Britain’s cities are getting taller. Over the last 15 years the City of London has amassed a growing collection of colourfully nicknamed skyscrapers and the likes of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds have built themselves skylines that a mid-sized American city would be proud of. There are 100 new skyscrapers planned for the capital alone.
That provides rich pickings for Niel Bethell, whose company High Access has apparently become the go-to when big towers need a pane of glass fixing or a panel replaced. Working in his old job for facilities management firm, Bethell spotted a gap in the market when his company needed to repair a sign high up on a building.
‘It was going to cost a fortune to scaffold this building to repair the signage,’ he tells MT. ‘So I teamed up with an ex-climbing instructor from the army and we put the two skills together.’ The company uses a mixture of access platforms on the back of trucks and workers suspended from abseiling ropes to maintain guttering, roofs and lights and clean tall buildings.
‘People want to save money on access and they don’t want to put big platforms up for small repairs,’ says Bethell. ‘If you’ve got a smashed pain of glass 14 stories up your building, we’re the guys who are going to come and repair it.’
The company is on an upwards trajectory now, with a £6m turnover expected for this year and likes of Savills, Jones Lang LaSalle and Allied London on its client list. But getting off the ground didn’t happen without a hitch. Access platforms don’t come cheap so the company had to raise money to buy them. ‘We’ve found it hard over the years and we’ve made mistakes along the way with the wrong type of investor,’ says Bethell. ‘There’s a lot of investors who can take advantage of young entrepreneurs.’
He’s a lot happier with his backers now having just bagged £3.3m from the Business Growth Fund, an independent fund backed by five of the UK’s largest banks. High Access is using the cash to beef up its executive team with a new FD, HR director and health and safety manager, is planning to open a new depot in Birmingham (in addition to existing ones in Slough and Manchester) and is planning to hire 50 staff over the next two years.
Recruitment has been a challenge. ‘It’s nice now because we’ve got to the stage where people want to come and work for us so we’re getting a higher calibre,’ says Bethell. ‘But in London we’re finding it hard, we’re really struggling. Everybody is in work so you’ve got to be a bit different and pay better.’
It helps that High Access pays all its staff the Living Wage or higher. ‘It just fit with the type of company we are. We’re not into working late, we all want to be out the door at five o’clock and we promote that. This can be quite a draconian industry and we’re doing things differently. We want to create a place where people want to work and we believe they should be paid fairly.’
With everybody in the technology industry getting excited about automation, does he think his workers could soon be replaced by robots? ‘No,’ he laughs. 'Definitely not. Especially because we're into heritage in the UK - the very old buildings where you can’t fit robots onto the top.’
And what advice would Bethel give to aspiring entrepreneurs following in his footsteps? ‘Think big. I’ve always taken risks along the way, bought machines when I shouldn’t have bought machines. My gut feeling said we’re gonna go with this because I think we can make it work.
‘Even today, I‘ve just gone into a whole new realm with the company and it’s like playing a computer game, it’s like Sonic the Hedgehog and somebody just opened a new floor full of rings. I think we can make this a £50m turnover business.’