syd bishop & sons – 80th anniversary
Family values stay the course
t is July 1929. In prohibition-era Chicago, police are investigating the murder of seven gangsters in a crime that would become known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. The great bull market at the end of the roaring 20s gives no indication of the financial meltdown a few months on that triggered the Great Depression. Closer to home, a young Syd Bishop is setting off from his native Shropshire to seek his fortune in the post-Great War countryside of England’s garden county, Kent. His dream is to start a small demolition company. Since then, economic booms and busts have come and gone innumerable times rocking many
a firm to its foundation, but the company founded by that Shropshire lad has remained a constant in the UK demolition industry. In turn, Syd Bishop & Sons’ famous slogan “Watch It Come Down” has echoed through the decades to become a symbol for family values and demolition professionalism. Syd sadly passed away in the 1970s. But while the company he forged in his own image has transformed into a demolition business at the forefront of technological and environmental developments, it still bears many of the traits that he instilled. Board meetings, these days involving sons, brothers, sisters, uncles and cousins from the
Bishop clan, still take place over a large pot of tea in much the same way as when Syd ran the operation from his kitchen table. And while some companies talk about open door policies between management and staff, Syd Bishop has all but removed the door from its hinges, the directors equally at home on site or in the cafe as “one of the boys” as they are in the suits and ties that their positions normally dictate. Syd Bishop & Sons may not be the biggest demolition contractor in the country, and it might not shout the loudest about its achievements, but 80 years on, the company founded by that ambitious, no-nonsense Shropshire lad continues to thrive and expand.
While many of its peers have perished on the rocks of economic misfortune, Syd Bishop & Sons has remained a constant, retaining many of its staff for more than 30 years and displaying equal levels of loyalty to its suppliers, many of whom have been with them for almost as long. The old fellah would be proud. ● Mark Anthony Editor
Main image: The Syd Bishop team working in London’s Bayswater Road, circa 1935. Bottom, from left: Syd Bishop (founder); Terry and Kathleen Bishop; Syd Bishop; Tom Bishop; Stephen Bishop; Irene Bishop; Michael Bishop.
syd bishop & sons – 80th anniversary
Watch It Come Down…
yd Bishop & Sons is about to celebrate its 80th year in business. Eight decades, four generations and a considerable amount of rubble on, the company remains at the vanguard of the demolition industry. When Syd Bishop took the decision to enter the world of demolition back in 1929, he probably had no idea that he was also creating an industry dynasty, one that would still be at the forefront of the business he loved, and one that still employs almost a dozen of his descendants to this day.
director Terry Bishop. “But despite those relatively humble beginnings, he always set high standards of professionalism and workmanship.” Today, those twin values are synonymous with the company’s familiar “Watch It Come Down” slogan, the origins of which are somewhat shrouded in mystery. “One version of the story says my father overheard a bystander comment ‘now watch it come down’ just before a chimney was about to be felled. Another is that it was suggested by a hitch-hiker my father picked up and who had heard the slogan associated with a demolition company in the US,” Terry explains. “Either way, it’s a slogan that stuck. And throughout the 1950s and 60s, Syd was known as Mr Watch It Come Down”.
Having previously worked as a steeplejack for a number of demolition companies in those largely pre-plant days, Syd’s formidable physical strength saw him at ease with hand demolition. And when the opportunity came to start his own company – earning a sixpence for himself rather than a shilling for someone else – he seized it with both hands. Within a few short years, Bishop’s professional, hardworking and no-nonsense approach had earned his company a formidable reputation across Kent that would ultimately extend nationally. “The company that Syd started we recognise today as Syd Bishop & Sons was run from his kitchen table,” says Syd’s son and current managing
Terry says his father had a work ethic that bordered upon the workaholic, something that was evident even when the family gathered to celebrate Syd’s birthday each Boxing Day. “Syd basically didn’t believe in holidays,” Terry recalls. “Regardless of the fact that it was Christmas and his birthday, sooner or later, we’d all end up around the table talking about work.” The fact that Terry was the boss’s son carried very little weight with the man he still refers to affectionately as “the old fellah”. “I left school at 15 years old and finished on a Friday afternoon and the old fellah made sure I was on site at six o’clock the following morning,” he continues. “I was earning 25 shillings per week, the same as the other guys on site. But it’s that lack of favouritism towards Bishop family members that has made us what we are today.” What they are today is a highly regarded demolition company that operates nationally, employs more than 140 people and operates a young, well-maintained plant and vehicle fleet that is the envy of many of its larger peers.
It’s all a far cry from Syd Bishop’s day when vehicles were often seen as a necessary evil. “The company joined the National Federation of Demolition Contractors in 1955, and we remain members to this day. When my father attended one of his first NFDC meetings he arrived in his pride and joy, a Humber Super Snipe, to be greeted by other members driving Rolls Royces and Bentleys,” Terry says. “My father merely shrugged and said ‘at least mine’s paid for’.” Syd Bishop sadly passed away in 1971, entrusting his wellestablished company to sons David, Michael and Terry and to daughter Kathleen, the latter two of which remain active in the company today.
Major contracts Over the years, Syd Bishop & Sons has worked the length and breadth of the UK, even hopping over to the Isle of Wight and down to the West Country when the need arose. The company has been responsible for many well-known and high-profile demolition projects, including both the new Docklands Light Railway extension and the refurbishment of the O2 Arena. In 1986, the company also demolished the Bricklayer’s Arms in Bermondsey, once Europe’s largest goods depot. Strangely, the company also developed something of an expertise in reducing former sporting venues to so much rubble; the Oval Cricket Ground and both the Newbury and Newmarket race courses falling before the might of the company’s equipment fleet.
Early Adopter From its hand-demolition roots, the company has grown to become a pioneer of the very latest techniques in both the demolition and recycling fields, and achieving a reputation as an “early-adopter” of new forms of equipment. “I witnessed the switch from
hand to mechanical demolition first-hand,” says Terry Bishop. “Our first machine was an Aveling Barford rope shovel with a 0.2 m3 capacity bucket. I remember it well because I was the operator.” More recently, Syd Bishop & Sons has been quick to embrace any equipment developments that might make operations safer and more productive. “We were one of the first UK demolition contractors to purchase Allied LaBounty shears; we were one of the first to purchase a trackmounted mobile crusher; and we were also among the first to import the US-manufactured DustBoss dust suppression system to the UK,” asserts resident plant expert and director, Stephen Bishop. “And we were also a pioneer of the move towards high reach machines, buying a Hitachi EX600 excavator with a 36m upward reach.” A trawl through the archives of Syd Bishop & Sons’ plant fleet ownership reveals another telling
trait of the company. “When we bought our first Hitachi excavators, a guy called David Hearne was their up and coming fitter,” says Stephen Bishop. “We’re still buying Hitachi machines today. The only difference is that we now own more of them, they cost a lot more, and David Hearne is now the operations director of HM Plant!”
That loyalty to its suppliers is mirrored within the company by the remarkable loyalty shown by its employees. Among its 140+ strong workforce, Syd Bishop & Sons boasts a number of team members that have been with the company for 15, 20 and even 30 years. “Our fitter/welder George Gilbey (pictured above) has been with us for more than 30 years and our high reach operator Gary Dungate started with us at 16 and he’s now 61,” says director Syd Bishop. “Another of our operators, Mick White, has been with us 20 years and his son – young Mick – has now joined the company too.”
Terry Bishop believes that this incredible level of staff devotion is due in no small part to the fact that the company operates almost entirely without visible divisions between management and site workers. “My father instilled in each of us that we should never ask anyone to do anything we were unwilling or unable to do ourselves. “As a result, all of the directors are just as likely to be up to their knees in mud on site as they are to be behind a desk wearing suits and ties,” he says. “I don’t think we pay any better than our competitors. But I like to think that we look after our employees from the time they come in as apprentices. We don’t have an open-door policy. We don’t have a door. Our staff are on first-name terms with all of our directors. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Another key reason for Syd Bishop & Sons Ltd’s high level of staff retention is the training that it provides. The company has three full-time training officers – Syd Bishop, Matt Ropkins and Kate Goddard – and the company runs monthly training programmes to ensure that all its staff are kept up to date on the latest development and regulations.
Having established itself as one of the foremost demolition firms in the UK, the company has built upon its long-standing expertise in the field of recycling with the creation of a new division which, with Syd Bishop & Sons Ltd, now resides under a holding company appropriately named Watch It Come Down Ltd. Prompted by the purchase of a flourishing waste management and skip hire
concern, Pinden Ltd, some five years ago the recycling division now operates from a 24ha working chalk quarry, processing more than 146,000 tonnes/year of construction and demolition waste, making it one of the largest recycling facilities in Kent. This excludes the near 500,000 tonnes of C&D waste the company processes on its sites each year, for further re-use by clients. Like most people in the UK demolition industry, my father was always reluctant to waste so much as a used brick so recycling and resource efficiency has always been a mainstay of our business,” says Terry Bishop. “But with the purchase of Pinden Ltd and, more recently, Erith Waste Management, we have really perfected the art and centralised the entire operation. “We have invested several million pounds in new equipment including crushers, screens and trommels at the Pinden facility and today it is one of the most advanced C&D waste processing operations in the country.”
What Does the Future Hold? With 80 years front line experience in the demolition business, the company believes that demolition will always remain at the heart of the company’s operations. “Demolition is what we’re known for and the reason the company is still here today,” says Syd Bishop. “It will always be the core of the business. But even this has diversified to include refurbishment and façade retention work.” The company is also mindful of the need to diversify, and the need for demolition and recycling to work side by side. Not content with being a green demolition company, the recycling and salvage side of the business is also on the increase. “The current economic climate is hardly ideal for expansion but based on the success of the Pinden operation, we’re currently looking to put in place a further two recycling operations,” says Steve Bishop. “It’s early days, but these will largely replicate what we have within the Pinden operation and will provide a huge boost to the
recycling side of our business.” At the same time, Syd Bishop & Sons Ltd is continuing to ramp up its asbestos processing division overseen by Tom Bishop. “The asbestos processing side of our business was always seen as an adjunct to our demolition business but, over the years, this has become a thriving, stand-alone business,” Tom Bishop says. “Today, our asbestos teams are working on our sites and provide an unparalleled level of service.”
Just One Vet
Eighty years after Syd Bishop sat at his kitchen table and set his family on the path to demolition glory, and despite a World War, several recessions and countless changes in industry rules and regulations, the company retains its position as one of the UK’s best-known and mostrespected demolition contractors. And that legacy is safe for many years to come. Having already brought numerous sons and cousins into the family business over the past eight decades, Syd Bishop & Sons has entrusted the role of transport manager to Michael Bishop, son of director Stephen and the first of the company’s fourth generation. “Demolition just gets under your skin. We have all grown up around the business and I don’t think any of us have ever really considered doing anything else,” says proud father Stephen Bishop. “In many ways, I am sure that Syd would have been proud that we were still safeguarding the family name and the family business 80 years after he started it. But I also think there’d be a small degree of disappointment. He was a real animal lover and I think he secretly hoped that one of us would rebel and become a vet.” ●
syd bishop & sons – 80th anniversary
Landfill tax income University of East London put to good use
yd Bishop & Sons recently donated almost £40,000 towards the restoration and extension of All Saints Church in the Parish of Fawkham and Hartley in Rochester. Donated via the Community Credit Scheme, the money represents a significant proportion of the Landfill Tax taken at the company’s construction and demolition waste site in nearby Pinden.
Syd Bishop & Sons recently completed a 12-month contract to demolish the former University of East London to make way for 1,042 much needed new homes in Barking, Essex. The contract required the demolition of around 20 buildings, the majority being four or five storeys in height, calling upon the company’s full range of demolition and recycling equipment and experience.
Dating back some 900 years, All Saints Church is the oldest building in Hartley with a history that traces back to Norman times.
A large part of this work is being funded thanks to the donation by Syd Bishop & Sons which used a charitable clause in the Landfill Tax system to help support this important local cause. “Under the current taxation system, we were allowed to contribute up to 6.6% of 2007’s Landfill Tax revenue to community needs or charity, provided that we contribute an additional 10% on top of that,” explains director Terry Bishop. “To allow us to support some other good causes, we have donated 3.3% which was equivalent to £35,535, plus 10% which took the total to £39,008. This area has always been good to us as a company and it’s great to be able to give something back to the local community.” ●
According to Syd Bishop & Sons director Tom Bishop, this required some delicate demolition work. “We literally had to cut away some adjoining university buildings while leaving the listed structures untouched,” he says. In addition to retaining key structures, the project also threw up major utility-related challenges. “There were three electricity substations on the site, one of which was still in use. In addition, the site was criss-crossed with gas mains and no-one knew exactly where they were,” Bishop explains. “Some of the gas mains never had meters and there was no way of cutting them off. In the end, they had to be sealed from outside the perimeter of the site. The process took months. But despite the problems with the remaining utility infrastructure and initial concerns over the delicate nature of some of the demolition works, everything has run according to plan and there have been no problems or setbacks.”
To meet the needs of the local community and spurred on by the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act, the Parochial Church Council developed detailed plans to convert the Grade 1 listed building. To date, the church has raised £290,000 of the £350,000 required to finance this important project and it was this shortfall that led the church to approach local businesses.
A condition of the contract required some listed buildings, primarily the retraining centre, be retained and converted into flats and apartments.
Syd Bishop & Sons (Demolition) Ltd Waldens Depot, Waldens Road, Orpington, Kent BR5 4EU Telephone: 01689 820315 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org More info at:
Managing director Terry Bishop donating the cheque for £39,008 to All Saints Church in Fawkham and Hartley, Rochester.
Published on Jul 2, 2009
UK demolition contractor Syd Bishop & Sons Ltd has celebrated its 80th birthday with a new supplement that charts the company's history.