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.
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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.”