Most firms with ambitious growth plans look to expand their sales and marketing team, but the Hong Kong arm of construction services company ISG has taken a quite different approach.
They prefer to rely instead on referrals, recommendations and repeat business from satisfied customers and, judging by the results to date, the approach is undoubtedly paying off.
“We have no business development or sales people,” says Tim Threlkeld, North Asia managing director for the firm, which has headquarters in London and a 105-strong team in Hong Kong which includes construction managers, structural engineers, design managers and site supervisors. “Everyone, though, is selling the business in some form or other in the way they develop projects, engage with clients, and demonstrate our capabilities.”
The key, Threlkeld explains, is to ensure staff are taught and encouraged to be very customer-focused. That starts with establishing the right values and ethos and, later, means listening and responding to feedback before, during and after any project.
“We study our performance with customers and make sure they have the opportunity to share what they feel,” he says, adding that this helps to strengthen client relationships and has had a positive impact on ongoing sales and the bottom line. “It is amazing the pride people take in the delivery of a project when they are held accountable and expected to raise the bar.”
Last year, ISG had annual sales of HK$787 million in Hong Kong, and the target for 2019 is to exceed HK$800 million. In doing this, the goal is to achieve at least 60 per cent repeat business from existing clients, thereby continuing the steady organic growth seen since 2003.
The firm began locally in the 1990s as a consultancy business, but made the transition into contracting, providing services for fitting out office space and interiors and doing refurbishments, alterations and building modification work.
The client list grew to include banks, law firms and retailers, as well as hotels, restaurants and clubs. Some of the more recent projects have been to fit out flagship retail stores for international brands, data centres, biomedical services laboratories, and even to install new theme park attractions.
“Our role is to share in the planning with the owners, clients and architects and then execute their vision,” Threlkeld says. “We take the design and build to that specification. We pick the tradesmen — from artisans and artists to engineers and carpenters — and work with them. It demands very specialist expertise, and our guys are on site to oversee everything.”
He adds that the use of technology is increasingly important, firstly in establishing the “constructability” of a project and then in figuring out all the details.
So, in a competitive industry with a limited talent pool in Asia, it is essential to have a comprehensive training and development programme and HR strategies which look to the future.
“We have to give staff opportunities to learn, be challenged, and use different skill sets,” Threlkeld says. “We want them to gain exposure and then take that experience to other projects, so they maintain their enthusiasm and can see personal development as a journey.”
For new recruits, one early lesson is about the company’s core values, which start with “always caring” about quality of work and contact with customers. Other values focus on continuous leaning, good communication, and the need to express ideas and opinions.
“Speaking frankly is critical for us,” Threlkeld says. “It has becomes an ingrained part of our culture and a fantastic way to resolve problems. We promote openness so if, for example, you are an up-and-coming site supervisor, you are expected to speak up and share ideas.”
In other respects, the company sets clear expectations and benchmark criteria for responding to customer concerns. And there is a lot of formal planning around mentoring programmes and teaching the compliance, safety, interpersonal and technical skills required for future success.
“We identify all the skill groups in the business and establish personalised training programmes for all our staff,” Threlkeld says. “The construction industry is going through a revolutionary change where technology will play a bigger role, so we have to be ready. And, in terms of the services we deliver, it is important to look at sector diversity and make sure we have the right capabilities as a business.”
For example, he notes, the in-house design team is now learning to use virtual reality 3D rendering. New office tools are being rolled out to replace the traditional forms of document control. And the latest on-site technology and collaboration platforms such as O365 are being adopted to enhance teamwork, efficiency and overall productivity.
Since many of the firm’s live construction projects take place in shopping malls, hotels or clubs which are still occupied, there is a special focus on teaching the soft skills needed to interact with members of the public and minimise negative feedback.
“We are constantly looking to increase the pool of TCPs [technically competent people] who can sign off on projects,” he says. “In general, we explain that the better their personal skills, the better the chance of moving on to bigger projects.”
Besides that, the company is actively looking to recruit young talent through student programmes and, not surprisingly, through staff referrals, a strategy which has so far proved hugely successful.
“It is a good way to engage like-minded people who understand values like always caring and dream smart,” Threlkeld says, “We want to create an environment with an unbeatable employment experience, which allows each person to become a champion in what they want to do.”
For the business, the next step is to take on a large new building project, overseeing all aspects through to final completion.
“We see that as part of our natural growth. The strategy is to increase the scale and complexity of projects we win and build, so our staff get broader exposure and a stronger skill set.”