A stuttering housing market and a reduction in public works going out to tender have made for tough trading conditions for construction companies.

Yet the 20 builders returning to this year’s league table suggests a recovery in fortunes for the top-performers.

Shepherd Group, the York-based contractor, manufacturer and engineer, is one such business.

The eponymous group was founded in 1890 by Frederick Shepherd as a speculative housebuilder.

During the 1950s and 1960s, new lines of business were developed, including Portakabin, which makes the well-known portable modular buildings – and the ubiquitous Portaloo.

Shepherd posted record sales of £715m ahead of the 2008 crash and responded quickly to the subsequent downturn, cutting overheads and eliminating loss-making contracts. This contributed to a return to growth in 2011, with sales recovering 15% to £608m and underlying operating profit increasing to £24m.

Portakabin Hire continues to be the principal contributor to profits. Its European Portakabin business – operating in France, Belgium and the Netherlands – is thriving, due partly to a decision to focus primarily on the hire business in Belgium and Holland.

Shepherd Construction and an engineering services arm, SES, are also growing despite challenging market conditions.

Shepherd had repaid all its debt by the end of June 2011, and this year it secured a £50m funding package.

Chairman Alan Fletcher said: “This demonstrates significant confidence in the potential of the group, providing us with additional flexibility and capacity for growth.”

A £6m investment has also been made in Portakabin, including a modern production facility in York.

Despite its size – the group employs about 3,500 people – Shepherd retains a strong family ethos. The company says that the stability of family ownership and the diversity of its products give it the confidence to plan for further growth.

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Company details
CompanyShepherd Group
ActivityBuilder, manufacturer and developer
Sales £m607.7
Operating profit £m24.0
Main shareholdersShepherd family (100%)

If applicable:

* supplied by Company   † annualised figure   ‡  profit = ebitda