Stories of Growth

Brian McConnell, Hydrock: “Find a reason to be happy every day”

As part of our Stories of Growth series, we hear from the founder of a growing Bristol-based engineering design consultancy.

15 October 2021

In 2018, BGF invested in Bristol-based engineering design consultancy Hydrock, to support and enhance its strategic growth plans. In 2019, we also provided follow-on funding to help finance its acquisition of Yorkshire-based MRB Consulting Engineers. Hear from the company’s founder, Brian McConnell, below.

Brian McConnell playing volleyball with Hydrock team members

My father died when I was 16. He had a joinery and builders’ merchant, where I used to work in summer holidays to earn money. My mother and I discussed selling the business but I said, “No, let’s run it.” She did the bookkeeping, and I ran it in the evenings and weekends while doing my A-levels. When I went to university, my brother ran it for a number of years. It’s now run by someone else, but it’s still going.

One lesson I didn’t know at the time is that your brand – what your customers think of you – is everything. What people say about you when you’re not in the room is as important for a small business as for a large one. It was a small business, just a few people, but it had a good reputation. It influenced the company I run today, Hydrock.

I saw the world

I’m a geologist by background. I did a degree and then a PhD in geology at Bristol. After that, I worked as a consultant on projects around the globe, from Australia to the Far East to Libya and Syria. I saw the world and it was great.

I became self-employed in 1989 and set up Hydrock in 1995. I knew I could win and deliver work – I was technical in those days – but even then, people were becoming more technically astute than me, so I was able to bring them on board and focus more on managing and growing the company.

We are multi-disciplinary engineering firm. We work in engineering, sustainability and energy. We investigate the ground, design remediation, carry out design solutions for difficult ground and then we design the buildings. We aren’t architects but we do the civil and structural engineering, all the building services, all the flood risk, transport planning, fire risk management. We make buildings work and make them efficient and environmentally-friendly.

Our projects vary in size. The residential projects are generally a site of several hundred houses. Commercial might be a logistics and distribution park with five big warehouses on it. Our biggest project is the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

Life is about being happy

I came to Bristol for an interview with my best mate in April 1981. We thought it was a lovely place with a good geology department, and then we both got offered places there. When I was doing my PhD, I started doing consultancy abroad, but I always came back to Bristol, and now I live in West Braintree, which is a fantastic place to live.

I travel a lot in my spare time. My kids are growing up and my son has just started a job. My daughter is at university and my younger son is at boarding school. I just spent the summer with them in Mallorca.

My wife passed away two years ago. It’s my job to make do, best I can. Life is about being happy with what you’ve got – I always knew that, but losing my wife made me aware of our mortality. We have to live for the day. We have to wake up in the morning and be happy. Find a reason every day to be happy.

Navigating the pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic happened, it scared the bejesus out of us. For about a week, people stopped paying us. Everyone was suffering at that time. Then we put a COVID steering group together – from HR, finance, IT, every department. We met every week and made a plan and ended up having our best year ever.

Our current roadmap looks to 2024. We are looking for a £65 million turnover by then and 700 or more staff. We want to be a force for good. Without sounding too grand, as engineers we can make a difference on many of the world’s biggest challenges: with climate change, housing, education, healthcare, flood risk – all the things that make a difference to people’s lives.

I learn so much from my kids

My advice to other founders is to talk to people who have been there. All the mistakes you’re about to make have been made thousands of times before, so talk to people, so you can avoid making them.

It’s important to learn from those who are older and also the younger generation. I learn so much from my kids, who are a lot more emotionally intelligent than I was at their age, which is a good skill. Having good non-execs really helps, and so does advice from people like BGF, who have a good network of C-suite people.

“All the mistakes you’re about to make have been made thousands of times before”

BGF helped bring two amazing people onto the board. Catriona Tully came in as a non-executive director and she did such a good job that she’s now chief commercial officer in charge of driving the growth of the business. We’re especially pleased because engineering is very male-dominated industry and we wanted to get more women into the workforce, including at the top of the business.

They also helped us find our chair, Ronnie McCombe, who’s doing a great job for us. BGF are very supportive. They also helped us to fund an acquisition.

Most of our growth now will be organic, but every now and then a small strategic acquisition is good. We have done five since we started – usually teams of less than 20, which gives us a good foot in the door in certain markets and doesn’t dilute our culture too much. We can integrate a company that size into the business quite easily.

If you do well, it’s because of you

My son Jamie has recently started in the business. I don’t have a plan for him to take over.  I’ve always been of the view that kids should make their own way, they shouldn’t be gifted anything; but, he’s a mechanical engineer, he’s just graduated from Leeds, and he wants to do what we do, so we had a chat and I said “You can start in the business, but I won’t help you. If you do well, it’s because of you.”

There will come a point when I have to step out of the business. At some point, I’ll have to hand over the reins. I don’t have any plans for a family-run business in future, but you never know what the future brings.

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