For Torran Construction, the past 15 years have seen the business grow to dominate the agricultural groundworks sector almost to the exclusion of any other players. Most new building features in this magazine seem to include the line: “with groundworks by Torran Construction”.
Founder John Rodgers isn’t complaining, but he is beginning to feel a bit like an actor who dropped into a successful role early in his career and is now struggling to be cast as anything else.
“We have the skills, experience, men and machinery to deliver the complete project as a main contractor, and we have been doing that very successfully for more than the past decade, but we still tend to be known for our groundworks,” he said.
“That’s not a bad thing, as getting the groundworks right is absolutely fundamental to ensuring the success of the project as a whole, but we are determined to remake a name for ourselves as one of the South East’s top main contractors for agricultural and commercial buildings. One that is also fantastic at groundworks.” It’s an ambition that shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve. Since 2011, Torran Construction has acted as main contractor on projects including anaerobic digestion plants at Ebbsfleet and St Nicholas at Wade, a pallet distribution warehouse on Eurolink at Sittingbourne, a new rotary dairy at Ringwould, commercial greenhouses for Thanet Earth at Birchington, a new leisure park at Monkton and new offices and other buildings for Frontier at GH Grain, Wingham.
It also played a major part in this year’s 4,500 sq m expansion of top fruit grower A C Hulme & Sons’ packing and distribution operation at Ash, just outside Dover, where the floor slab was “one of the most complex we have ever been involved with”.
The business, which is based at Preston, near Canterbury, and is about to move into new offices on the site it owns, began in 2004 and quickly picked up a reputation for quality groundworks, working on a number of large, mainly commercial sites.
It was the recession that prompted the shift into agricultural work, which up until then had accounted for only around 20% of Torran Construction’s turnover. “We were doing some multi-million contracts for some big players, but in 2008/09 that came to an end,” John explained.
The global financial crash had a limited impact on agriculture, though, and Torran Construction found new opportunities in that area, boosted by the rural contacts of partner Jim Pace, who is still actively involved with the business.
“We quickly found a bit of niche in agriculture and we were fortunate enough to become the favoured groundworks contractor of a couple of the larger steel-framed buildings suppliers,” John recalled.
“One of the advantages we had was that our commercial background working for some big names meant we were working to a standard that was perhaps higher than tended to be the norm in the sector, where ‘agricultural’ sometimes meant the finish could be less than perfect.
“We treated agricultural groundworks with the same attention to detail as we had been giving to projects for household name main contractors in the commercial world, and clients were quick to notice the difference. That helped us to cement a reputation that has lasted to this day.”
Clients noticed the difference. “We started providing industrial-standard, powerfloated concrete floors in our farm buildings,” said John. “It doesn’t cost any more, but the improvement in quality was immediately noticeable and helped build our reputation.”
Impressed with the quality of Torran Construction’s workmanship, clients across Kent and Sussex soon began asking John and his team if they could manage other stages in the process, and the company quickly expanded its skillset to offer a full main contracting option.
“It isn’t a major challenge to complete a building once you have done the critically important bit and provided decent foundations,” John explained. “Clearing, levelling and setting out the site and providing the right foundations is the crucial part of any project, whether that’s a grain store, a machinery shed or a cold store.
“Once it’s out of the ground it’s pretty straightforward to bolt the rest of it in place and finish the job, bringing in the right teams to fix the panels, add the cladding, provide the refrigeration and wire up the electrics etc.
“It’s actually a lot easier for us if we can co-ordinate the other trades and make sure everything happens at the right time and in the right order. That’s why we are now actively looking for new projects that we can manage – from the planning and design phase through to the handover.”
At Ash, the site of Tom Hulme’s latest expansion, Torran Construction was retained as the groundworks contractor and helped to deliver an impressive building within a number of challenging constraints.
Tom was determined that as many of the services as possible should be hidden, which meant that the powerfloated floor was provided over a complex network of ducts, pipe runs and cable outlets. “The aim was that when he brought in the grading and packing equipment, all the services were sitting there, ready to be connected up,” John recalled.
“It was a remarkably complex bit of work, not helped by varying site levels, but it went smoothly, and Tom was delighted.” John stressed that in this case, as in all others, close liaison with the client was essential. “In the old days you would just pick up a plan and follow it,” he said. “That’s changed. These days you have to be alert to the client spotting new opportunities and wanting to tweak things.”
Torran Construction has also ventured into property development and has built homes in Margate and in Acol, where it also worked on a pub conversion, as well as in Wingham, Canterbury, where it also built a shop unit, and Preston, where the company built a new bistro and kitchen.
“What we have also gained is a lot of knowledge and experience in converting farm buildings, either into commercial space or accommodation. Given how busy farmers are with the ‘day job’, asking us to advise on the opportunity and then project manage the whole scheme once agreed is an option they may want to consider,” John said.
While delivering more turnkey projects as the main contractor is high on John’s agenda, he stressed that Torran Construction was still keen to build its reputation as the ‘go-to’ groundworks supplier for steel building installers and others. “We’ve worked hard to get here and we’re keen to maintain that reputation – but we would like people to know that we are capable of taking on the whole project,” he stressed.
“By the time it comes to erecting the building itself and making it fit for purpose, we have already done the hard work so there really is no restriction on the kinds of project we are able to take on,” said John. “The one thing we can guarantee is that it will be built to the highest quality.”
The company’s strong connections with all the main players in the agricultural construction world – and the strength of its reputation – mean that Torran Construction is able to bring together the right team for any project and negotiate good deals from suppliers.
To ensure reliability and reduce downtime, the company operates its own core plant, bringing in additional hire vehicles only when necessary and investing regularly to make sure its plant and machinery are reliable.
The vineyard sector has also proved an important area for Torran Construction, with Biddenden, Gusbourne, Bookers and Albourne vineyards numbered amongst John’s clients.
As he looks to relaunch Torran Construction on a different stage, John will be hoping that his business resembles Sir David Jason. “He’s one of the country’s favourite actors but has always managed to avoid being typecast; he’s just great at every part he plays,” he laughed.