Sheffield’s SCX are proving champions of sport stadium engineering. unLTD’s Peter Kay talks Tottenham Hotspur and tennis courts at Wimbledon with chair Simon Eastwood
It’s a question of sport – and ground-breaking engineering.
What’s the link between retractable roofs at two Wimbledon tennis courts and the sliding pitch at the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium?
When the All England Lawn Tennis Club wanted moving roofs for Centre and No 1 Courts to protect players and spectators from the elements, it turned to a family-run Sheffield company.
Likewise, the answers for Spurs and their ambition of a grass pitch that could be slid under one of the new stands to reveal an artificial surface below – allowing American National Football League games and other events to be staged – could be found with the same firm, SCX Special Projects.
It’s the division of the SCX Group that specialises in bespoke engineering methods to address all sorts of tricky mechanical handling problems.
And it’s not just eye-catching projects for high profile sports stadia. Increasingly, contracts in the nuclear sector, such as specialist cranes to remove and transport nuclear waste, are being handled by the Sheffield experts.
Yet the SCX Group, with 175 employees across the board, extends much further.
Its growing Street CraneXpress division is the only UK-owned national crane service provider – inspecting, maintaining, refurbishing, repairing and modernising cranes across the country. Some of its work is also in the nuclear sector.
Many companies and organisations no longer have their own maintenance teams, which helps to explain how Street CraneXpress has 650 maintenance contracts across the UK. The firm has four engineers working permanently at JCB, for example.
Other clients include Arconic Forgings, Siemens, Perkins Engines, Hitachi, Toyota Manufacturing and Urenco.
Meanwhile, serious investment has been going into a third part of the group, Burnand XH, which is a trade wholesaler of electronic, electrical, electromechanical and pneumatic control components.
All three divisions are based on the hillside at Wincobank – Special Projects alongside Burnand XH in Roman Ridge Road, Street CraneExpress and SCX’s own training academy, in nearby Tyler Street.
Inevitably, though, it’s contracts such as Wimbledon and Spurs that attract the most attention – and the company’s reputation for engineering flair and expertise is spreading around the world.
No more so than at present. Tottenham played their first Premier League match on the new grass surface at their world class multi-use 62,000 capacity stadium at the beginning of April and preparations are being made for the first NFL game on the artificial surface.
Meanwhile, the 2019 Wimbledon Championships begin on July 1 when the retractable roof for No 1 Court will be in operation for the first time in the tournament.
In a neat twist of timing, the introduction of the No 1 Court roof will coincide with the 10th anniversary of the rolling out of the roof SCX designed, engineered and installed for Centre Court.
“It was Centre Court that really put us on the map,” says Simon Eastwood, who chairs the SCX Group and its three divisions.
“It was saying this is what we have done, this is what we can do and we can clearly do what you want. Our profile improved massively from 2009 and gave us a lot more work.”
SCX Special Projects is the only company in UK that has devised a retractable roof that can be operated with people in the stadium. There are only two or three in the world.
“I remember sitting at the test event for Centre Court in 2009 and thinking that our business had achieved this,” says Simon.
“From an engineering point of view, we broke it down into all the component parts, we project managed it, got the stuff bought and put it in. When I saw the whole of it, I thought we have done this – an absolute team effort.”
There is similar pride in SCX’s role in the spectacular new Spurs stadium.
It’s not just the sliding in and out of the grass pitch, but also the task of having to move the surrounds all around the pitch up and down 1.8 metres in line with the artificial surface. “It was the biggest challenge, the fastest project we have delivered and it worked first time.”
At both Wimbledon and Spurs, Simon emphasises the importance of SCX’s “world class” electrical control department with its plethora of safety control systems.
Another innovation at Tottenham is a world-first system that uses hundreds of lights to promote turf growth – a partnership between the club and companies SGL, Hewitt Sportsturf and SCX.
It’s a huge structure that can be rolled out from under a stand to create an optimum growing environment without damaging the grass surface.
So it’s hardly surprising that SCX Special Projects’ services are in demand.
“See the enquiry list we are working on!” says Simon.
The technology behind the grow lights system could be introduced at four major overseas stadia and, similarly, there is the potential for retractable roofs in three stadia, again overseas, he explains.
With tried and tested expertise, and without impacting the home market, Simon is open to exporting the technology and skills that are Made in Sheffield.
“All the overseas enquiries are for the technology that we have already done. There is less risk if you have done it before.”
He is relaxed about the possibility of any competitor jumping in. They would have to perfect an electrical control system, project management and delivery process that SCX has spent years on, he points out.
“If anybody wants to copy that, good luck to them!”
Whatever the future in the sports and leisure sector, Special Projects has found a niche in the market for nuclear handling.
It has grown to be a “huge” part of the business. “We are very busy. In fact, we have just picked up a £2.5m nuclear crane order.”
A lot of work is in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, ensuring that waste is removed accurately and safely.
Again, the Sheffield company is in a position to press all the right buttons – it has vast experience in installing cranes, its electrical control systems meet the highest safety standards, it has a huge volume of documentation to satisfy clients and nuclear authorities and it has a track record of delivering on its contracts.
Of a group turnover last year of about £40m, Special Projects was worth some £28m.
Not that Street CraneXpress is in the slow lane. Hopes are high that it will increase its contribution from £7m to £10m over the next year.
“It’s growing really well,” says Simon, who is in no doubt as to the main reason. “It’s 100% us. Fantastic customer service. We say ‘yes’. The ethic has always been ‘yes we can’.”
One significant area of business is carrying out risk assessments as customers seek expert advice in response to changes in health and safety legislation. By law, the crane user is responsible for its safe operation.
Heavy investment in IT, creating a virtually paperless system for customers, is also paying dividends for the crane service arm of the group.
Similarly, a 12 month programme to deliver a major e-commerce programme for Burnand XH is being rolled out, allowing the company to step up and diversify its operations and to supply the whole country more effectively.
The trade wholesaler distributes the products of several brands, although 75% of its business is with Schneider Electric.
So it’s a positive picture across the SCX group.
“The biggest challenge is people,” says Simon.
To address a shortage of skilled engineers, SCX has set up its own Academy for apprentices, providing experience of working across the group in a four year programme that also includes some training at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at Waverley in Rotherham. In general, in-house training is a priority.
“The Academy is very successful,” says Simon. “We take at least two people a year and they are really good. You can’t just go and employ qualified engineers. There are not enough of them. You have got to do it yourself.
“The AMRC has been a great help. But there are not enough kids going into engineering. That’s the schools’ fault 100%. If young people have decent qualifications, they are encouraged to go to university. They are missing out on so much. It’s a super job and it’s a job for life.”
Once engineers have been recruited, it’s all about ensuring they stay, emphasising the team work, making sure there is the potential for progress and offering attractive pay. Flexitime is offered. Essentially, the aim is to show SCX is “a nice place to work with nice people.
“Attract the right people and you can continue to grow.”
The benefits can spread to other businesses in the area.
“We are the ideal business for Sheffield. We don’t manufacture anything. We have a supply chain of engineers, fabricators and machinists and I’d say 80% of the work we put out goes to the Sheffield region.”
It’s a matter of pride for the “Millhouses born and bred” chairman.
His father, Keith, started the family business in 1972, focusing initially on crane repairs. Simon took over the day-to-day running in 1987, launching Special Projects five years later.
These days Keith has become something of a mentor to his son
“He is still very astute, still going strong at 88, and he still keeps me on my toes!
“He’s a sounding board when trying to grow the business, although he never interferes. He always has some sage advice.”
The Eastwood family is further represented by Simon’s nephew, James, who is general manager of Street CraneXpress.
Simon stepped down last month as managing director of Special Projects, passing the baton to Andy Whitworth who has spent the past 27 years as an integral part of the division.
But as chairman he retains the strategic role that has seen the group grow and prosper, securing local, regional and national awards in the process.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” he says. “You get the occasional bad job, but then you get the wins. To see the work completed is a huge kick. The new £2.5m nuclear contract has given me a big kick.
“I’m really excited about the future. There are bright young people coming thought the business. We are ambitious. But I am not looking to double the size of the business.
“Over the last ten years we have grown 10% a year and that is going to continue.
“We are looking for nice steady managed growth. The business could double but that isn’t the way I personally work. It’s still a family business and it needs to be sustainable as a family business.”