Cleanroom construction specialists determined to retain their family values as individual brands continue to thrive in UK and beyond
ALL FAMILIES have their ups and downs – and the Guardtech Group are no exception.
Right now, the Haverhill cleanroom construction specialists are riding the crest of a wave, winning more projects in the past two years than at any point in their history and growing exponentially in terms of staff numbers, revenue and reputation, with their latest adventures including a string of high-profile overseas modular builds and smaller-scale, but rapidly deployed, cleanroom products.
They also scooped the Silver Award for Family Business of the Year at the SME Cambridgeshire Business Awards last Thursday.
The company have specialised in cleanroom construction since 2000, but their roots date all the way back to the 1960s.
Ray Wheeler, who runs the family business alongside his son Mark Wheeler and Conor Barwise, who met Mark at university, insists that ‘emotional investment’ is one of the most critical factors in their enduring success.
“The business has been part of second generations – life from birth, pretty much – and therefore there’s that extra incentive to make it work,” he says.
“The first generation put in that extra commitment, as they are looking to leave a legacy and see the second and third generations thrive through the business and enjoy the journey with the family.
“Even though it’s ‘work’, the family get to spend valuable time together – and that’s a powerful, positive thing, striving towards goals and achieving growth together.”
It was only four years ago that the company, then operating solely as Guardtech Cleanrooms, suffered a critical hit when a client failed to meet their financial obligations on a Guardtech construction project.
The family business – then comprising 12 members of staff – rallied, weathered the storm that followed, and rebuilt to become a 40-person team bringing in more than £10 million in revenue in the last financial year.
The board is now made up of Ray, Commercial Director Mark, Operations Director Conor and Projects Director Sean Gaylard – who joined the Group as the result of a long-standing ‘friendly business relationship’.
Guardtech recently moved into a stunning new premises in Haverhill and are enjoying great success at home and abroad, securing some major construction projects alongside a growing list of international jobs for global giants in Life Sciences, Electronics and beyond.
In the past two years, Guardtech have taken on more projects than at any point in the company’s history, having acquired ‘friendly competitor’ and fellow turnkey construction firm Cleanroom Solutions late in 2021 and then restructuring the overall business to allow Guardtech Cleanrooms to specialise on modular builds.
Cleanroom Solutions, marshalled on site by Sean, now take care of the Group’s large-scale facility projects, while relatively newer conceptions CleanCube Mobile Cleanrooms and Isopod Rapid Cleanrooms cover portable and quick-assembly controlled environment solutions respectively.
“We’ve been through some tough times in our recent history, says Mark Wheeler, “but like all good families, we’ve stuck together through thick and thin and are now reaping the rewards for all the hard work, dedication and commitment the team have demonstrated.”
Guardtech Cleanrooms was a family business that span out of a previous incarnation known as Guardline Technology – a company that manufactured PPE and was started by Ray Wheeler back in 1981 – although its roots date all the way back to 1961.
Guardtech have been building cleanrooms in the 23 years since to an ever-increasing client base both in the UK and, more recently, overseas.
“This year has brought us another fantastic six months of growth,” adds Conor. “Cleanroom Solutions have been tackling some major projects for high-profile clients here in the UK while Guardtech Cleanrooms continues to serve the modular market with distinction.
“But the way our overseas operations are progressing is really pleasing. We’re providing modulars for clients in places like Switzerland and Germany.”
“This level of growth is beyond what our expectations would’ve been four or five years ago, but we’re keen to grasp the opportunities that our teams’ excellent, high-quality work is presenting us with.”
Among the solutions their high-quality work has produced are CleanCube and Isopod – ideas that were born from Mark’s commercial strategy.
Portable cleanroom brand CleanCube took off during the COVID-19 pandemic as a shipping container biosafety lab solution and went on to become an award-winning, versatile mobile cleanroom solution.
Isopod is a rapid-assembly cleanroom pod concept, made from essentially the same robust, high-spec materials as a Guardtech modular build.
Both solutions have opened the Guardtech Group up to more markets than ever before, in the UK and internationally.
“We’re delivering CleanCube Mobile Cleanrooms for clients in territories such as Scandinavia and Isopods all across Europe and even in continents as far afield as Africa,” says Mark.
“As with all our innovations, we try to use our knowledge and expertise to drill into what needs our customers have, or might not even realise they have, and then find the most practical, efficient, cost-effective and quality answers we can.
“The success we’ve had in the past few years with both CleanCube and Isopod has certainly had a major impact on our accelerated growth.”
And yet, despite the rapid growth that has seen Guardtech become one of the UK’s most-trusted cleanroom construction providers, Mark, Ray and Conor are all determined to retain the company’s core values that stem from being a family business.
“The growth is amazing,” Mark continues. “But our ethos stems from something called the GUARD Charter, which promotes the core values of: Guide, Understand, Adapt, Respond and Deliver.
“Each business within the Group, and every employee working for Guardtech, is held accountable against this charter. We guide them to embody the values that have made the business strong over our 20-year history – and that all starts from our familial core.
“We take care of one another, look after each other, support each other. We insist on a no-blame culture, value everyone’s opinions and try to make each team a safe space where innovation, creativity and outside-the-box thinking can flourish and hard work is rewarded.
“Yes, the customer is always king – but the staff are the beating heart of this organisation, and we want them to know just how much we appreciate their talent, hard work and dedication.”
The kernels of that appreciation are clearly developed from the kind of trust and familiarity that is built up over time.
And those relationships clearly don’t stop at immediate family for the Wheelers – Ray has seen the hugely positive, wider impact, of long-standing networks on the business.
“We’ve had so many friends join the business over the years who also have a vested interest in the company’s success and add to the ‘family feel’.
“Other members of staff have brought in their trusted friends and family to the Group, so what we’ve ended up with is a ‘multi-family business’. That then leads you to wonder, ‘What exactly does family mean? How does a business make itself feel like family?’.
“For us, it’s all part of the same thing – making everyone feel valued and trusted, and giving them a sense of belonging, so we all want to move forward together.”
Just like any family, things aren’t always plain sailing – but thanks to the values that the Guardtech Group holds so dear, this once small family unit is now thinking big – really big – and exploring wider horizons than ever before.