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Francis-Lau Construction Co. Ltd – Keeping it in the family

Founded by Clifford Francis-Lau in 1963, Francis-Lau Construction Co Ltd has stayed in the family, owned and operated by Clifford’s many sons to increasing success. We spoke with Christopher Francis-Lau, company Managing Director, about his father’s legacy and the family’s plans for the company’s future.

Francis-Lau Construction Co. Ltd is a specialist construction firm that designs, fabricates and erects structural steelwork for just about every field in just about every sector, both at home in Trinidad and Tobago and throughout the Caribbean. “Put simply,” explains Christopher, “we provide the skeleton for buildings, bridges and similar infrastructure, with finishing capabilities recently added to our services.”

From small beginnings as a family business, the Francis-Laus have taken their company on to greatness. Over their 55 years in business, this once-small operation has spread throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean, providing steel works for a wide scope of industrial builds including hospitals, schools, hotels, high rises and power plants. Not only that, they have evolved into the Caribbean’s leading specialist construction firm. With over 100 years’ worth of experience between them, brothers Wayne and Christopher run the company as Chairman and Managing Director, carrying on what their father started with love and commitment.

When it first began, Clifford’s business operated out of the Industrial Development Corporation industrial estate in Sea Lots, Port-of-Spain, where it specialised in burglar proofing, gates and fencing. This eventually evolved into steelwork, taking its product from a small, bespoke scale to a vast, industrial one. When recession struck in 1984, however, the company found itself struggling. Unwilling to be easily deterred, Clifford turned his attention outside of Trinidad. Firstly, the company began to export beyond the islands: on many of their jobs, Francis-Lau provided and assembled CKD (‘Completely Knocked Down’) steel structures – structures that arrive in pieces and require full assembly on site. CKD structures are popular for the logistical ease and the reduced risk of damage occurring between the factory and the build site; they are easy to transport, including transportation overseas. To increase their revenue, Francis-Lau Construction began exporting this resource across the Caribbean, to St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, U.S. Virgin Islands and Grenada.

However, this wasn’t their only move to counter economic challenges. Not resting at simply exporting beyond Trinidad, Clifford began to examine neighbour St Vincent as an alternative market, and in a bold move, expanded the business overseas at the height of the recession. It was a gamble, but a strategic one – whilst the recession had its risks, it also meant there was a lack of aggressive competition in St Vincent, leaving a space for the company to fill: the gamble paid off, and in the decades to follow, Francis Lau Constriction expanded throughout the English-speaking Caribbean.

After almost 55 years in business, Francis-Lau Construction is still going strong, with Clifford’s sons dedicated to upholding the standards he set; “We remain committed to meeting and exceeding customer expectations when it comes to structural steel fabrication and erection, whether we work in the capacity of tier-one or sub-contractors. As such, we continue to uphold our reputation for delivery of projects that are on time, within budget and to scope.”

However, Christopher, Wayne and their brother Andre feel the key is something more than that: “What sets us apart? I shall quote my brother Andre, our Export Director, because I believe his sentiment continues to ring true in 2018. ‘We’ve remained human. We can claim unbridled integrity, exceptional quality and fair pricing, but what truly sets us apart from others in our field is our commitment to safety, to our partners and to our clients.’ He is right! Unlike those who place obstacles between their clients and senior management, our clients can always contact a Francis-Lau. We maintain the ‘neighbourhood contractor feel’, despite offering a professional service.”

The success of this approach is shown through their relationships, and Francis-Lau Construction treat them seriously. They remember where they have come from, and do not forget the loyalty and support shown to them along the way: “Collaboration is central to our achievements. Our suppliers – Union Steel Hardware, DC Marshall, Roof Systems, Welding Depot and Industrial Supplies – have provided unwavering support over the last decade of our evolution. Similarly, we owe a debt of gratitude to partners NH International (Caribbean) Ltd, Kee-Chanona Ltd, Hookmally Ali Ltd and the Energy Chamber of Trinidad and Tobago.”

It takes a family business to understand the value of the personal touch, but it is an impressive one that manages to maintain this as the company grows – and grow they have. Not content to stand still, in 2014 the company traversed the hoops and red tape required to attain Safe to Work (STOW) certification, which would allow them to tender for contracts in the energy sectors. A company does not have to deal with electronics directly in order to need certification for these contracts – one poor decision can be costly, or worse, may be unsafe for the employee. With such a high-stake environment, any companies and members of staff who take on such jobs must be well educated on the potential risks involved.

Attaining this certification wasn’t simple, or cheap, but Francis-Lau could see the potential to greatly widen their customer-base. MD Christopher assigned the task to Wayne’s son, Rhou Francis-Lau – the company’s Policy and Strategy Manager. Rhou worked on making the company STOW-certified for over six months – a process that involved training staff in new health and safety measurements, first aid and managements systems, as well as securing a welding certification and a certification in risk management. To guide them through this process, the company chose to take on a consultant – this is not a requirement but was opted for in order to ensure that their transition into the energy field was done correctly, and that their training and preparation was at the highest possible standard.

This commitment to quality paid off, and Francis-Lau quickly began to secure tenders in the industrial sector. Their first was a contract for Schlumberger in La Romaine, working on the expansion of their existing facilities. The main contractor on the project, which required a total cost of $2.5 million, was Hook Mally Ali, with Francis-Lau providing their steelwork expertise.

Christopher, Wayne, Andre and Rhou are only some of the many family members keeping Francis-Lau construction moving forwards. Until recently, Royce Francis-Lau, another of Clifford’s sons, served as the General Manager to related company Francis-Lau Machining Technologies – an offshoot that has since merged into the central company. Clifford’s children all share the same passion for keeping his legacy alive, and are similarly committed to each other:

“I started working with the company as a management trainee. My older brothers, Wayne and Andre, helped to train and groom me to sit in my present position. As a project manager I became excited about the job, acknowledging that every project is different and that each teaches lessons that help to better understand and execute the next. The excitement of the unknown awakened my desire for more responsibility. Now I thrive on two aspects of the job: winning clients and completing projects.”

With investments such as the STOW, Chris has been able to continue chasing this passion, expanding on what his father and entire family has created, allowing the company’s skills and operations to reach ever further afield. “In Q4, 2017 we commenced operation at our new facility in La Brea, with enhanced offerings that also include sandblasting and specialist finishes, allowing us to more effectively serve the energy sector – a strategic aim that first took form in 2014. Our decision has already begun to pay off, as this year we landed a contract with TGU, one of the largest power plants in the region.

“What’s more, we recently forayed into Sint Maarten and expect this to be the start of expansion into the Dutch Caribbean, with future projects expected in Curacao and Aruba, along with the British Overseas Territories of Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands. Given the unique position in which we find ourselves during this economic downturn, and the success of our expanding operations to La Brea, we are also exploring further opportunities to diversify within the sector.”

It is a unique position indeed, and one well earnt by family commitment and hard work. With this as a starting point, Endeavour looks forward to seeing how far Francis-Lau continue to grow!