Wayne Johnston Group Managing Director of WJ reflects on the changing fortunes of the road marking industry, the hard yards gained and the challenges ahead.
Our transportation network is undoubtedly the lifeblood of our social and economic success, and our effective roads infrastructure is vital in creating continued growth and sharing prosperity around the whole of the UK. The Strategic Road Network alone carries one billion tons of freight a year, and four million people a day, with local roads supporting our social infrastructure by providing access to goods and services that keep the economy thriving.
Yet despite the fundamental importance of our roads, we have witnessed decades of underinvestment, including on our county roads, resulting in the backlog of road maintenance that we face today. As I see it, this has been the result of juggling budgets to achieve short term saving at the expense of the long term efficiency gains delivered by a well maintained road network.
However, it seems that this is about to change. The recent government announcement of an ambitious £15 billion plan represents the biggest investment in our major roads since the 1970’s, and this, together with significant investment in our local roads should bring great relief to the highways sector.
Clients are rising to this challenge, with the Highways Agency creating its NewCo together with a major transformation programme, and many local highway authorities similarly embracing transformation strategies in order to manage an increase in capital expenditure and further pressure on maintenance budgets.
The road marking industry has really struggled through the last few years with investment in people and plant being minimal which is unsurprising given the recent economic climate. I firmly believe there is now an obligation on the supply chain to support our clients in meeting this significant challenge going forward – how can we scale up our resources to effectively and efficiently deliver this planned increased programme of work?
Here at WJ we have recognised this obligation and started to do something about it;
• WJ are now consolidating the business with a new brand and we thought it was the right time to raise the industry bar further and encourage new thinking too. Effective from 1st February 2015 as the UK’s leading specialist road marking group we have now integrated all our regional businesses together under the one single brand of WJ. The renamed group companies will be WJ North Limited operating from Stoke and Elland, WJ South Limited operating from Milton Keynes and London, WJ South West Limited operating from Taunton and WJ Products Limited also located in Milton Keynes.
• We have had the foresight to continue to invest heavily in new plant, equipment and training over recent times, even through the tough periods of austerity – we have spent over £10.5 million on Capex in the last 3 years with a further £3.5 million committed this year as we focus on our means to keep up with client demand.
• As a part of our strategy we have added WJ Engineering to our portfolio with a new facility in Stoke manufacturing the ancillary equipment required for our specialised road marking vehicle plant in Elland. This allows us to embed innovation, efficiency and safety into all our production and delivery processes, which are then further enhanced by the real time feedback of our contracting operation.
• Recognising that increased volumes of work demand more resources and greater efficiency, the safety of our workforce is fundamental to sustainable delivery. We have recently upgraded our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including innovative dual technology, combining retro-reflectivity and photo luminescence. Retro Reflective tape returns light to its source whilst photo luminescence crystals absorb UV energy that is emitted as a light source in low light or zero light conditions. This innovation delivers a unique extra layer of visibility to a Hi Visibility garment, giving the wearer 3 levels of protection – Fluorescence, Reflectivity and Phosphorescence.
• We have embraced the collaborative behaviours that our industry is rightly demanding from us by seeking common goals and joint working practices with both our clients and peer organisations. We have found tremendous benefit in this approach but acknowledge that we are only scratching the surface and there is a great deal further to go.
Notwithstanding all of this effort, here at WJ we have always been a company where ‘good enough, isn’t good enough’ and now we have challenged ourselves to ‘think exceptional’ in everything we do. Adopting this approach has led us to the conclusion that despite the efforts we have put into gearing for this substantial change, there is still much more to do.
There is undoubtedly a skills and machinery shortage which may well hamper delivery in the short term. Moving from a ‘do minimum’ model into the new era set out by the Highways Agency in their Strategic Business Plan isn’t instant. However this is a wonderful opportunity to safely and sustainably deliver economic growth and prosperity through a modern network, and train a new generation of young people to balance our industries ageing demographic.
Innovation is another key part of economic growth, and this is often achieved through the use of new technologies. These technologies require sound platforms from which to develop, such as a computer operating system that allows any member of the public to report road defects as they come across them. Also, if driverless car technology is to succeed a sound road surface and high performance markings will be vitally important. The demonstrations organised by the Road Safety Markings Association (RSMA) and Thatcham at last year’s Seeing is Believing (SIB) Exhibition at Bruntingthorpe demonstrated that we need to achieve a step change in our road surface maintenance and safety marking standards to allow these technologies to progress.
One thing is for sure, and that is the whole industry is interdependent and obligated to improve its safety and efficiency by collaborating even more. We need to share knowledge, resources, costs and opportunities in order to develop sustainably; if we continue to do the same things and expect the industry to change, we may be waiting a long time for the required improvement.
Our people are our strength, and looking forward WJ now is feeling stronger, more efficient and even more capable of providing consistently high standards on a national basis whilst ensuring delivery of unrivalled local service from strategically located depots.
Under our new consolidated banner we are focussing all our hard work, investment and distinct culture, aspiring to provide our clients with the WJ core values: Deliver, Safe, Innovate and Collaborate.
This is a very exciting time for the whole industry, with the investment we have all been calling for now at last arriving, which will allow us to improve safety, capacity and condition of the UK road network.
Who knows, as an eternal optimist, if we get this right we might see even more long term investment so we are better placed to maintain our existing infrastructure as well as build in new capacity to support the Governments agenda for economic growth.
With the capital being made available to us…. we have no excuses!