FEATURE: Solid foundations of award-winning building firm
Joshua Bennett made a wise investment when he came home to Suffolk after the Second World War – he used his demob money to set up a building firm.
This year, the company founded by the ex-RAF serviceman is celebrating its 70th anniversary.
It started small. Josh, as he was known, ran his business from a bungalow in Lakenheath.
Now, owned by the Parker family, it has grown into one of East Anglia’s top housebuilders with a clutch of awards to prove it.
Last year Bennett Homes collected their fourth Housebuilder of the Year award from the National Federation of Builders.
They scooped the title in three of the four previous years with a highly commended in between.
This time the accolade celebrated changing the use of a site with consideration for the community and environment.
Bennett’s won for their Abbotts Grange development of 17 homes on an old industrial site at Forncett St Peter in Norfolk.
Judges were impressed by the ecology surveys, local-style materials, retention of trees, and landscape management plan for the future.
Green credentials were also key, including energy-saving air source heat pumps and the site’s special sewerage system.
Other awards include the NFB’s customer care category in 2013.
Lined up in the boardroom are 11 stauettes – one for each of the times they were named Daily Express British Housebuilder of the Year.
Bennett’s also has an Investors in People award which has just been re-accredited.
The company prides itself on the number of employees who stay for decades.
There are 46 names on the board in reception honouring those with 25 or more years service.
Top of the list with 50 years is Mick Flack from Brandon who joined as an apprentice carpenter on his 15th birthday and retired on his 65th.
In between he worked as a site manager and maintenance supervisor.
“He’s something of a Bennett’s legend,” said managing director Edward Parker. “He even learned to drive in a Bennett’s vehicle.”
Also there is Stephen Henery, who in 43 years worked his way up from apprentice decorator to general manager.
Malcom Smith, a working foreman who joined in the 1970s, has just retired with 44 years service.
There are carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers ... and former chairman Nigel Parker who bought the company in 1972.
Nigel was a civil engineer who worked on the UK’s first “slipform” concrete buildings and major road projects before going into business on his own.
He has now handed over the lead role of managing director to his son Edward, born the same year his father bought Bennett’s.
Edward, the youngest of four children, was the only one who felt construction was in his blood.
His sister Mary is a teacher, brother Richard works for Nationwide, and brother Martin is studying in London.
“I used to go to building sites with my father and it was always quite a thrill for me,” he said.
“I did a degree in construction management and worked for other companies before joining Bennett’s in 1998.”
He worked alongside his father for about 10 years until Nigel, who lives in Bury with his wife Christine, retired to become a non-executive director.
“He’s not involved in the day to day operation of the business, but he’s always there for me to talk through any issues,” said Edward.
“He understands every aspect of the business from land purchase to selling properties.”
Bennetts stayed in Lakenheath until 12 years ago when they moved to new headquarters at Nowton on the outskirts of Bury.
The firm gradually outgrew Josh Bennett’s original bungalow. Another storey was added, then extra wings, and next-door properties were bought until staff were spread between three separate buildings.
“Bury was the right location for us,” said Edward. “And I felt very strongly we needed to be open plan, with everyone together in one building.”
Bennett’s now directly employs around 50 people, plus hundreds of sub-contractors.
When the Parker family took over it was building 50 to 75 homes a year, mainly bungalows.
That number has gone up, but they have no plans for massive expansion.
“We are completing up to 100 homes a year and are not interested in growing to the point where we can’t offer the personal touch,” said Edward.
“We have slightly different approach from some of the others. Customers like the fact we are a family business.
“We have the expertise of a large company but the personal touch of a small family firm and that’s very important to us.”
They have built on Josh Bennett’s bungalow expertise to become pioneers in catering for younger retired buyers.
“We have had a niche in the active, independent retired bracket, and bungalows are still very popular,” said Edward.
“Recently the planning system has made it harder to get permission for a large number, but we still build them where we can.
“We’re experts in the design and flow of single-storey living.
“If we can provide a small community of bungalows, where people can live with others at a similar stage of life, that’s an added attraction.”
Maltsters Yard in Eye is an example, built around a shared Victorian-style garden.
Changing times have meant extending their range to provide everything from starter to executive homes.
Developments might be 200-plus houses, or much smaller like the plan for 16 homes which will transform a rundown commercial site in Framlingham.
“We try to have a diverse portfolio,” said Edward. “But we have always relished the changes, and that we have to be flexible.”
Customer care is central to Bennett’s business. Buyers are invited to a choice centre at the head office where they can see examples of everything from kitchen worktops and cupboards, to bathroom fittings, to curtains.
They will “Lend-a-Home” free if waiting to move into a new home will mean holding up a buyers’ chain.
A handyman service to help install fixtures and fittings, and a home check after three months to put right problems – even scrapes caused by removal men – are provided free for new owners.
“We put a lot of care and attention into these things and we are proud of that,” said Edward.
Bury MP Jo Churchill visited the firm this week. “The skill and care they employ shows why they are an award-winning company,” she said.