Building on a firm foundation - Derbyshire entrepeneur Michael Ellis of Van Elle

Michael and Joan Ellis

Michael and Joan Ellis - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Derbyshire entrepreneur Michael Ellis and his wife Joan, who founded the UK’s largest independent geotechnical contractor 30 years ago, talk to Ashley Franklin

Michael and Joan Ellis

Michael and Joan Ellis - Credit: Ashley Franklin

This country needs a wider appreciation of its entrepreneurs – determined, driven and innovative individuals with perseverance, self-belief, a strong work ethic and the knowledge that with high risk comes high reward, not least great personal wealth – though who can deny them these benefits if they also bring employment, growth and prosperity to others?

However, how many succeed? Just look at the would-be entrepreneurs roasted alive in each episode of Dragons’ Den. They would do well to look at the success of Derbyshire entrepreneur Michael Ellis. He is celebrating 30 years as the guiding force behind Van Elle, having made the company the largest independent geotechnical contractor in the UK.

Now enjoying semi-retirement in the beautiful Peak District home he shares with his wife Joan, Michael is justifiably proud: ‘We make twice as much profit as any of our rivals and that’s basically down to teamwork and the people we employ. We have the best trained staff and also the best equipment.’

Geotechnical work involves piling, foundation and ground stabilisation. Put simply, every building has to have foundations, so contractors like Van Elle prepare the ground. It’s vital specialist work that requires skill, precision and obsessive attention to safety. As Michael points out, ‘If you are building something, your biggest financial risk is constructing the foundations, so you have to get it right.’

Michael at work

Michael at work - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Van Elle’s achievements locally include the widening of the M1 from Junction 25 to 28 and, more recently, involvement in the new London Road bridge project in Derby and the £100 million regeneration of Castleward. As for future plans, Michael is hopeful of Van Elle’s involvement in the construction of HS2. The company has also taken its expertise across the globe to as far afield as the Falkland Islands and New Zealand.

Currently, Van Elle employs 375 people and is on course to achieve a turnover of £60 million in the next year. It’s a remarkable achievement, one that places Michael in the pantheon of old-style entrepreneurs whose success is entirely self-made. As Michael reveals: ‘I started off with nothing.’

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Actually, his success is not entirely self-made. As he further tells me: ‘No entrepreneur is any good without his wife and family.’ This is where the Van Elle story is even more impressive. In 1983, married to Joan and living in Ashover, Michael was a hard-working employee in a piling company whose boss suddenly told him he would not be receiving any profit-sharing bonus for Christmas. ‘When I got home that day, Joan told me that the one person who wasn’t going to renege on any agreement was myself. I took that advice and by the spring we had started up Van Elle.’

The word ‘we’ is extremely pertinent here. Working in a single office above their home stables, Michael conducted the technical work and also fought a drawn-out court case with his previous employer (which he eventually won), while Joan drove the firm’s lorry and dealt with the accounts, wages and correspondence, at the same time keeping house and raising two children aged six and four.

Van Elle is the UK's largest independent geotechnical contractor

Van Elle is the UK's largest independent geotechnical contractor - Credit: Ashley Franklin

‘It must have raised a few eyebrows seeing this very slight female figure getting in and out of a seven and a half ton lorry,’ remarks Michael, ‘but she carried on like this for five years. She was invaluable.’

‘Business came first,’ states Joan, ‘and it was hard work and long hours. We’d both be up at 6am and not in bed much before midnight. I would sometimes be on the road for ten hours and during the school holidays, the children would come with me on the lorry. Mind you, they thought it was great fun.’

Eventually, as business picked up, Joan scaled down her commitments. ‘That was when we put her on the forklift,’ smiles Michael.

‘Joan worked for 15 years without wages,’ he reveals, ‘so I offered to buy her a car. “What do you want?” I asked. “An Aston Martin,” she replied. And that’s what she got, as you should never go back on your word.’

Michael and Joan Ellis

Michael and Joan Ellis - Credit: Ashley Franklin

‘My husband has always been honest and caring,’ says Joan. Any other qualities, I ask? ‘He’s tenacious, trustworthy, loyal, passionate, pig-headed at times, and never satisfied.’

‘That last trait is quite a good one,’ remarks Michael. ‘It means I am always striving for more.’ You can add guts and determination to those qualities as Michael tells me how, when striving to establish Van Elle, he had to fight a legal battle to keep the business alive and, in doing so, brought a change to the law. ‘I fought for two years through the courts and although I lost the first case, I won the appeal and English Law was changed for the better.’

From there on, Michael never looked back and set about establishing Van Elle. Even the name of the company was a canny, enterprising move: when Michael and Joan started up the business, the Dutch were considered the leaders in geotechnical engineering, so they came up with a Dutch-sounding name, and even chose orange livery.

As Michael explains further: ‘Van Elle was concocted from two names – Evans, an engineer I worked with early on – and my own name Ellis. I used the Evans name because he was supposed to join me in the business. However, he got cold feet. That actually made me more determined to retain the title. I believed in the business and maybe now the name Van Elle will remind him that he could have been part of my success.’

Michael and Joan Ellis

Michael and Joan Ellis - Credit: Ashley Franklin

So what has been key to that success? It’s based, says Michael, on three core principles: do a good job safely, make a profit, and look after your employees.

Doing a good job safely sounds like basic common sense but it’s crucial in the piling business, as Michael explains: ‘Construction is very litigious so if a client raises a problem, I don’t argue with them. If you get into litigation, you have to employ legal people, and time and money are wasted. I just try to correct the problem if appropriate. We make money out of that principle.’

Making money, says Michael, is second nature to him: ‘I knew early on in my career that I was good at making money and I’m happy to say we have made a profit every year for 30 years. Mind you, Joan and I are not greedy people. Only once have we taken a dividend. All the money we make we have ploughed back into the company.’

Caring for the company is a vital principle for Michael, underpinned by his Christian faith. ‘I have always been fair and straight with people and I say to anyone who comes to me “if you work hard and stay, I will guarantee you will be better off and further your career.”

‘I treat all my employees as family and I take pride in knowing most peoples’ names. We often employ two or three generations of one family. If an employee has a problem, then so do I, and I assist where possible in these situations.’

The importance of teamwork is reflected in a works committee at Van Elle where every division is represented and can talk directly to the managing director. ‘It’s better to have 375 people talking than just the five on the board,’ says Michael.

That said, one of the most satisfying aspects of the company for Michael is that of the five-man board, as two started off as labourers. Michael is also proud of another aspect of Van Elle: ‘80 per cent of my employees are from Derbyshire and that makes Van Elle a Derbyshire success story. Also, I regard everyone I employ as an entrepreneur, even my cleaners.’

However, bringing on the entrepreneurs of the future is a concern, as Michael recently made known to the Prime Minister when he and Joan were invited to a 10 Downing Street reception for key UK industry figures. ‘I was disappointed David Cameron didn’t take more interest in what we entrepreneurs do, which is creating wealth and jobs,’ says Michael. ‘We were all asked to write a letter to the PM. Mine told him that during the last recession, we saw our work force of 400 halved, yet now we are in a building boom, we can’t get staff. The government’s housing initiative has boosted our industry, yet young people are being discouraged from coming into our industry, mainly because of the perceived lack of long term security, which I can understand. The government needs to help with that. To be fair, I did get a letter from David Cameron and he’s the first Prime Minister I have had a reply from. Two previous ones ignored all my correspondence. Also, the reply was very informative about our industry and I was surprised at his knowledge; it’s just that he didn’t agree with some of the concerns I raised!’

Since 2006, Michael and Joan have resided in a handsome stone country house nestled in the village of Thorpe. They first saw and fell in love with this property when it was for sale 22 years ago but the long distance from their Pinxton office made it impracticable. Fate saw them drive through the village eight years ago to see that the house was up for sale again. They bought it straightaway.

‘We love it here,’ says Michael. ‘It’s just the right size with sufficient grounds for us to keep horses and for me to indulge in my love of gardening. But we have also got involved in this friendly village community; in fact, I have only just vacated the position of Chairman of the Parish Council.’

While I was at their house, Michael and Joan walked me down to the edge of their property to behold ‘one of the finest views in Derbyshire’ while, back inside, they proudly showed their collection of traditional landscape oils by George Turner – ‘the Constable of Derbyshire’ – the Gresleys, the Constantines, David Cox and various Irish artists.

Sadly, Joan has become profoundly deaf over the years – one reason they own a delightful ‘hearing dog’, a spaniel called Fudge – but she and Michael live a fulfilling life where they are constantly visited by their two daughters Suzy, who owns a PR company in London, and Julia, a local medical writer and doctor, along with their four grandchildren Samuel, Niamh, Nancy and Henry.

Henry had a recent spell at the Great Ormond Street Hospital and Michael has decided that Van Elle will support the GOSH charity next year. There is a charity supported every year; for 2014, it’s cancer research, with a big fundraiser on 3rd October through a corporate golf day at Marriott Breadsall Priory. It’s hoped £30,000 can be raised, a thousand pounds for every year Van Elle has been going. £5,000 has already been raised as every employee makes a charity contribution out of their salary – yet another admirable aspect of the Van Elle family.

Michael now devotes most of his attention to his personal family but he’s still not retired fully. ‘I still work one day a week and spend a couple of hours on the computer on the other days,’ admits Michael. ‘I also visit our sites once a month. I like to keep in touch and continue to know my staff, and it’s good that the staff know me well. I’ll keep going in to work simply because I always come away with a smile on my face. It keeps me young.’