In the first part of a series visiting small businesses in the West Midlands, John Cranage speaks to an entrepreneur in the health and safety sector.
Health and safety regulations can be seen as a dead weight around the neck of free enterprise to some, but are an everyday part of business to most companies.
And as Kevin Edwards points out, it is important to distinguish between the criminal and civil elements of the law when debating the pros and cons of health and safety.
Between claims-chasing solicitors on the one hand and a proper concern for the safety and wellbeing of employees that can in some cases actually improve a company’s bottom line on the other.
Mr Edwards is managing director of Libben Health and Safety, a Walsall-based consultancy he formed in November last year after a 15-year career as an H&S professional with organisations such as South Staffs Water, Birmingham City Council and gas industry companies.
With that experience behind him, he took the plunge into running his own business after spotting a gap in the market.
“I felt that there was a need for a local health and safety consultancy in the Walsall area predominantly, as well as the greater Midlands,” he said.
“It seemed as though the market was saturated by national consultancies that were not really catering to the needs of small businesses or even large companies.”
The fees charged by the national operators can be “quite extortionate” and out of proportion to the size and turnover of the companies they serve.
Health and safety, however, is not a bolt-on option. Any company with five or more employees is required by law, among other things, to have a H&S policy in place, record and communicate risk assessments and to provide suitable training for all employees and managers.
Consultancies cater predominantly to small and medium-sized enterprises that cannot afford to employ a full-time H&S professional.
With a projected turnover of £50,000 in its first year, Libben, however, does not limit its activities to serving other SMEs and start-ups.
“We will deal with any client, whatever the size,” said Mr Edwards. “We help any company of any size. That is the unique selling point of the business.”
“Libben is self-funded. I haven’t had any grants whatsoever, and I have gone from strength to strength.”
He is helped though by the contacts book be built up over the previous 15 years in the sector.
“I have delivered lots of courses in the different roles that I’ve had and I have kept contact with people, and they have approached me.
“I would not say it’s been vastly successful so far, but it’s fine on a daily basis. I am getting steady work.”
That work involves breaking the grip of his nationally-based competitors, who typically lock clients into three-year contracts.
“We are trying to let people know that we are here before they change or review their contracts,” Mr Edwards said.
Libben does not compete primarily on price but on its ability to give a local, personalised service.
“What tends to happen with national companies, and this is not to slate them, is that they tend not to keep the same person with the client. They will change the consultant to suit their needs.
“The difficulty is that service levels drop off at that point. When we take a client on, whoever takes that client on sticks with that client.
“It’s not about price but the needs of the business we are looking after. We won’t charge the earth for a small business with seven employees and a factory against a company that’s got 500 and a factory ten times the size.
“We proportion the price on what service they require.”
Libben casts a wide net when it comes to seeking business, and according to Mr Edwards its clients come from “absolutely any business whatsoever”.
He added: “We have clients who are manufacturers, pet grooming parlours, a vehicle repair workshop, construction companies, roofing companies, double glazing manufacturers, suppliers and installers, and some offices.
“In two years’ time I think we will be employing more people and if the business plan pans out we are looking at running accredited courses for health and safety professionals in our own right.
“I have delivered those course in the past and I want to grow the company so that we can deliver that.”
On the question of whether health and safety has, in the words of the critics, “gone mad”, Mr Edwards says: “I think where people get this point wrong, by ‘health and safety going mad’, they do not understand that there are two types of law – criminal law and civil law.
“Civil law cases are on the increase, especially through no-win-no-fee solicitors advertising throughout the working day when people are off sick from work.
“However, if you do have health and safety systems in place, and make them robust enough, you should be able to defend against a civil claim and, in a round about way, make money by not having to meet compensation claims, suffering down time and poor publicity and so on.
“The difficulty is, and I share the opinion of the Health and Safety Executive on this, is that people are getting the wrong end of the stick on health and safety and using it as a get-out for not doing something. Everyone in life faces an element of risk, whatever they do, whether it’s at work, at home or at play and that should be considered.
“But there’s only so much cotton wool in the world to wrap people in.”
Mr Edwards quoted the case of a manufacturing client that employs seven people at a factory near Walsall town centre and which has been operating since 1972.
“I have worked with the employees to actually improve things in the business and improve consultation between them and their management team.
“I put a policy and a health and safety manual together, and carried out risk assessment for each item of machinery
“The MD had to spend some money on improvements, but the employees felt better about that, about being part of the process, which in turn increased productivity.
“We have yet to see whether they’ve made more money this year but I’m willing to bet that they will.
“I got some really good feedback from the director of the business and the employees now feel better about themselves while they are at work.
“They are making money for the business but are feeling safer at the same time. Morale has improved.
“When I or one of my consultants turn up on site we don’t have the typical scenario that people think of, which is to jump up and down and say ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’.
“What we do is put it in the hands of the directors and work with them to improve things and ensure they are complying with health and safety legislation and utilise our experience to move the business forward rather than being a hindrance.”
Of his own experience as a business owner-manager, Mr Edwards has no regrets about making the transition from paid employment.
“If anything I have found my comfort zone having my own business rather than working for an employer,” he said.
“I can put my ideas into my business rather than try to pass them to people who might not take them forward.
“I don’t think I’ll ever work for anyone again.
“I am in control of my own destiny. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but I’m a bit of a go-getter and I’ll go out to find work.
“The climate we are in at the moment isn’t the best for any business, but if we can make it in a recession and the tables turn, we are on the up.”