April 28th, 2021

In Conversation With: John Gray

John Gray spent nine years training with a national contractor and honed his skills with an SME in North London before setting up his own building company in 1977. Since then, he has steered Diamond Build through challenging times and created a multi-million-pound group of construction companies.

With a client list that includes local authorities, housing providers, NHS Foundation Trusts, academies, universities, schools, the Police, Fire Service, and other public-sector bodies, the Group will be moving into a new HQ next year to support further growth and expansion. The accommodation is part of a new £30m development that is currently being built by Diamond Build.

Here, John reveals more about the history of the Diamond Build Group, its recent successes and plans for the future.

How and why was Diamond Build set up?

I was a director of a small, specialist refurbishment firm in Camden involved in both pre and post contract operations. I had worked there for five years and was very ambitious, so I decided that the time was right to try and set up my own building company.

I was already doing part-time freelance estimating and surveying work for other small builders in the evenings and at weekends.  They were working for Hackney Council and I won them so much work that they could not cope.  They needed a helping hand and I saw an opportunity to help them contain their heavy workload by taking the work from them as a subcontractor and carrying it out using my own company.

Peter Diamond was one of my site agents at the Camden firm and after some discussion we set up P. J. Diamond (Building Contractors) Ltd to deal with the workload that my clients could not handle.

After three years, we applied to go on the approved contractor list for Haringey Council and fortunately, were accepted. We set up our first office in a shop premises in Stapleton Hall Road, Stroud Green in Haringey.  Good times followed. We expanded and bought a derelict site in Berkley Road, off Seven Sisters Road in Haringey and built our first offices and yard. After outgrowing that facility, we bought a larger site that was used by a roofing company at 60 – 68 Stamford Road, Tottenham and over a period of 10 years acquired the whole plot that we are on today.

In 2000, I became the owner of all the shares in P. J. Diamond (Building Contractors) Ltd and decided to change the name to Diamond Build. Peter, whose real name was Patrick Joseph (P.J.) by the way, retired to live in Ireland, having hailed from Ballina, Co. Mayo.

How has the business changed in recent years?

We have evolved a lot in recent years, growing from a refurbishment contractor into a group of construction companies offering a vast range of services to public-sector clients across London and the home counties.  The Diamond Build Group PLC comprises Diamond Build PLC, Diamond Special Works Ltd and Diamond Fire Safety Ltd.

We developed Diamond Fire Safety to fill a gap in the marketplace as there is a lack of experienced contractors with the skills to upgrade buildings to be fire compliant.  To do this, we have invested time and money in training people to create a team that knows the subject in depth, both in pre and post-contract areas. The company now has the capacity to carry out a wide range of fire improvements works, whilst being supported by the Diamond Build Group.

Diamond Build has taken on the mantle of a medium-size contractor and we have brought in a new operational team with the expertise to control larger new-build schemes ideally in the £5m to £20m range.

Diamond Special Works undertakes the smaller works below that limit.  We still have a direct labour force to carry out small works and to back up our subcontractors on larger contracts.

All of these companies are supported by the Diamond Build Group, which provides all of the administrative, accountancy, ICT, buying, logistics, marketing, business development, bid writing and office support to enable the companies to concentrate on their operational roles.

The Group also has sister companies – Diamond Education Service, which provides services to local authorities, schools and colleges that run work experience and training programmes and Diamond Facilities Support which is a national maintenance and facilities management contractor based in Birmingham.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced?

We have come through three recessions and of course, have had to contend with the global pandemic over the last 12 months. Economic uncertainty and most recently, managing new ways of working has required us to re-evaluate the way we operate and put measures in place to ensure we remain financially strong and can continue to deliver projects to the highest safety standards.

Building is an industry built on people and the biggest challenge for all building contractors is to attract competent staff. The better qualified people tend to remain with the larger companies. All SMEs struggle with this issue and that is why we have invested heavily in training. We constantly ensure our people keep up to date with the latest trends and legislation, sending them on both external and internal courses.

Every recession affects contractors in the building industry. All clients look at capital expenditure and curtail spending money on that first, which risks leaving contractors to cope with a sudden loss of workload. We have survived because we have always maintained enough funds to see us through difficult periods.

What have been the Group’s biggest highlights?

To enable us to maintain standards, we have invested heavily in training and have just attained the Investors in People gold award, which is quite an accolade.

To complement that, we have upgraded our ISO 18001 (Health & Safety) and 14001 (Environmental) to the new 45001 standard which together with our quality management system ISO 9001 forms our new IMS – Integrated Management System ensuring that everyone who works for us follows the same procedures.

What factors have helped Diamond Build to succeed?

Diversification is the key. We had reached the peak of what we could achieve as a small works / refurbishment contractor. To grow, we had to bring in new people with different skills or to train people – that’s why the makeup of the Group is what you see today.

Why is training so important to the Group?

I will always be grateful for the training I had in my early years with one of London’s largest building contractors at the time, a firm called Trollope and Colls (now Skanska UK). This stood me in really good stead and is one of the reasons why I continue to give school leavers the same opportunity I was given all those years ago.  We have provided traineeships and apprentices for 40 years, a number of our trainees have moved on and are now holding prominent positions in various construction firms in London and the South East.

Diamond Build Group now offers training and opportunities to people at all levels whether that is a trade apprentice, trainee student, or someone who wants to change their career. The time apprentices spend with our company is incredibly valuable and helps bring our teams to life.

I also strongly believe that training and education should not be limited by age or time. We make sure all our employees are given the tools to keep on top of industry changes and to do their jobs to the best of their ability. This approach is one of the reasons why we were awarded an Investors in People gold award.

What are the Group’s plans for the future?

Work is already underway to create our new head office. We are completely transforming our existing site into a new development, which will provide our team with high-quality office space.  Above the office space, we are building 48 new homes for the local community with the whole development designed to maximise energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

The work should be completed by next summer and put us in a strong position to continue to grow our team and the business. I see strong growth opportunities for each of the Group’s companies and am confident we can achieve this through our expanding team. We are recruiting new talent and expertise to complement our teams and lay the foundations for a secure and successful future.

Leave a Reply