Category: Tradespeople and builders advice

Rob Birch - Roofer, Fascias, Soffits and Guttering Specialist, Conservatory Installer

For many tradesman, dealing with suppliers is just another part of the job. But for Rob Burch, a fascias, soffits and guttering specialist from Rainham in Essex, it was an opportunity.

As well as doing his own fitting and installation work, Rob realised that there was a business to be made in becoming a supplier himself, and set up Direct Cladding, operating a trade yard where other tradesman can come in to buy materials for a variety of projects. Now, as well as taking on jobs from MyBuilder, he also supplies materials to other tradesman who use MyBuilder. “I don’t see it as competition though,” Rob tells us. “Other people aren’t competition – I see them as someone to learn from. You can always learn, can’t you?”

 

Going it Alone

 

Rob’s background set him up perfectly for a twin career as tradesman and supplier. He started out doing sales for a supply company and saw that there was money to be made in the line of work, especially with guttering and similar products. After also spending time managing a branch of a national chain of builders merchants, Rob realised he could make a go of it on his own, and set up Direct Cladding 19 years ago. Rob said: “I came from that supply side and was working for other people, managing a whole team, but I ended up thinking ‘I need to get out of here’, so that was it.”

Taking the leap worked out well for Rob. The business – both aspects of it – has boomed, with up to 10 separate teams of fitters working for Direct Cladding during peak season in the summer, going out and taking on around 30 jobs a week. Rob said: “I think we’re the biggest domestic installer in the UK. We just stick to domestic though, we don’t take on commercial projects. We’re good at what we do and we stick to that.”

Meanwhile, the supply side has grown as well, with the business becoming a common port of call for plenty of other tradesman in the area. They even sell directly to customers online. “We were doing supply and fit initially with the trade business, but we ended up supplying so much material we thought it would be silly not to sell a bit. That developed into another beast,” Rob said. Because we have the trade counter, we know all the local tradesman,” Rob said. “You get to know people and you start to understand who does it properly and who doesn’t. With this trade in particular, replacing fascias and so on, it’s one where people are likely only going to have it done to their homes once, so some tradesman might be unscrupulous and take advantage of that – they can use a bad product and know that the homeowner won’t realise. But we make sure we do it properly.”

 

No Cover Ups

 

Rob added: “The most common thing people might do to cut costs and do it on the cheap is overcladding – just put new PVCu capping boards over the timber structure that’s already there. But if that structure is rotten, all you’re doing to covering up the problem and leaving it there to crop up again down the line. We will only do proper replacements.”

 

Rob Birch - Roofer, Fascias, Soffits and Guttering Specialist, Conservatory Installer

 

Despite presiding over a business empire, Rob still likes to make time to go out on jobs himself, visiting homeowners and giving quotes. He joined MyBuilder in November 2015, and quickly started using it to win even more work for the business. In a little over a year, Direct Cladding has picked up 114 pieces of positive feedback, and no negatives. Considering Rob’s initial scepticism, he’s very happy with the results. “I’ve always been looking for new ways to bring in different leads, but a lot of things we tried were just frustrating. So we dipped into MyBuilder – we’d see a lot of tradesman on MyBuilder coming through the yard. I didn’t expect it to be any good if I’m being honest. But as soon as I was on there I saw how many jobs were up for grabs, and I just thought ‘yes please’.”

 

Playing the Game

 

It’s been an addiction ever since: “I got hooked! I couldn’t help myself, I had to force myself to put it down,” Rob said. “It’s a bit like doing a fruit machine, you see the jobs and you think, yep, I’ll go for that, go for that, and you give it a shot.” Rob’s top trip for winning work is to craft a good opening message when getting in touch with homeowners. “I was once in a meeting for the football club I help out with, and when I came out I saw a job that looked perfect, but I was an hour or two late in going for it. But no one else had been shortlisted yet, so I thought ‘why not?’ and gave it go, with a nice personalised message. Sure enough, I got it.”

Rob’s knowledge and experience was even recognised by City & Guilds, when he was asked to help write questions for the body’s examinations, helping to test the newcomers to the industry to make sure they were up to scratch.

It all shows that from being a sole trader to a business mogul, being a good tradesman takes on many different forms. But whether he’s behind the till or up a ladder, Rob knows that good work will always be appreciated.

 

Advice for tradesmen:

 

  • Your opening message is your chance to make a good first impression: “The first message is really important, you don’t have to spend a long time on it, but if you can just show that you’ve read their job post and talk about it properly, it can help you stand out against all the other people being shortlisted”.
  • You have to look at the bigger picture: “Sometimes you get difficult customers who’ll mess around when it comes to paying – there will always be a few chancers. But keeping your feedback as good as possible is more important than one difficult customer – in the long run, it will work out.”
  • Be smart about going for leads: “There’s definitely a balance when it comes to leads. You can’t go for everything, but at the same time, if you’re really picky you might not end up with anything with zero return. You have to be smart about it, but you can’t be afraid to go for it.”

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If you’re a self-employed tradesman, the newspaper headlines this morning wouldn’t have made for happy reading.

“Rob the Builder”. “Spite Van Man”. “No Laughing Matter” – the government has been criticised by all sides for its budget plans.

Some of the biggest news to come out of chancellor Philip Hammond’s budget announcement yesterday concerned the self-employed. If the plans go ahead, the Class 4 National Insurance contributions paid by self-employed workers, such as plumbers, electricians and decorators, will rise from nine per cent to 11 per cent in April 2019. According to the Sun newspaper, the move will hit 2.84 million people, costing them each £240 a year.

At the same time, sole traders who have become incorporated and pay themselves with dividends instead of an annual salary will also be hit, with the tax-free amount they can hand themselves cut from £5,000 to £2,000 a year, which the Sun estimates will be an average hike of £320 a year for 2.2m workers.

In a case study, the paper looks at self-employed painter and decorator Sandie Webster, who’ll be out by £60 a year when the changes come in. The Lincolnshire tradeswoman will benefit from Class 2 National Insurance being axed, only to be hit by the rise in Class 4. “With no holiday or sick pay, I’m thinking twice about whether I should give up being self-employed,” she told the paper.

The government, which has previously pledged to freeze or cut taxes, is facing a backlash from its own MPs over the proposals, with former Tory minister Andrew Murrison expressing concern for the people running their own businesses: “This party on this side has always been, I hope always will be, the party that supports white van man.”

Pressure is growing on the chancellor to backtrack on the National Insurance changes – but at the moment, he’s insisted they will go ahead.

 

All over the country, tradespeople are waking up every day and going to work. Whether digging out foundations or clambering around the chimney pots, they’re all united by their hard graft and commitment to a job well done.

At MyBuilder, we want to help homeowners find the very best tradespeople, and that means showing off all the great work that tradesmen on the site are doing every day. We love writing about the lengths tradesmen go to to make the jobs happen, but as the old saying goes, a picture speaks a thousands words, so as well as writing, we’re travelling the country to capture tradesmen hard at work.

If you have a job that you think shows off your skills, or a project that you know will make onlookers say “wow”, let us know, and we’ll do our best to try and document it – and you. We’ll even let you have a set of the professional shots for you to use, at no cost. Get in touch with our photographer Andrew at andrew@mybuilder.com, and you could join our other photo stars:

heating

Adam Prentice of White Knight Central Heating and Plumbing Services hard at work replacing a radiator

 

insulation

Martin Johnson of Evergreen Power adds a layer of insulation to a roof in Croydon

 

Daniel Morgan - Roofer

Danny Morgan (r) and his crew at Morgan Roofing finish off a complete roof replacement in Hampton

 

Ben Robinson - Tree Surgery

Ben Robinson of Clear Cut Trees takes down a tree in North London

 

Carl Lamon - Chimney & Fireplace Specialist

Carl Lamon of Oxon Stoves adds a new flue to this chinmey in Didcot

Nigel-Neil_v1-compressor

 

It’s always interesting to hear stories of what famous people did for a living before they hit the big time. Harrison Ford was a carpenter before he was Han Solo. George Clooney worked as a door to door insurance salesman. Similarly, many tradesman worked a variety of other jobs before finding the career that was right for them – though not many can claim to have worked in a tights factory.

Neil Burrows is one of the ones who can. Before he and friend Nigel England set up business together, Neil worked making dyes for Pretty Polly, an historic British tights manufacturer. It’s a far cry from fitting kitchens, but like many tradesman, neither Neil nor Nigel followed the simplest paths into the business.

N England Joinery, based in Sutton in Ashfield, has been working through MyBuilder for five years, and completed hundreds of jobs, focussing on kitchen fitting. During that time, the pair have racked up more than 120 pieces of positive feedback, with no negatives – a testament to how well they work together.

The pair began working together after taking redundancy from the same large firm at the same time. Nigel had originally trained as a joiner after leaving school, gaining NVQs in the trade before working for a firm that did fitting work for the NHS. Meanwhile, after a spell in the world of hosiery, Neil also got into the world of joinery, focussing on commercial businesses – fitting out shops and restaurants. “One of the jobs I did was the KFC in Leicester Square. After leaving Pretty Polly, which was a big local employer, I worked all over, across the Midlands and down to London. Eventually I ended up closer to home, but the firm was shrinking, and Nigel and I both ended up taking redundancy around the same time.”

Kitchen Fitters United

 

Living around the corner from each other, and both interested in setting out out on their own, they realised that pooling their resources could make sense.

“It just looked like the sensible thing to do,” Nigel said. “We lived so close and both wanted to do the same kind of thing. It didn’t take long to think that if we worked together, we could make a better go of it. Thankfully, that turned out to be the case.”

As a working partnership, the two have found that while cooperating is key, it also pays to let their individual strengths shine through.

“We get on well together,” Neil told us. “When we’re working on jobs together, we get stuff done very quickly. I think we both have parts of the job we enjoy that the other isn’t so keen on, which helps. Nigel has more of a background in the joinery side of things, so he likes to work with the work surfaces, doing the cutting and fitting. I do a lot more of the plumbing work. But we both have to do the tiling.”

At the same time, there’s work they prefer to stay away from. Nigel said: “When it comes to floors, unless it’s tiling, we tend to stay away it. Lino especially is a real pain, if it’s cheap it just rips easily and is a nightmare to deal with. And when it comes to electricals, we have a friendly electrician who can come and do the work properly and sign it off – we just have to tidy up after him.”

Despite now being self-employed, the duo feel more secure in their work than ever before. “It gives us more security, if anything,” Neil said. “People always need work doing, and we’re around to do it. We go all over the area. Usually we’re out six days a week, and we’ll be giving quotes on off days and in the evenings. We’ve never been short of work. It feels like people are tending to stay in homes for longer and do them up, rather than move house, which works for us.”

Personal and professional

 

As well as getting work through MyBuilder, they also pay attention to work that comes their way through personal recommendations. When we met the pair, they were fitting a new kitchen for a homeowner who had been referred to them by a past client who’d found them on MyBuilder. “You have to do the work you get recommended for,” Neil said, “or people stop recommending you.”

Alongside glowing recommendations, the partnership also regularly work as installers for DIY giant B&Q. “We have a have a great relationship with them,” Nigel said. “We can take measurements then take it into B&Q and they produce pictures of what the kitchen will look like. It helps the customer to visualise the kitchen”.

While the pair are keen to help homeowners get the best results possible, they typically find homeowners can sometimes be too keen to get the work underway. Nigel said: “We sometimes find people have been out and bought a kitchen online. It comes and it just isn’t up to scratch, they don’t really know what they’ve bought, and it just won’t do the job. Then other times, people buy them, all the units and worktops arrive, and they have to put them somewhere while they’re waiting for the actual fitting to start. People underestimate how many boxes there’ll be, and how much space they’ll take up. Because you can’t keep them outside in the garden or anything – if they get wet, or it gets cold, they can get damaged and warp. We’ve been round to start a job and found people’s living rooms piled high with everything. It’s not the best way to go about it.”

While it’s not best practice, it shows how ready people are to have work done, and how much demand is out there for tradesmen like Nigel and Neil. They might be busy for the foreseeable future – but fitting kitchens makes a nice change from dyeing tights.

See their full profile here.

Advice for other tradesmen

 

  • Go hard at the start: Setting up a small business by themselves, the pair needed to find work, fast. “You just have to go for it,” Nigel said. “Try and get as much work as you can, and be prepared to charge a bit less than others might in the beginning so your name is out there and you’re getting recommendations. On MyBuilder, just keep going for leads – it’s the best way to start getting the work rolling in.”
  • Build relationships as well as kitchens: It’s a people-facing business, and the more you connect with a customer, the better business can be. “You have to have good relationships with people”, Neil said. “It’s important to build that straight away. Anything that can help develop that is good – we have a good relationship with B&Q and can pass on the discounts, which pays dividends.”
  • Sort out your schedule: While taking on as much work as possible makes sense when you’re starting out, there comes a point where you need to be systematic about how you book yourself out. “You have to be careful with overlapping jobs,” Nigel said. “Especially when it takes several weeks for ordered kitchens to be delivered, you have to be smart about how long you give yourself, and how much you’re doing. It’s fine to go and give quotes, but be realistic about when you can fit people in – don’t over-promise and stretch yourself.”

IMG_0853

Ask a builder what their favourite project was, and they might point you to all kind of jobs. An extension that helped a growing family make the most of their property. A conversion job that meant a disabled homeowner could have more independence. But for some builders, their favourite jobs are even more personal. And it doesn’t get much more personal than building your own house.

For Yaz Meer, of MPM Builders, building his own home was a dream that came true – even if it wasn’t a job that he was ever able to prioritise. “When you’re a builder,” he says, “your own house is always the last to get done.”

But with the help of one labourer, and an experienced bricklayer who came in to sort some of the details, Yaz built his own home in 12 months, taking on everything from digging out the foundations to fitting the bathroom.

Start as you mean to go on

It’s an especially impressive achievement when you consider that, like many tradesmen, Yaz doesn’t have much in the way of formal qualifications or accreditations. His career in the building industry began young though, leaving school early in order to start going out on site with his dad. From there, it might seem like a straightforward path to setting up on his own with years of experience under his belt, but things didn’t quite go that way.

“I liked being out with my dad, but I didn’t stick at it. I ended up packing it in and getting a job in a warehouse. It’s odd to think now, but I actually wasted six years of my life there, just moving boxes around.”

Thankfully, like riding a bike, Yaz never quite forgot his trade skills, and when he finally picked up the courage to pack in his warehouse job, he was able to go back to his roots as a jobbing tradesman. As his house-building skills show, he has a wide range of abilities, and when we visited him at home in Nottingham, he struggles to pick a favourite when asked what he most enjoys. “I know people say you’ll just be a jack of all trades and a master of none, but I honestly do think I’m pretty good at most of the things I’ve tried. I’ll turn my hand to anything.” He points to the garden decking outside: “I built that after we moved here, not having done decking before. The neighbours liked it so much, they asked me to go over and do some for them as well.”

Despite having an omnivorous attitude to jobs, he’s settled into a few particular niches, particularly bathroom fitting. “I like fitting a bathroom, and I think my wider experience helps with it. If someone is just a bathroom fitter, sometimes they won’t think about the bigger picture, they’re just focused on putting in a new suite and that’s it. Because I’m a builder too, I can take a different approach, and think about things like taking out walls to really make use of the space.”

A night on the tiles

Sadly, bathroom fitting also brings him into close contact with his least favourite activity. “Tiling! I hate tiling. I wish I could just wave a magic wand and have it done. I know it means the job is nearly finished, but I just hate it.”

He still does it though, as he does most jobs. While he’ll bring in a Part P registered electrician for electrics, and a Gas Safe engineer for any gas work, he’s reluctant to bring in anyone else. “Sometimes I think about expanding the business, and having other people work for me, but I’m concerned about my reputation. I need people I can trust to do the job properly. At the end of the day, it’s my reputation on the line.” So far, it’s a reputation that has seen him gain 100% positive feedback on MyBuilder.

Working by himself means there’s always work to do, being hard at it for five days a week and visiting potential clients at weekends to give quotes. After building his own business and building his own home, does he think about hanging up his tools? “Sometimes I think I’d love it if I could retire at 50,” he muses. “But at the same time, I also know I’d get really bored.”

Thankfully, there might be someone to carry on the family trade, with his youngest son keen to follow in his footsteps. If he comes up to Yaz’s high standards, there’ll be plenty to do around the house, as he looks to swap his home’s kitchen and living room. If he gets round to it of course. “That’s the problem,” he sighs. “It’s always the last thing to get done.”

See his full profile here.

Advice for other tradesmen

  • “Make sure you take the time to listen to what the customer wants. I work five days a week and save my quoting for weekends. That means I can sit down with the customer and understand what they want without them feeling rushed.”
  • “Be careful about who you choose to work with. If you’re the project manager, it’s your reputation on the line. Make sure you trust anyone doing work with you to do it up to your standards.”
  • “Look after yourself. You have to look after your body a bit, especially if you’re doing things like tiling, down on your knees all day. It takes its toll. You have to understand your limits. You can’t keep going forever, you have to be sensible.”

stephen-m

Doctors will also tell you that when it comes to your health, prevention is usually better than cure.

Ask Stephen Mackinlay about home security, and he’ll tell you the very same thing. “A lot of jobs come from people who’ve had incidents,” he told MyBuilder. “People who’ve been burgled, or their neighbours have just been victims of it. Now, thankfully, people are more conscious of home security as a preventative step.”

Stephen’s business, London-based DRAM Fire & Security, has been helping homeowners and businesses look after their property since 2010, but has been increasingly busy over the past year as people grow ever-more conscious of security issues. “We’re really busy at the moment,” Stephen said. “I’ve seen a growing awareness. A lot of people are even installing DIY security systems. You can get a four-camera system on the high street for £200. The issue is, people don’t know what they’re buying. They don’t know if they’re going to get something worth having – I’ve taken out dozens of systems after people realised the quality of them just wasn’t good enough.”

 

Good image

 

“Buy cheap, buy twice” is a common saying, and one that Stephen heartily agrees with, and one he advises other tradesmen to abide by. “One thing I never do is use cheap equipment,” he says. “We only supply HD systems and upwards. They can connect with your phone, tablet or computer. If you want want to monitor people, you need a good image – the whole point is to to see people.”

In the six years Stephen has been running the business, which now employs two labourers and an engineer alongside Stephen, he’s built up a wealth of experience, which he’s been offering to MyBuilder users for the past year, gaining 100% positive feedback so far. Originally from Liverpool, Stephen travelled down to London 12 years ago and realised the potential opportunities for starting his own business in the city. “I’ve always been a hands-on person. I came straight out of school and wanted to work. It was certainly the right choice for me.”

All the hands-on experience means Stephen has a wealth of knowledge to pass on to homeowners when it comes to their security – though he often wishes he were involved in their plans sooner. “Security is one of the last things people tend to think about in a build. We’re the last ones to come in, after everything has been painted and decorated. Really, we want to be going in at the same time as the electrics. By the time people want us, they sometimes don’t have the budget left.”

 

No suprises

 

Stephen’s recommendations for homeowners looking to improve their security begin with security lights – in his words, “the most cost-effective thing you can do”, followed by an alarm system, and then CCTV. He likes to meet every potential client to assess their needs – as he puts it, “I don’t like surprises, when I’m giving quotes on something I haven’t seen.” He adds: “We take our portfolio and show them what we’ve done before. We’re not always the cheapest option but people feel comfortable with us and want to use us.” For experienced tradesmen, he says, being the cheapest option isn’t what wins you the work – it’s being able to show your experience and your quality.

One of the services offered is a full maintenance contract, something especially useful for commercial clients. “It makes sense for us to go back and ensure everything is running smoothly,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the simple things that can cause issues, like a spider making its web in a camera lens. You might not notice it until you really need the footage, and then it’s too late. It’s like servicing a car. It needs upkeep or it will fail.”

In Stephen’s line of work, you never stop learning or improving – a lesson all tradespeople can learn from. The business has expanded to cover fire protection, and is doing more work in the area. Meanwhile, changing technologies mean there is always more to know. “We’re looking now at home automation. Everything from lights, to music, to alarms, to cameras. The whole smart home.”

If you’re smart, it pays off to think about home security – after all, prevention is better than cure. Stephen’s experience means he can diagnose every problem, before it’s too late, whether it’s protecting a client’s property, or growing his business.

Check out Stephen’s MyBuilder profile here.


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