AccXel is a state-of-the-art centre of excellence to inspire, train and connect people entering and advancing within the UK construction industry was founded by Nicola Bird, third generation of KW Bell, a £80 million construction company based in Gloucestershire.
Developed by the industry, for the industry, AccXel will accelerate learning and equip men and women with knowledge and practical experience of the latest technological advances in sustainability and digital construction.
Located in Cinderford, Gloucestershire, the pioneering centre is co-funded by K W Bell Group and the Government’s Getting Building Funding awarded by Gloucestershire’s Local Enterprise Partnership (GFirst LEP). Paul Andrews spoke to Managing Director, Nicola Bird, a third generation family business member and architect behind the vision to find out more.
As Nicola explains, “It was through discussions around succession planning that led to the creation of AccXel to actively meet the needs of the construction sector and those businesses within it to look to the future and take steps to manage their needs going forward.”
Nicola and her sister Natalie grew up in a family business, a well-known business in the construction sector and as Nicola explains, “It was never an obvious decision for us to go into the family business because of the perception at that time of women in construction which was very much seen as a job for boys. Clearly perceptions have changed to some extent and there are more opportunities for women in all sectors but back then it was not the case so Natalie went off to become a barrister and I went into teaching Beauty Therapy at a local college, after dropping out of my A Levels, and altogether struggling in higher education.”
Nicola joined the family business on a part time basis as an administrator, in 2010 after having her second daughter. “When I started the business had around 200 employees but within six years had doubled in size and my role evolved so that I ended up with responsibility for training, health and safety and HR. In between my working hours I then completed a Masters in Health & Safety and took responsibility for this within the business, as well as creating new work opportunities through the recruitment of apprentices,” continues Nicola.
Recruitment was not easy as working in construction for many is still perceived as an undesirable career path. “Not only is changing the perception a challenge, but there was a lack of industry-ready knowledge with standard FE provision, which resulted in a massive drop out of learners entering the industry post training.,” explains Nicola. “So we developed a groundworks apprenticeship within the business from which there were 13 graduates and essentially that is where the idea for AccXel came about,” she adds.
Nicola worked hard to develop her career within the business, looking to be accepted for what she knew, gaining recognition for her ability on merit, something that she struggled with at first, working harder to prove her worth and not let imposter syndrome determine her journey. As she explains, “I loved my job and wanted to be recognised for the work I was doing and ultimately it was important for me to be me, think like me and not try to compete with a man in the way that they approach things.”
Nicola is very aware of her family business heritage and was keen to do something to create a legacy not just focused on her own family firm one that was inspired by it. “My grandfather was of a time where leadership was more direct and he was followed by my father who is a strong leader. For Natalie and I, it was important for us to follow our own paths and to become leaders in our own right and I guess that is what actually happened,” continues Nicola.
Things continued to evolve and with a growing understanding of construction training and safety management, Nicola carried out business case studies over 4 years in development, creating a bespoke apprenticeship model which better suited the industry. Over that period Nicola conducted many seminars and talks to industry to discover and grow what she had already discovered.
In October 2020, Nicola & K W Bell Group were awarded £1.96 million by HM Government and GFirst LEP via the ‘Getting Building Fund’ to build and create AccXel, the UK’s first co-funded Construction Skills Accelerator Centre.
Family business is where it started and how it grows. Nicola shares this new venture with her father Pete, mother Yvonne, and sister Natalie and collectively they are making a difference. As Nicola adds, “It is a real privilege for me to work in a business with my sister, my Dad and having Mum on the board as a Non-Executive Director. We work really well together and have created a learning environment to inspire, educate and upskill the next generation of workers within the construction sector.”
AccXel is not just a training school, it is an ideology based upon experience, data, strong values and the aspiration of future proofing the industry. It is also firmly rooted in the local area where the building is inspired by the three core products extracted from the Forest of Dean where they are based – coal, stone and iron ore.
The centre has some fantastic partners, not least JCB who provide them with brand new machinery every six months, a state-of-the-art technology space where apprentices can ‘test drive’ plant in simulators, and a live construction site where skills can be practiced, providing the skills so that when they turn up on site on day one they are able to work, safely and responsibly too.
AccXel offers Training Programmes, professional education and bespoke training to develop the next generation of construction professionals and upskill the current workforce. The state-of-the-art, £3 million education centre has been established to address the severe skills shortage, compounded by the surge in nationwide construction.
AccXel will change the face of construction education through encouraging pupils, school leavers, career changers and career starters into construction, as well as upskilling those already in the industry.
Nicola is an inspiration and a real force of nature. The journey has been challenging but rewarding and is already making a real difference too. There is a real nod to her family business background evident throughout the centre with pictures adorning the walls and inspirational quotes to continue to inspire others. Her journey is a complete circle from starting out as someone discouraged from entering the world of construction to someone joining the sector and now using her knowledge and skills to make her mark by creating a world class environment for others to succeed in construction.