Duncan Hughes-Phillips is an experienced Quantity Surveyor and the CEO of Base Quantum; a Quantity Surveying and Quantum Expert Witness practice.
Duncan accepts instructions as a Quantum Expert with his expertise spanning construction, process and civil engineering. High profile clients include government bodies and leading transport and infrastructure providers. His 25- year career is built on frank, solutions-focused advice, sound experience and knowledge, integrity, passion for work and client respect.
Below, CEO Today hears from Duncan on the ins and outs of Quantity Surveying, the origins of Base Quantum, and some of the challenges the business has overcome over the years.
Can you tell us more about Quantity Surveying and the benefits of this process?
As QSs, we deal with the money involved in the construction process. First, we will review an Employer’s aspirations and assess how much it will cost to build whatever the Employer wants. Then, as a project proceeds, our job is to manage the cost of change and to ensure that the Employer gets the building it wanted for the money it can afford and, if it can’t, then it knows early enough to do something about it.
A Quantum Expert’s role is not dissimilar – it involves analysing and valuing the cost of change – but this role is forensic, and usually occurs after a job has finished.
At Base, we are quite unusual in that we bring together the skills of QSs and Quantum Experts so that we can apply both a forensic and a contemporaneous lens to any problem. This complete vision can help untangle even the most complex of issues and allows us to provide both a service that resolves problems when they arise and prevents them from happening again. We also bring together our experience from our position as the bookends of the construction process to provide holistic training opportunities for the construction industry.
What first brought you to found Base Quantum?
I had been at the same firm for almost 20 years prior to founding Base, from trainee to part-owner, but I was not seeing eye to eye on strategy and the future direction of the business. I started an MBA, initially to help me see why I was wrong.
However, after several months, I began to understand that my different aspirations made my role untenable. The recession was on and there was little alternative but to set up my own firm. I needed to see if I could turn my outlandish ideas into a business.
In what ways have you driven Base Quantum in its expansion?
I think the key to our recent success has been our lack of ‘drive’ for expansion. Our motto is “better not bigger” which means that our focus is towards leveraging our expertise and skills. This doesn’t mean that we are small-minded – far from it – but we are confident that if we are constantly looking at being better, expansion will follow – and it does.
We are a people business, so the products that we sell are encapsulated in the expertise and skills of the people we employ. A key to our business is to challenge our staff to aspire, and to support them to gain new knowledge and skills which we can then use to expand what we do. Over 90% of our current staff have either already achieved or are working towards some form of additional qualification, so this is a key part of our growth strategy.
We focus on more than profit. We view it as a form of “commercial altruism” – we are here to make money, but whilst other organisations make decisions based on maximising short term profits, we value the opportunities to grow the skills and expertise in our people for long-term success.
Have you seen the growth you anticipated?
I think so. In the first few years we forewent growth for creating a solid foundation. Then in the next four or five years, the growth was phenomenal. Last year, we decided, again, to forego growth and to concentrate on reinvigorating the culture, creating a structure for the future, and driving a collective ethos into the business.
I feel like the first 5 years happened to us, rather than because we intended it to happen that way. We only had to grasp the great opportunities that came our way. We now have our destiny in our own hands; we have a choice about where we go and what we do, and with that choice comes a responsibility to do good things for the right reasons – and to make money.
I have never wanted to be that founder who stood in the way of progress.
What are the greatest challenges you have encountered?
The great thing about running a small business is that every challenge is a badge of honour. The greatest challenge was making the decision to start out. Thereafter, I can look back over the last 7 years and track the progress of the business by the problems that we have encountered, by the traps we have fallen into and, ultimately, by the obstacles we have had to overcome. Every time we grow, we are presented with new challenges to overcome and something new to be proud of.
I think the greatest challenge going forward is to keep growing whilst we protect what we have built. When you start out, it is OK to experiment, and if you fail, you just dust yourself off and start again.
However, I feel a responsibility to the team now-we must keep growing to reward everybody’s efforts; but we can’t be gung-ho and let it fall apart.
Do you feel like you can ever fully relax?
I don’t think you should be able to fully relax when you have your own business. It is one of those things that comes with the job title. The growth and development of the business requires us to challenge our boundaries.
I’ve always run the business around three essential aspects of “Get Work”, “Do Work” and “Get Paid”; if it is going too well then it means that we are being too cautious; so there is always something to worry about, even if it is only that it is all going too well.
What are your aspirations for the future?
My biggest aspiration for the business is to shift it from being “mine” to “ours”. I chose the name “Base” because it is so difficult to break the ties of eponymous organisations with founders, and I have never wanted to be that founder who stood in the way of progress.
We have some fantastic people within the company and harnessing that range of expertise into something that we can all share in is hugely important to creating the legacy that I think we all deserve.
Founder & CEO
Base Quantum Ltd.