UK trades bounce back from Covid, but half are unprofitable, says groundbreaking BigChange report

BigChange's first health check of the UK's field-service sector suggests that most firms are growing due to soaring demand, but that isn't always translating into profits.

Demand for UK trades has boomed in the year since the end of the initial lockdown. We discovered that 72% of the UK's field service businesses are growing – but only one-in-five are growing stronger.

We worked with research company Opinium to compare the health of businesses in the 12 months leading up to July 2020 with the 12 months since then, during which pandemic constraints have eased. The findings are detailed in our State of the Field Service Sectorreport.

Workloads grew by an average of 70% across the UK’s field-service sector. Our research suggests that demand grew fastest in the Plumbing & Heating, Plant Hire and Drainage sectors.

Almost one in five businesses did twice as much work as in the 12 months to July 2020.

Turnovers have soared by 79% across the sector.

But the headline figures mask some significant challenges.

Despite booming workloads, fewer than half of companies (48%) said they were profitable in the year to July 2021. Covid complications, compliance issues and surging costs (particularly for fuel, people and materials) were the factors hitting firms hardest.

Covid-19 is still a drag on the sector, with 81% of businesses saying it had hampered their growth or profitability in the last 12 months. The rising cost of materials, fuel and labour were also problems for more than 70% of respondents.

Debts have increased by 117% among the worst financial performers in the sector, and one-in-eight firms fear they will fail within a year. And this isn't because they aren't winning new business: workloads increased fastest among firms struggling the most right now.

There’s a big difference between growing and growing stronger.

Almost everyone is working harder, but the strong, profitable businesses are succeeding by working smarter to stay in control of their operations, keeping a lid on costs, and making their teams more productive.

They are using technology to improve management oversight, plan better and automate processes. And they are improving communication and response times to make customer experience their competitive advantage.

Nserv, Subscan UDS and Celsius Plumbing and Heating have successfully navigated current challenges and are growing stronger post-pandemic. We spoke to them about our research.

Slick processes and strong finances put booming Nserv on track for further growth

Nserv provides facilities maintenance and construction services across the South East. It grew turnover by 75% and delivered a healthy profit in the year to August 2021.

“Work with our retail and restaurant customers was affected during the initial lockdown, but we came out of that period three times stronger,” said Dean Barber, Nserv’s Managing Director. “We picked up big new contracts in the South East and introduced new technology to help manage jobs and our workforce more effectively."

"Growth has been incredible since then. We've doubled the size of team but talent has still been an issue. Skilled tradespeople are hard to find; we could have grown even faster if there were more of them.”

Midlands expansion helps drainage specialist improve service and cut costs

Leeds-based Subscan UDS, which provides a range of drainage, utility, and surveying services, has seen demand increase by a fifth over the last 12 months and anticipates growth of 20% next year.

"Subscan are growing strongly due to significant contract wins and recruiting at pace,” said Kirk Mason, the company’s Operations Director. “Shortages of skilled staff has been our biggest challenge. We are having to pay more to recruit and retain HGV drivers and Brexit has made it harder to bring in the specialist surveyors from Poland and Lithuania. We’ve got 30 people in that department doing the work of 45.”

Celsius targets £1 million mark after a rebound year for residential plumbing

Celsius Plumbing and Heating works with homeowners, private landlords and property agents across Edinburgh. Although the company took a hit when forced to focus on essential work during the first lockdown, its fortunes have bounced back since.

Celsius increased turnover by 36% as demand rebounded, expanding its team from 12 to 18 by August 2021. It targets similar growth this year.

"Demand for our services went crazy,” said Company Director Michael Cairns. “People were desperate to get work done, and we had a backlog of almost 500 jobs."

"We've now also optimised our operations so we can almost guarantee a same-day response. Clients love that attention to detail, they are recommending us and demand is increasing as a result.”

DownloadBigChange’s State of the Field Service Sector Report today.

Share this post