UNITED KINGDOM: Mud, muck and machines: the stratospheric growth of a Midlands-based construction company
by Jim Gibbons
The poet Hilaire Belloc once described the English Midlands as “sodden and unkind” and certainly nothing at Birch Coppice, near Tamworth, would have caused him to change his mind. On a massive construction site designated mainly for new commercial distribution centres, the Collins Earthworks team is busy treating waterlogged clay with lime to dry it out so that the construction machinery can operate. Even with a fleet of Volvo machines, the very wet winter has caused problems.
“Yes, it’s been terrible, but we’re getting there,” says Dave Collins, Managing Director of Collins Earthworks.
Collins’ team is preparing the ground for two massive distribution centres on a former green-field site at Dordon, a one-time coal-mining village some 30km east of Birmingham. On one side of the site, two Volvo crawler excavators, an EC220D and an EC300EL, are breaking up massive boulders that will be crushed into small rocks for hardcore and mixed into the clay to help stabilize the ground for building.
It’s not an easy task, Collins admits. “We’ve got lads processing the rock, crushing, breaking, riddling the muck out of it and making it a suitable fill while on the other side of the site we’ve got cohesive material being loaded into dump trucks and carried down to place in fill areas, ready for the building footprint to be completed.”
Collins Earthworks started out in the early 1990s but began its rapid expansion in the new millennium. Dave Collins, who started in the construction business as an operator, bought his first Volvo machine in 2004. Since then, his fleet has soared to more than 60 and is still growing.
According to Paul King, Volvo CE’s Area Business Manager, Collins’ decision to go with Volvo CE followed disappointment with a competing product. “He called us in and said this machine had been a little unreliable, could we help,” King explains. “On the back of that Dave got his first 20-tonne excavator, a Volvo EC210B, which was the first machine I ever sold to him.”
King visited the Dordon construction site, along with Volvo’s Regional Business Manager for Region East, Ryan Hollebone, to mark the purchase of Collins’ 50th Volvo machine, a milestone he passed in late 2015. They presented him with a scale model of a modern Volvo crawler excavator in a bottle, complete with customer signage and miniature operators.
However, it is clear from the ongoing growth of the company that Collins will soon be buying more full-sized machines. “We’re up to £30 million [€38m/US$43m] a year now, with a very good client base,” he explains.
What’s more, future prospects are bright. “We’re currently running about 200 people between the companies. There’s a liming company, transport, training and the earth-moving side. I like to think we’re successful. We’re good at what we do. We have a good reputation.”
Collins Earthworks is based near Nottingham, but the company is engaged in construction projects all over the United Kingdom. And wherever Collins Earthworks goes, its fleet of Volvo machines goes with it. “We teamed up with Volvo and it’s 100% Volvo on the excavators and the dump trucks, and it works,” says Collins.
At the Dordon site, Collins Earthworks is constructing two distribution centres, one of 70,000m2, another of 40,000m2, plus an access road for the buses that will provide transport for the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people who will work in the facilities when they are completed.
On another part of the site, two crawler excavators are loading a line of massive articulated haulers as another area is levelled, ready for building. As each hauler is filled and driven away, the next one takes its place. An EC480E is joined by the EC700C and there is also an EC700B to load massive buckets of earth into an A25F and several A30G articulated haulers.
King points out that Volvo’s manufacture of articulated haulers has reached a milestone. “We’re actually celebrating 50 years this year since the first articulated dump truck, known as Gravel Charlie, was produced by Volvo.” The original is now in the Volvo museum in Eskilstuna, Sweden (see Spirit issue 58), but these mighty new machines represent a massive step forward.
Of course, Volvo’s construction machinery has to keep evolving to meet changing needs and regulations. From 2020, the engines powering non-road machinery will have to meet the European Union’s Tier 5 emission standards as the momentum for ever-cleaner engines gathers pace. For Volvo, the answer is continuous ongoing research and development, wherever the technology leads.
“There’s talk of hybrids, hydrogen cells and everything else”, says Hollebone. “The future is a little unknown, but Volvo CE is very well known for being at the forefront of technology. One of our core values is environmental care, so anything that comes along technology-wise that points towards lower emissions is very much a must for us and we’re proud to usually be the first to release it on the market.”
One of the stars in the Collins Earthworks team is Phil Port who has been an operator for 12 years. He can handle any of the machines but confesses to a preference for excavators, claiming they are “easy” to drive. He has been a finalist three times in the UK heats for the Operators’ Club trials for construction machine operators, winning twice and also representing the UK in the European finals, which he hopes to win himself one day. “Basically, the competitions are just challenges. It’s all about your skill level. They usually get you to drive around the course and pick balls off posts and put them on other posts.”
All in a day’s work for Port. And you might think that he would have had enough of mud by the time he gets home, but his main hobby suggests otherwise. “I do a bit of mountain biking”, he says, “although with the construction industry so busy at the moment I have been spending a lot of time at work.”
That is why a comfortable work environment is important, and Volvo CE prides itself on the comfort of its cabs, where operators may spend up to eight hours a day. King says comfort is of key concern for operators. “It’s a place where you want to feel comfortable and safe – all-round visibility and low noise levels are a big thing. The cab of a Volvo machine is second to none so at the end of the day the operators feel comfortable, safe and happy – and a happy employee is a good employee.”
That is a view Port supports. “Volvo does seem to have got it right with what they produce and make. They’re very good, efficient and comfy machines.” Collins agrees. As a former operator, he knows how important safety and comfort are, although they are but a few of his reasons for sticking with Volvo CE. “We like the people we’re dealing with and we like the product. The operators like the product. Resale values, purchase price – everything works. It’s a nice easy one-stop shop for excavators, so we’ve always stuck with them.”