5 Minutes With Paul Williamson - Former MD of modular homes specialist, Nu Living, part of Swan Housing Association

Having historically worked with Paul Williamson, Collingwood’s Head of Building Products & Construction, Mark Goldsmith, was pleased to hold conversation with the former MD of modular homes specialist, Nu Living, part of Swan Housing Association. 

Here’s what they discussed:

Mark: 
When developing Nu Living as a manufacturer of modular homes, Swan Housing took a somewhat revolutionary view on housing stock.  Can you give readers an overview on the journey Nu Living went through, from initial conception through to full production?

Paul:
Swan has become one of the first vertically integrated housing companies in the UK. They purchase or acquire access to land, go through design and planning, manufacturing, construction, sales and in some cases long term ownership. They have an almost unique view on the whole process.

Swan had previously looked at offsite solutions and had been concerned with the scale of the players within the industry at that time. The decision was taken to start something up from scratch. Swan had been developing and constructing previously so adding manufacturing was just one further step from this.

A challenging scheme was chosen, and design of the system started in earnest. Advice was sought from Arup on the best structural systems to use. In parallel a manufacturing facility was acquired, and layout designed. The facility was fitted out and then prototype units were produced. We then moved into first off manufacturing and finally ramp up. The balanced flow lines within the factory are designed to manufacture 4 modules a day.

The homes for Beechwood West are customisable at purchase stage and labour content varies considerably. To resolve this, we used a two-speed line split at the best point to allow for work content variation.

Mark: 
And how far into the factories design did you come in, what challenges did you immediately face and how did you overcome them?

Paul:
I joined after the scheme had been chosen but before anything else, so it was effectively a blank sheet of paper.

I worked on all aspects from the original business case, into manufacturing, processes, and many other areas of the business (including marketing, IT systems and sales).

The biggest challenge was changing the industry mindset from one off projects to a repeatable building process. Talking to many others this seems an industry wide issue.

This one-off mindset led to issues with demand, supply chain management and repeatability in the early months. We worked hard on getting realistic lead times and supply chains to deliver customised homes to Beechwood in a reasonable time frame. Within the industry many consultants operate disparately within the design process and early on we realised we needed to bring people physically to work in the factory to ensure that everyone coordinated their efforts.

This theme continued with moving all the teams working on modular projects within Swan being based in the factory environment. Cross functional project teams worked on issues and improvements. They also shared best practice.

Mark: 
When designing a new plant layout, what one piece of advice would you give a fellow MD / Operations Director that quickly irons out typical bottlenecks to getting production off the ground?

Paul:
Plant layouts rely on good flow however with new untried products I find it better to focus on the team. A well-motivated and trained team can overcome issues quickly and layout issues can therefore be resolved. With new production facilities it is important to not underestimate the time to recruit and train the right people.

Mark: 

There are now many articles pointing towards the major benefits associated with Housing Associations adopting offsite technologies.  Of late, how do you feel such organisation’s attitudes have changed towards investment in modular and what still holds further adoption back?

Paul:
During my time with Swan I took part in many events and forums. The conversation switched from “Why should we build using offsite?” to “How do we build using offsite?”. Continued focus from Government and a strong desire to build within the sector keeps pushing this forward.

There are still issues surrounding insurance, warranties and funding that need resolving. Most of these issues are well understood and action is being taken on all of them however progress is slow.

Mark: 
Although when recruiting a new MD I am witnessing more manufacturers veering towards an operationally lead MD, CEO’s and Chairmen often stick to the more traditional sales or finance lead leaders.  Having graduated in Electrical Engineering, with your early career spent in product development and production, what is your best advice to other operation leaders who are looking to advance their careers?

Paul:
Ensure you have experience in as many areas as possible. Great leaders tend to be generalists who are happy to delve into the detail if necessary. You are likely to come from a speciality however always accept roles and responsibilities outside of your comfort zone to gain experience. My golden rule is never miss an opportunity to learn.