persuading a lot of them to do it.

“We take on our share, but there is a limit as to how many we can take on. I feel very sorry for these youngsters, because I keep telling them ‘if you can get work experience, get it on your CV. You’ve then got something to go to when you want to get employed somewhere’.”

John has seen the company make it onto the London Stock Exchange’s ‘1,000 Companies to inspire Britain’ as well as the ‘Sunday Times Top Track 250’. This year the company also claimed the Construction News Health and Safety Initiative Award.

“I think that the fact that we project ourselves to the general public as a caring company and also particularly, wherever we’re doing contracts, we try and set up a good relationship with the local people. We know it disrupts their life and you’ve got to have that relationship and communication with people. I think sometimes some of these big contractors don’t always do that.”

It is unsurprising to many that John received a prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award given to him by Humber Chamber of Commerce and the Scunthorpe Telegraph in June 2015 for all that he had done.

“I didn’t know anything about it. Everyone else seemed to know about it and I kept saying ‘why am I on the top table? We’ve got our own table.’

“Michelle Lalore handed me the award, but she spoke beforehand and she was going on about somebody in Scunthorpe and I had no idea what was going on. Then suddenly, out came my name, which was a great surprise.

“I just have to say I was astounded but I felt it was a great honour. We’ve done a lot for this area as a group particularly on the charity side over the years.”