|Fletcher Rae's plans for the massive facility in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.|
By Eric JacksonWith an office that is literally in the shadow of the Beetham Tower, one of the tallest, most recognisable buildings in the UK, Manchester architect Bob Fletcher could be forgiven for feeling a tad envious.
Such edifices, especially when they attract tenants like the Hilton and are quirkily top heavy, pick up awards and bestow glamour and fame, but the joint MD of the architects Fletcher Rae, whose studios nestle in the renovated Castlefield area of the city and employs 18 people, takes pride that most of his projects are a lot larger but a little bit more down to earth – as low as one storey, in fact, and are now helping third world progress.
“I was originally branded as a bit of a shed-head,” says the ebullient north Manchester-born father of two about one of his company’s specialities for major manufacturing and logistics facilities.
“But if something functions well, it’s delivered on time and on budget and people like it, that’s the real satisfaction. I’m not too worried about the publicity.”
Bob, though, who at 60 doesn’t look a day over 50 with thick, dark hair, has reason to hold his ‘shed- head’ high.
After over two decades of master planning designing and delivering important major facilities projects across Britain, such as the Constellation Wines near Bristol - which handles 15% of all the UK’s alcohol - and most recently a facility for Buxton Mineral Water, his latest project is set to improve the quality of the lives of the people of Nigeria and the prestige of brand UK in Africa.
Fletcher Rae has clinched the role of lead design co-ordinator to build a World Health Organisation-backed £138m, 500,000 sq ft factory in Port Harcourt that will produce a billion syringes a year in the battle against Aids, hepatitis and malaria and provide employment for 2,500 people.
And in overseeing the work of 26 other consultants from countries including Germany, India, Austria and Japan, as well as closely collaborating with ESL Export and Kingspan from the UK, Bob is as fired-up as the day he entered the profession after graduating from university in Manchester.
“This has to be one of our most interesting projects,” enthuses Bob. It is good to be involved in a project which will make a fundamental change to the disease burden and quality of life for the people of Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa and to reduce the dependency on foreign agencies and develop the technical skills, knowledge and facilities in the country.”
Being built on an existing but small syringe factory site, the new facility is set to be 10 times larger.
“The next stage will be to build a hospital there and residences so it will become a self-contained medical production and treatment campus,” says Stand Grammar School educated Bob.
His first foray into the African market came about more by accident than by design, without any tendering, as Bob explains: “Ministers and directors of medical industries were looking for the best cladding systems they could get for the building,” says Bob, “and they landed on the doorstep of Europe’s largest cladding supplier, Kingspan, and international cladding contractors ESL Export Ltd based out of Wrexham and Dubai.
“I had previously introduced Garey Goss, managing director of ESL, to an opportunity in Abu Dhabi some three years ago, which unfortunately did not proceed. He remembered me from our work together and felt we had the necessary capabilities to support the project and introduced us to the scheme,” says Bob.
The syringe factory, with support from the federal government, the River State Government and the Niger Delta Development Commission, was commissioned by the Pan-African Health Foundation, founded in 2003 to reduce the burden and dependency on other countries, and it needed an impressive overcoat. The scheme received World Health Organisation recognition in 2003, the first in Nigeria, and second in the whole of Africa and one of only 16 facilities in the world to obtain such accreditation.
Originally the company’s role was to co-ordinate the cladding, steelwork and the building envelope for the consortium of UK suppliers, but everything snowballed once Bob and the team went out there and presented to the ministers.
“They recognised our skills and before we knew it we had taken on the lead design co-ordinators role for the whole job. There is a large group of very specialist international suppliers and contractors from around the world and Nigeria, who all are experts in their own fields, and it is our responsibility to ensure that it all fits the big vision we have developed,” he says.
Bob and his team regularly present to Nigeria’s Finance, Justice and Health Commissioners to make sure everything is going to plan.
It’s a long way from the early days of looking to spread the company’s wings abroad at the start of the recession in 2008, which resulted in some disappointments in the Middle East, Russia and the Czech Republic due to lack of investment.
And Nigeria took some getting used to at first. Bob says: “I’m reasonably well travelled but we needed to make some adjustments for the way of life there. By the second visit, though, it seemed a lot more straightforward somehow.
“The people are lovely, it’s a wealthy country with no debt, and they like the British. It’s remarkable though – you can be driving along the motorway and it just suddenly stops and becomes an unmade road. They tell you that it was a European contractor who took all the money and then disappeared before completing the project,” explains Bob.
“So with this project they were very keen, with such a huge commitment, to deal with professional people they could trust, and with us what you see is what you get.
“In the UK, I believe we tend to underestimate the rest of the world’s perception of our skills. In Nigeria, and other countries, they really respect what UK companies can bring in terms of integrity, honesty, deliverables and knowledge.”
Because the ink is still drying on the contract, other projects in Africa have yet to materialize, but Bob is hopeful that the syringe factory can be a catalyst for great things on the continent.
“We are very keen and have had informal dialogue with representatives of some major banks out in Nigeria and we have been told there are real opportunities. We’ve established a good working relationship at ministerial level and we’d like to continue that, not just in Nigeria but sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.”
Closer to home, Bob is looking forward to working on a number of strategic regeneration projects, one of which is the new Peel Holdings’ Salford Port close to the Trafford Centre, which will see ships travelling up the canal in healthy numbers once again. Also a major new Marina at Holyhead for Conygar Developments.
“Peel & Conygar are higly valued clients of ours and both are great strategic thinkers, people who look at the long term economic picture for the region rather than the now,” says Bob.
Peel also used Fletcher Rae’s energy from waste and sustainability expertise on the Ince Resource Recovery Park, one the biggest of its type in Europe, located by the Manchester Ship Canal on the Wirral.
Fletcher Rae came into existence just over two years ago, when Bob’s firm merged with that of old colleague and friendly rival Andy Rae. Both of their businesses were undergoing change and Bob had urgent need of a back operation, but could not afford to take his eye off the ball. Andy and his team stepped into the breach at a moment’s notice and the two teams meshed so well together that they decided to make it legal.
“We are different characters but share common values of work ethic, approach to our clients and running the business, which is why it is a success,” says Bob
The new setup, he believes, uses the pair’s complementary skills perfectly.
“I had an interesting start in my own business 30 years ago when I was doing some part-time drafting work for a materials handling company called Jungheinrich GB Ltd based in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. The managing director, Bob Bischoff, then asked me to do some alteration design work for his property,” says Bob.
“We got talking about where my career was heading – I was at that dangerous age of 30 – and he said his company had a roll-out programme for facilities over the next three years, offered to match my salary and use three days a week of my time.
“I bit his hand off and Fletcher Architects was born,” laughs Bob. “I have never forgotten that leg up for my career and hope that I can do the same for someone else at some point.
“The new practice of Fletcher Rae is developing quite nicely and diversity is the key to our success, a good example is the specialist energy from the waste sector, major facilities with a large visual impact needing smart architectural solutions. We now have an 8-year track record of successful outcomes and are now considered one of the leading architects practices the country in this niche sector.”
And modest to the end, Bob concludes: “I don’t think we will ever be one of the pack, we are north west outsiders, not followers and independently minded, which is precisely what our major clients value us for.
“I would be very proud to create a legacy in my home city of Manchester before I shuffle off, but in the meantime if we can bring real value in other locations, that is real success for me at the end of the day.”
And with the syringe factory in Nigeria, it may just be the start of success for Fletcher Rae on a global scale.