When small companies go to big school

Even the biggest enterprise can help small companies. An initiative in the construction industry has got most of the major players collaborating to educate the industry’s supply chain.

Sustainability is of massive importance to the construction industry. Yet the major contractors can’t achieve it all by themselves. It is through the supply chain that they deliver their projects – and the sustainable solutions they promote to their customers.

Skanska, which relies on some 5,000 companies to deliver much of its project output, set out in its five-year business plan the ambition to become the greenest and most ethical contractor. “We recognised that to achieve our ambition, we needed a supply chain equipped with the sustainability knowledge and competence to support us,” says Skanska’s sustainable procurement manager Nick Baker.

While a major contractor may spend a good deal of time with its principal suppliers, the real challenge is integrating and aligning thousands of smaller suppliers.

Equipping and educating a shoal of small and medium-sized suppliers with practical, accessible advice is not straightforward. The notoriously competitive construction industry has not enjoyed a reputation for sharing information. In the past, what tended to happen was that each major contractor asked its suppliers – many of whom were supplying several of its rivals – to demonstrate a range of different standards or competencies. Result: confusion.

Collaboration from the start

This time, it’s been different. From the off, the Supply Chain Sustainability School has been a collaborative venture.

“Sustainability is one area around which the industry can collaborate,” explains Baker. “Contractors and our clients all want to achieve similar outcomes.”

The concept of the School was initially developed by Skanska and was launched in partnership with Willmott Dixon, Kier, Sir Robert MacAlpine, Lend Lease, Morgan Sindall and Aggregate Industries. Since then, BAM Construct UK, Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Wates and ISG have also joined. The School has received significant funding from the Construction Industry Training Board because of the cross-industry support.

The Supply Chain Sustainability School is a virtual learning environment that allows companies in the construction industry to develop their knowledge and competencies in sustainability. E-learning modules, webinars, interviews, workshops, tools and best practice case studies are all available for companies to self-assess their current knowledge, develop an action plan and access free training and support.

Singing off the same hymn sheet

To support the launch, a series of events have been held around the country, at which supply chain companies saw all the major contractors represented. “Seeing all these direct competitors singing off the same hymn sheet really inspired confidence in the programme,” says James Riley of Protec International, a Cheshire-based provider of temporary protection materials for the construction industry.

Protec was an early member of the School. “We knew little about sustainability,” he says. “Like many companies, we had the misconception that it was just about the environment – and that was what our customers thought, too.”

With the active support of his CEO, Riley and his colleague Edit Fillingham worked through their first e-learning module on sustainable procurement – and ever since Protec has been on a meteoric learning curve.

Knowledge within the company has spread: quarterly sustainability workshops have been established, with representation at board level. A new sustainability policy has been developed and Protec’s supply chain questionnaire has been revised to incorporate sustainability standards.

“There has been a real return on the investment of our time,” says Riley. “Our engagement with the School is helping us to build our relationships and enhance our reputation with major contractors.

“We are able to stay on top of changes in legislation,” he adds – and that’s something that can be a real challenge for small or medium-sized businesses.

“We have gained commercial advantage,” adds Protec’s Edit Fillingham. “We are able to listen better and understand our customers’ sustainability requirements. Sustainability will continue to influence commercial decisions in the future. In this industry, it is easy to stick with old habits. We are moving forward and can provide our customers with progressive answers.”

Intriguingly, it has opened the company’s eyes to its existing product range and new product development. “Many of our products were fully recyclable but we weren’t communicating that to our customers,” notes Riley.

Three important principles

There are three principles that Skanska’s Nick Baker believes are central to the success of the Supply Chain Sustainability School.

  • First, it is free.
  • Second, it is voluntary. There is no mandate from any major contractor that their supply chain companies must register.
  • Third, it is confidential, so companies can be honest about recording their current competencies and knowledge (or lack of them) without fear of this information affecting their status with a contractor’s procurement department.

“It’s quite rare to have a dialogue with a supply chain company in a non-contractual environment and to hear about the positive impact that this is making upon their business,” says Baker. “That has been rewarding.”

The quality and enthusiasm of the School impresses Protec’s Riley. “There’s always someone available,” he says, “and the information is always being updated. So you are always learning.”  Furthermore, the collaborative basis of the School is helping to standardise the messages, skills and competences that SMEs need in the field of sustainability. It provides a single, consistent framework.

“I’m not aware of any other initiative like this,” says Skanska’s Baker. “It is pretty unique.” The initial plan was for 800 companies to join in the first year; to date, over 3,800 members from more than 1,850 companies have joined. More than half of the member organisations employ less than 250 people.

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