Interview – Alistair Bow, Thomas Bow City Asphalt

Thomas Bow
Alistair Bow

Alistair Bow is managing director at civil engineering and surfacing contractors Thomas Bow City Asphalt and chairman of Nottingham Rugby. Thomas Bow, a family firm which has been associated with construction since 1867, is currently working on some major projects in the East Midlands including the Lincoln Transport Hub. EMBL met Alistair over coffee to find out more.

Can you tell us about your background?

I left school at 16. I wanted to be an electrician but I couldn’t get a job. Being an apprentice electrician or plumber was highly desirable in those days. I had to look at joinery or bricklaying instead. Dad was a bricklayer and it seemed to suit me.

However, dad wouldn’t employ me. He made me go and get a trade outside of the family business, so I went to work for Standen Construction and went to college. I worked on social housing sites around Nottinghamshire for three years, then finally went to work for the family as a site foreman.

I thought I knew it all at that age, and I decided housing wasn’t for me. I was more interested in what goes in the ground, so I went back to college to do civil engineering. Then I went to work for a roofing firm! But soon afterwards I saw an advert for a job as an estimator in roadbuilding in Mansfield. I applied, got it and stayed there for five years. I started to become known within the industry and was winning jobs everywhere.

My next move was to Bardon, now known as Aggregate Industries. I was national civil engineering director there for five years. Around 2000-2001 I talked to dad about putting roadbuilding into Thomas Bow, which eventually happened a few years later.

Being part of a family firm must have plenty of upsides, but what unique challenges do family businesses face?

With many family businesses I think there’s an expectation that the younger generation will automatically join and at some point take over. I believe many such businesses have suffered when the next generation has been brought in with no experience. I was the first generation of my family to learn a trade outside of the business, and I certainly couldn’t be doing what I do today without that experience.

In the end you’ve got to have a passion for what you’re doing, whether it’s a family business or not. I’m currently responsible for 100 people’s jobs. It’s not a game. You have to enjoy it but it’s serious.

My business partners are like family to me now, in a way.

What’s the secret to Thomas Bow’s longevity?

Sound management, first of all. But my grandfather was a workaholic and passionate about it, so the real secret is hard work. Nothing’s given to you on a plate.

The Thomas Bow name and the company’s history play a big part in our continued success, but you’re only as good as your last job.

You have some big East Midlands projects on the go – can you describe them for us?

We started working on the Lincoln Transport Hub in partnership with Willmott Dixon about a year and a half ago. The project is worth about £3m to us. It will see the city centre transformed with the construction of a new bus station, a 1,000 space multi-storey car park, retail units and a pedestrian plaza area connecting the new facilities with Lincoln Central Railway Station. We’re working on the roads for it. We’re well known around Lincolnshire and do a lot of work with the County Council, so we’re very pleased to be involved with such an important scheme for the city.

Our other big recent project was at Donington Park, where we completed a repair on the circuit and reinforced paddock two. We’ve actually worked in partnership with MSV (Donington’s new owners) at several of their other circuits; we have a team of racetrack specialists within the business.

Prior to that, we were proud to do the resurfacing works for the new tramlines in Nottingham and the Nottingham ring road.

What’s the plan moving forward?

The Bow family has been involved in property investment and management for some time, and I’m continuing this side of the business. Otherwise the plan is simply to grow our civil engineering and surfacing business as sustainably as possible.

We also need to keep an eye on the latest technology in the field, which will inevitably enable roads to be built better, and we should look at the constituency of asphalt, too. Is it suitable for the modern vehicle? It’s certainly not as good today as it was 20 years ago.

In terms of specific projects, we have work at Birmingham Airport in the pipeline.

Tell us about Nottingham Rugby and your CSR work

I first got involved with Nottingham Rugby in 2008. I wanted to put something back into the community so I decided to sponsor the team. Not long afterwards they went pro! The chairman asked if I wanted to join the new board and I agreed straight away. I then took over as chairman in 2010. I’ve met a lot of interesting people through rugby; while it’s a professional outfit, Nottingham Rugby is a real family club where you make life-long connections.

I do a lot of charity work and currently support Walesby Forest – a not-for-profit outdoor educational activity centre near Newark. I believe that all businesses, regardless of size, should put something back in.