The watchful eyes of the radar-based Subsurface Utilities Mark Out (SUMO) have built a cost-saving reputation in the construction industry. The company is now on a major expansion programme through franchising to consolidate its position in the market. Adam Browning reports.

THE detection of underground utility systems is crucial for any construction project and since its launch SUMO has become instrumental in aiding the UK's booming construction sector.

It has helped many leading contractors to save a fortune which would otherwise be required to settle litigations arising as a result of damage to underground utility services. In providing such a valuable service to the construction industry, it is no wonder that SUMO franchisees have either met or exceeded their targets, in some cases doubling their original predictions.

The growing proliferation of non-metallic materials such as plastic, clay, concrete and fibre optics in the ground has created a new and growing market demand for a service that can detect these objects without costly excavation. The usual exploratory digging process is literally a hit and miss approach, damaging electric, fibre optic, gas, water and drainage sewers. A minor slip can cause personal injury; damage to own or third party equipment; contract delays and claims; traffic delays, road damage and accidents; and higher insurance premiums. It's a contractor's nightmare.

The alternative is SUMO's proven, non-invasive methodology, which locates the type and depth of underground utilities. Sumo uses a unique version of ground penetrating radar technology originally introduced to detect plastic mines during the Falklands conflict.
The benefits of SUMO's methodology include a reduction in downtime, elimination of damage caused by 'hit and miss' drilling and a detection accuracy rate of 95 per cent.

The increase in the UK of new development and re-generation has given SUMO a wealth of opportunities within the construction market. 'SUMO is the only network operator in a market already estimated at £15 million per year,' says Managing Director Michael Bushell. 'With the construction industry employing some 17 per cent of the UK's workforce, the demand for SUMO's radar assisted underground surveying system can only increase, especially as we are servicing the country's ageing infrastructure and the demand for new housing. The fact that very few companies have the resources to purchase the equipment and invest in training their own staff to use it makes it both logically and economically sensible for them to outsource to SUMO.'

The next step for SUMO has been to further its national expansion programme through targeting the specialist press with a direct marketing and PR strategy. It has generated numerous enquiries and following the campaign, SUMO received a particularly high level of interest at this year's British Franchise Exhibition in Glasgow. This success will soon be followed by SUMO opening up its first franchise in Scotland.

In addition, the company shows prospective franchisees the potential of a SUMO franchise by operating a Project Intelligence Database. The database informs franchisees of forthcoming active construction projects likely to require their services. 'As a result, SUMO's reputation for a quality service is generating a record number of new customers every month,' says Michael. 'We have secured a repeat business rate of over 80 per cent. Our concept enjoys a high referral rate and strong business building capacity.'

One recent high-profile construction project that used the technology and expertise of SUMO was a £1 million memorial in Whitehall, London commemorating the role of women during World War II. SUMO was called in to survey the site of the 22ft bronze sculpture, which was unveiled by the Queen this July.

SUMO has been able to expand quickly to capture its market by developing a franchise concept around its technology and is the largest fleet of high-tech sub-surface detection operators in the UK. 'We currently have ten vans in operation, seven of which are run by franchisees,' says SUMO Franchise Director Mark Williams. 'With the numerous national and regional contracts currently under negotiation, we need to substantially increase our fleet in the next 12 months just to keep up with the demand.'

To meet this growing demand SUMO has moved its head office to larger premises in Havant, as well as opening a second office in Chester to facilitate operations. In anticipation of its network growth, SUMO is also currently recruiting more support and marketing personnel. SUMO is looking for franchisees who are 'ambitious, entrepreneurial individuals who will be confident enough to perform local sales presentations, have some experience of the hard hat sector and an affinity with technology,' reflects Mark. 'However, our thoroughly comprehensive training programme and dedicated support system ensures all our franchisees, whatever their background, can excel in their territory and grow their business to its maximum potential.'

In the development of its business network SUMO has dedicated itself to the principles of 'ethical' franchising. In order to achieve targets, it has brought together a specialist team of advisers including specialist lawyers, accountants, bankers, IT consultants and marketing agencies. The general structure of the franchise is based upon the principle that where possible all services will be provided by the franchisor centrally, leaving the franchisee free to develop the business locally and to provide the SUMO service.

To facilitate this, the franchisor provides a central marketing service including a centralised booking service; a comprehensive business administration service (including client invoicing, the collection of client debts and the maintenance of each franchisee's accounting, VAT, PAYE and corporate records); and a full technical support programme (including both ongoing training and an in-field support team). Franchisees are also encouraged to communicate with each other to provide further support through SUMO's franchisee intranet, which enables its more experienced franchisees to offer new franchisees a 'leg-up'.

These elements, together with existing customer demand throughout the country, make SUMO a winning business proposition.