Living memories — past presidents look back

past presidents
From left... Peter How (1975/76) battled long and hard with main contractors over their exploitation through unauthorised retentions and pay-when-paid clauses.<P> Harry Miller (1989/90) was very sorry to see the statutory training levy go when the link with the Construction Industry Training Board was cut.<P> Derek Hyam (1976/77) was sad to see nomination fade away, but heartened that teamworking is now coming through strongly.<P> The lead up to Norman Ludlow’s presidency (1973/74) saw the development of national specifications for ductwork manufacturing.<P> Chris Sneath (1990/91 and 1996/97) watched in horror as main contractors went into liquidation during the recession of the 1990s, taking many small and specialist contractors with them.
The Heating & Ventilating Contractors’ Association has seen its fair share of triumph and adversity in its first 100 years. Modern Building Services sought out some presidents who played key roles in a century of contracting to see if the lessons of the past could inform the future.Four key issues led to the foundation of the HVCA in 1904, when it was known as the National Association of Master Heating & Domestic Engineers (NAMHDE). A demarcation dispute with the plumbers was the most pressing issue. It had been bubbling since the late 1890s and came to a head over work at a Leicester hospital that saw the plumbers go out on strike. Heating firms, most of whom were manufacturers then, threatened to raise a petition against the Government to protect their contractual rights. Demarcation is no longer an issue, but a number of threads run through the history of the association and remain today. On public contracts in 1904, you would receive only 50% of the amount owed at the end of the contract, 30% a year later and the balance once it had been established that your work remained in good order and had been well maintained. Those were tough terms and echo down the years to today’s retentions campaign. A shortage of suitably skilled people has also been a perennial problem, as former HVCA president Harry Miller (1989/1990) recalls: ‘I was very sorry to see the statutory training levy go [when the link with the Construction Industry Training Board was cut]. It was a disaster for the industry. I’m sure the companies who did not do any training were delighted — they just waited for everyone else to train people and then pinched them. I would love to see the levy brought back, but it won’t happen if it is voluntary — it would have to be imposed.’ Mr Miller recalls the boom and bust cycles and that it was very hard to make a profit. He feels things have improved because the market is less volatile, but warns against complacency. Special-interest groups are the lifeblood of any association and many technical developments and standards owe their existence to single-issue committees. The lead up to Norman Ludlow’s presidency (1973/74) saw the development of national specifications for ductwork manufacturing and installation. He had gathered examples from around the world, which he described in the main as ‘pretty awful’, but the association collaborated with the Institution of Heating & Ventilating Engineers (IHVE) to produce a national technical specification for the UK in the late 1960s. Mr Ludlow chaired a drafting panel, but refused to accept a steering committee as that would have delayed the process. Panel members were drawn from all over the industry ‘to ensure acceptance by all — an intention, which was clearly achieved as the specification is now used as far away as China’, he explains. The Northern Ireland region was formed — Mr Ludlow’s firm had a factory there — and the Penrith office came about because of the decision not to run the ‘stamp and card’ holiday and welfare scheme with the union. During these years, firm links were formed with the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, following the efforts of Peter How, (1975/76) that endure today. Government action The association has spearheaded a number of political campaigns over the years to try and create the right commercial climate for members. Today it enjoys cordial relations with a number of Government ministers and departments. However, Derek Hyam (1976/77) thinks the Government of his day could and should have done a lot more. ‘Their actions were extremely unhelpful at a time when there were very crudely applied controls on wage rises. The electricians enjoyed pay levels we could not match, and this created great embarrassment for employers in our sector,’ he remembers. ‘We had a real battle on our hands with the unions — a certain Frank Chapple was causing a stir, and we were under terrific pressure from the ETU (Electrical Trade Union). We resisted automatic annual rises for workers because we wanted to retain an element of control so we could reward people on merit.’ Eventually, the employers had to accept a grading system, but introduced criteria so that progression from grade to grade was not automatic. ‘In the end, we managed to minimise the impact of union-led escalation by keeping young managers outside of the grading system. The firms were concerned that spiralling wages would damage their efforts to remain efficient, but Mr Hyam points out that the industry did not face competition from Europe in those days. A greater concern was protecting members’ status as nominated sub-contractors, but that proved to be a fruitless battle. ‘It was sad to see nomination fade away, but I am heartened that teamworking is now coming through strongly and it should replace some of those benefits,’ says Mr Hyam. ‘The chaos created by non-nominated domestic contracts left main contractors in too powerful a position to dictate terms and payment. I am glad to see some of that power being taken away from them today.’ Mr How also battled long and hard with main contractors over their exploitation through unauthorised retentions and pay-when-paid clauses. ‘I suspect this is a recurring theme,’ he adds. Like Mr Hyam, he lamented the loss of nominated status for sub-contractors, which he felt left them vulnerable to the bullying of main contractors. Domino effect By the 1990s, this situation had reached its worst point and Chris Sneath (1990/91 and 1996/97), watched in horror as main contractors went into liquidation during the recession, taking many small specialist contractors with them in a horrifying ‘domino effect’. ‘Onerous conditions, late payment, low profitability and lack of productivity were all problems at that time, and the abuse of tendering procedures, in particular Dutch auctions, made life very difficult. However, we have to bear in mind that the recession simply meant having to do without things our grandparents had never even heard of,’ he says. ‘Or, put another way, the people who had no intention of paying you stopped giving you orders.’ The upside of the recession meant that members had to find whole new types of work — expanding into areas such as energy audits, refurbishment, energy efficiency, advancement of IT, new Food Hygiene Regulations and so on. ‘Service and maintenance was a major growth area, and membership of our S&M group grew to 423 companies in 10 years,’ says Mr Sneath. ‘Site safety was also targeted at that time,’ says Mr Sneath. ‘There was an increase in fines to toughen up the response. COSHH assessment regulations came in. It was a very tough time.’ Today, things seem far more stable and the political climate more positive. The battle to abolish retentions continues to frustrate. The association’s first annual conference was in 1976. This year’s in Harrogate (9 to 13 June) will mark the centenary by taking a trip in H. G. Wells’s time machine back to 1904, through the lessons of the century and forward into the future. For details call conference co-ordination on 01423 720900 or visit the web site.
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