Ireland is a country where farewells have marked the lives of many. For centuries, Irish people have emigrated all over the world – and over a century ago, two brothers from a small farm in Cloonmore, County Galway, said farewell and set sail for England.
One brother soon returned to Ireland, homesick for the green fields and hills – the other, Michael Joseph Gleeson, stayed in England, determined to make his mark in the world. Moving to Sheffield, “MJ” became a bricklayer for an Irish builder who also came from Cloonmore, then married his employer’s daughter and became heir apparent to a burgeoning building business. And so the Gleeson company story begins.
Sheffield was the city which changed MJ’s fortunes – and it was in this city that the young Irishman with the burning ambition began to build his inherited business, always seeking out new opportunities, always looking ahead to assess future trends.
This was an era of speculative housing and general building contracting in and around Sheffield, though MJ’s shrewd business brain saw strength in diversification, so he acquired a greyhound stadium and several local cinemas. Building operations expanded as far as Manchester, Fleetwood, Preston – and the first London building contracts.
The Gleeson business empire marched further north and south, taking in nearly 400 houses for Newcastle upon Tyne Corporation in 1932 – and acquiring the massive Nonsuch Park Estate between Cheam and Ewell, in Surrey. Gleeson also started undertaking major civil engineering work, most notably a section of the London to Fishguard trunk road, including the Western Avenue viaduct. At this time, MJ’s nephew JP (Jack) Gleeson was responsible for all work in the South, having set up a small office in Worcester Park.
During the Second World War, Gleeson was instructed by the Government to devote all its efforts to war work, building airfields, military camps and hospitals throughout the country, which expanded and diversified the company’s business yet further.
MJ retired in 1950 and was succeeded by Jack Gleeson. The building and civil engineering business continued to flourish through the winning of major contracts – particularly for power stations and dams throughout the UK.
Gleeson became a public company quoted on the London Stock Exchange, and continued to build both power stations and dams. Eventually, Gleeson was involved in the building of over thirty power stations and eighteen dams in the UK – with the result that they can still claim to have built many more dams in the UK than any other contractor.
Gleeson took on many major social housing schemes, especially in London, whilst also constructing the massive British Aluminium Company smelter at Lynmouth, near Newcastle. The company also built a number of the earliest motorway projects, as well as shopping centres, hospitals – and leisure facilities, notably the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, and the Crystal Palace National Recreation Centre in London.
Whilst continuing to expand building and civil engineering operations in the UK, Gleeson won ever larger contracts, notably the impressive Lloyd’s of London building in the City. The company also ventured overseas to provide cold stores in Burma, the Seychelles and Egypt, as well as undertaking a huge water supply project in Nigeria. In 1988 Jack Gleeson retired as Managing Director and was succeeded by his nephew, Dermot Gleeson, as Chief Executive.
The 1980’s also saw the acquisition of other companies into the Gleeson Group; Powerminster, specialising in mechanical and electrical work and property care services, was acquired in 1985. Concrete Repairs, the UK leader in repairing concrete structures, was acquired in 1986.
Following the privatisation of the English and Welsh water industry in 1989, Gleeson Engineering Division completed the first Thames Water turnkey cost contract at Camberley in 1991. This was quickly followed by Walton Advanced Waste Treatment Works and the implementation of Thames Water’s first partnering agreement (EQUIP). During the 1990’s Gleeson established itself as the UK’s market leader in water-related civil engineering. A particularly significant milestone was the establishment of Stirling Water and the subsequent award of the AVSEP Wastewater Treatment Works for Edinburgh.
Alongside this important engineering success, building activity in the social and private housing sectors continued to grow apace.
In 1992 Gleeson purchased ECL, which brought to the Group invaluable experience in the design and installation of sewage and effluent treatment plants.
In 1994, Jack Gleeson died and Dermot Gleeson became Chairman as well as Chief Executive, a role he relinquished in 1998, when the Board agreed to separate the two positions.
2000 & Beyond
The first half of the decade saw continued growth for the building and civil engineering operations in the UK, with Group turnover reaching £645m and staff numbering 2,800 by 2004.
Subsequently, however, Gleeson decided to narrow the commercial focus of its operations and to concentrate on development rather than contracting. In 2005, the northern and southern construction divisions were sold to a management buy out team, which now trades as GB Building Solutions. In 2006, Concrete Repairs Ltd was also sold to a management buyout team, Gleeson MCL Limited was sold to Morgan Sindall and became Morgan Est Rail and the Engineering division was sold to Black & Veatch.
In 2010, Gleeson sold its last remaining contracting business, Powerminster Gleeson Services to Morgan Sindall who incorporated it in their facilities management business, Lovell Respond.
MJ Gleeson plc now specialises in the development of housing on brownfield land in the North of England and the promotion through the planning system, and subsequent sale, of green field sites for housing in the South of England.