Tag: TOTM

 

One cup of tea. That’s how emergency plumber Tyrone Tash measures his jobs. “I like to turn up, get to work while I have my tea, and be done before I need a second cup. Then I’m off to the next job.” It’s a quick pace, but that’s how he likes it.

Life hasn’t always been that fast-paced for Tyrone. When he was a teenager, he found himself working on the tills for Marks & Spencer. “I was in retail for a while, working at three different stores,” Tyrone told us. “I worked in Ealing, then in Kensington, then I thought I’d be the best I could be, and moved to the flagship store in Marble Arch. I was on the tills mainly, and helping customers out, but I didn’t really feel like I was learning anything. After three years I’d had enough.”

Tyrone was at a crossroads. “I’d tried college, doing a course in leisure and tourism, but I knew deep down studying wasn’t for me. I wanted to work full time.” Luckily, something came up. “My dad is a clerk of works. He started out as a painter and decorator but now he goes round inspecting big building projects. He’s got high standards – if you’re not going to do it properly, don’t do it! So he never liked me tinkering at home, because I wasn’t going to do it properly. But he knew a lot of people in trades, and one day, one of his friends gave me a call.”

It was a call that would change Tyrone’s future. “The guy gave me a week to decide if I wanted to come and work with him. I was still in the shop, and I wasn’t sure, but I thought about it for a couple of days, decided ‘yeah, I’m in’, and quit my job. Then the guy told me he thought I was going to turn it down and he’d offered the job to someone else! But thankfully, he kept his word and took me on.”

 

 

The job was joining a large team of plumbers and other tradespeople working on large projects, such as newbuild apartments. Tyrone started doing four days a week on the tools, and one day a week in college. “The other guys used to take the mickey out of me for being a good little student, reading my books – they’d all been doing it for years and learned it all on the job,” Tyrone said. “But I appreciate having the qualifications now. It’s something solid you can show people.”

Tyrone knew from the first day that plumbing was for him. “I couldn’t have done decorating like my dad,” he said. “I’m sorry, but it’s so boring – you’re literally watching paint dry! But I knew plumbing would be for me. I’m an enthusiastic person, I like to get stuck in, and as soon as I was doing it, I just knew.”

It was a steep learning curve, but Tyrone thinks working on the large sites helped him develop his skills. “I spent four years doing new installations, and I learned to solder my pipes properly, all nice and neat. You’re doing it from drawings so you have to be exact, because if you put the pipes in wrong, when they come in and lay the concrete, you might suddenly find what you had planned to come out in the bathroom is now coming out in the bedroom.”

After a few years learning the ropes, Tyrone knew he wanted to go it alone, setting up 24-7 TT Plumbing and Heating, which has now built up more than 200 positive pieces of feedback on MyBuilder. “I just like being out there,” he told us, “where every day is different. On the same site every day, I go mad, it’s like working in an office for me, my brain just turns to mush. I like meeting new people. Six or seven jobs a day, that’s what keeps it fresh”.

 

 

That passion for novelty means Tyrone has found his perfect job as a reactionary plumber, becoming an emergency service of sorts for homeowners who find themselves with leaks, floods, and other plumbing crises. “I like being out there on the road,” he explained. “I got a new van five months ago, and I’ve already covered 10,000 miles. I’m all over north and west London, from where I grew up in Cricklewood out to Uxbridge and beyond – but not central. I can’t bear being stuck in traffic!”

Tyrone can do six or seven jobs a day, and although he can pick and choose his jobs these days, in the past he’s worked late into the night. “When I was doing all-night calls, you used to get people crying down the phone at you. It’s tough. The money is good because there aren’t many people who want to do those jobs, but it’s hard to drag yourself out, and you could be so tired.” Now, he tends to start work mid-morning and go into the evening, but can still end up getting home at midnight.

In the years he’s been working, he’s seen it all. “I don’t mind all the dogs and stuff, but you do end up in some strange places. The worst is when places are really dirty – I’ve seen dust gathering on top of dust.” He added: “One job I really remember was when someone rang me about a pipe that had split. He’d been on holiday in the USA and it was during a snowy winter a few years ago. His ceiling has collapsed, falling into his bathroom, but he couldn’t get someone to come see it because no one wanted to head out in the snow, and the water was still flowing. I had 12 jobs that day – I must have been the only one working. I got there after about four hours, and turned off the water in five seconds. I was like ‘sorry mate, I wish I could have got here sooner’. People need to learn where there stopcocks are though!”

 

 

Despite the long hours and tough jobs, it’s all been worth it. “It was hard, starting out,” he admits. “MyBuilder was great for building up my reputation though. That’s what it was all about for me – getting those reviews. I was chasing feedback over money to begin with. The first job, when someone took a chance on me and I didn’t have a review on there, I was so grateful, I practically did it for nothing. But I wanted the reviews. I used to look at other guys on the site and see how they did it. I was going for jobs all day long, then asking the people to leave feedback. You can’t beg them, but it’s worth explaining to them how important it is.”

Tyrone has big ambitions, inspired by the Pimlico Plumbers vans he sees around the capital. “I think it’s amazing the business they’ve built up. I’d love to grow into something like that – I already have the personalised plate for the van! By the time I’m 40, I’d like to have a team of people and be the one directing the work. Running a business is difficult, dealing with admin, and I’ve made mistakes along the way, but it’s been a learning process. I still enjoy it.” He might have a few more years to go in his van, but Tyrone is always keen to take on the next job, and always happy to have another cup of tea – just the one though.

 

Advice for Tradesmen

 

  • Timing is everything: “You can’t be late in this game, keeping people waiting is just rude. I tell people a window when I’ll get there, and I make sure I’m there.”
  • Stick to your quote: “It’s annoying if you make a mistake and you’ve underpriced it, but the person has accepted you based on what you told them. If you have to just charge for materials and undercharge for your time, I think it’s worth it to build your reputation build trust with a client.”
  • Give receipts: “Make everything nice and official, be professional. It’s not that hard to do but it helps everyone out.”

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Whether climbing trees or jumping out of planes, tree surgeon Ben Robinson is making the most of his head for heights.

Ben Robinson of north London’s Clear Cut Trees thinks it’s only natural that he ended up becoming a tree surgeon. “Most of my childhood memories are of playing outside,” he tells us when we met him in the midst of a day of quoting. “I grew up in London, in an estate, and we were always out swinging about in the big willow trees that were there.”

Despite his love of the great outdoors, it took a while before Ben realised that was where his real passion lay. “I came out of schools with just some GCSEs, and I actually ended up going into the media. I started out doing graphic design stuff, and then moved to a post production company, but I realised quite quickly that it wasn’t for me – it just didn’t fit my personality. Being indoors, at a desk – when I was growing up, I just wanted to be outdoors, but I was stuck inside.”

It was a random encounter that provided the spark for Ben’s career change. “I fell into it by accident, I guess,” he tells us. “I saw some guys working on a tree on my road, and I liked the look of it. I ended up going through a directory, ringing as many different companies as I could to see if I could get a job. Most weren’t interested in someone with no experience like me, but after a while I found a company that said, okay, let’s have a chat.”

Ben began working for company, staying mostly on the ground while he began to learn some of the skills needed to master the trade. “The firm that took me on did so on the proviso that I did an intensive course to get my knowledge up. I went and did a ten week course that showed me as much as possible – tree names, tree lore, climbing, knot tying, first aid, chainsaw use – all the basics you need on a day to day basis.”

 

Ben Robinson - Tree Surgery

 

But it was working with other, more experienced arborists – known as climbers in the trade – where Ben got his real education. “I was very lucky, in that the company was big enough to have climbers from all over the world working there. Back then, the money here in London was seen as very good, so guys who’d be travelling would stay here for a while to find some work and make some money. I had the luxury of learning from some of best climbers from around the world.” Nowadays, he says, those lessons are just as likely to travel in the opposite direction. “You’ll see people from the UK going over to Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, to do work over there. I think it’s a bit less lucrative here than it once was. There are fewer Aussies coming over now, I think their industry has matured and grown, so they can stay and find good work. But I was there just at the right time where I could learn a lot from them.”

“I didn’t have any plans for the long game,” Ben says, “but I was young enough that I could just try some things out. I got to realise that I really enjoyed it, and still do.”

Despite finding his calling, Ben still had other ambitions he wanted to pursue. “I’ve always been good at the sciences and had an interest in it, especially biology. I guess trees fell into that. So it was something I wanted to explore, and see what direction I might go in, beyond just being a climber.” Ben found an outlet for his ambition in undertaking a part time degree in biological sciences through Birkbeck University, eventually receiving first class honours for his efforts. “My final thesis wasn’t actually about trees, in the end,” he admits. “It was about antibiotic resistance – but that’s another story!”

Managing his coursework alongside his busy career as a tree surgeon spurred Ben to achieve another ambition – starting his own business. “The admin side of things doesn’t come particularly easy to me, but I’m a quick learner. The degree helped to teach me to fairly militant about deadlines and organising my time. I was capable before that, but I don’t think I would have been as much of a success.”

Clear Cut Trees began in 2014 and now has a team of six, working in two crews. “Business has been really good,” Ben says, “it’s been pretty consistent, with natural peaks and troughs. It’s a bit quieter around Christmas and in the summer holidays, but there’s always been enough work. I like to try and get jobs booked up a month or so in advance to stop me panicking, but we do get emergency work coming in too, especially if there’s been a storm.”

 

Ben Robinson - Tree Surgery

 

Tree surgery is a year-round trade, with autumn the best time for most pruning jobs according to Ben, while it should generally be avoided in spring, particularly for trees that bleed, such as birch and mulberry. “Tree removals also happen throughout the year,” Ben explains, “though you might have more issues in summer with subsidence because there’s more going on with the roots.”

He joined MyBuilder in the autumn after he set up the business, and says it was vital in helping to get the company up and running: “It was the first thing I joined and it helped a lot to get me going – it’s such a handy tool for tradesmen, I couldn’t recommend it enough.” Three years on, he still has 100% positive feedback from happy clients.

“We do a mix of all jobs,” he says. “We focus almost entirely on private gardens, because they’re just nicer jobs – people are more appreciative. Local authorities used to keep a lot of their work in house but now they outsource, but it tends to go to big firms who can basically work to cost. I much prefer private gardens. The nice thing now, three years in, is that we’re starting to see repeat work from people we saw back when we started. That’s a really good feeling, that they liked us so much they want to have us back.”

Like in all trades, he occasionally encounters people who’ve tried to have a go themselves. “You do see some scary stuff,” he admits. “YouTube has a wealth of videos of people doing dangerous stuff with ladders and chainsaws. The main issue with doing tree work yourself is that whatever you do, you have to wait a very long time to be able to undo it – until the tree grows back. It’s not like a plumbing job where a professional could come and get it back to normal that afternoon.”

 

Ben Robinson - Tree Surgery

 

Ben makes sure his own crew keeps safety in mind at all times. “We’ve not had any significant accidents, we keep a tight ship, and all our equipment is top of the range and well-maintained. Some issues are unavoidable, but you mitigate against it with good procedures. A lot of the safety stuff becomes second nature, but if you’re going up a 90ft plane tree for example, you make sure you double and triple check everything.”

Heights aren’t an issue for Ben, though. “I lived in a block of flats growing up, so I’m used to being up high. In fact, my hobby is skydiving! I did a tandem course in Spain, jumping with someone else, then a course to learn how to do it solo, so I now have a licence and can jump from any drop zone.”

As well as unusual hobbies, Ben has also encountered the occasional unusual job. “I guess the classic is the cat stuck up the tree. I’ve only done one I think, where the cat was still there when I turned up. I had to scale a roof, then use a ladder to get across to a tree. And when I finally got it, it scratched me to pieces.”

With the business going from strength to strength, trees are still where Ben’s passion lies. “I think my favourite trees are the almost stereotypical ones – oaks and beeches, trees that grow to enormous proportions. It’s still one of my ambitions to go out to California and see the giant redwood forests.”

With plenty of work booked in and only a few days off planned, the big US trip might have to wait for now – but if there’s one person sure to make an ambition a reality, it’s Ben.

 

Advice for tradesmen:

 

  • Spend time getting your online presence right: “Starting out on MyBuilder and making my own website felt like a lot of work, but once you’ve put in the groundwork to get it right, the really see the results down the line.”
  • Be willing to answer questions: “Customers will naturally have a lot of questions when it comes to the job, so you should be willing to be patient and explain as much as possible. The more helpful you are, the more appreciative the customer is.”
  • Don’t delay on quotes: “I think it’s a bad look to let people chase you for a quote. They want to make a decision on a tradesman and get the job done – as a basic courtesy, I try to get any quote turned round in 48 hours.”

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A lot of tradesmen will tell you that it’s not looks that count – it’s about the things you don’t see, the stuff behind the scenes, all the little details that a homeowner doesn’t think about, but a tradesman needs to get right. But that’s not always the case.

“With a carpet”, Wayne Mockble tells us, “it’s all about how it looks.”

Wayne should know. He’s been fitting carpets around Birmingham for 30 years, taking on jobs big and small. In the three years his business, Fast Fit Flooring, has been on MyBuilder, he’s built up 278 pieces of positive feedback – and no negatives. In short, he’s a man who knows his way around an Axminster. But despite what he says about how much appearance matters, after a morning spent watching him at work, it’s easy to see how much effort goes into getting that perfect finish.

After a short stint in the army as a teenager, Wayne started out as a tradesman when he was only 18 years old.

“I needed to find some work,” Wayne explains. “When I was 18, I already had two kids to feed, so I had to come up with something. By chance I met a carpet fitter who wasn’t able to drive. He said, if I got a car, I could drive him around and learn the trade from him. It really was a matter of watching him do it. He wouldn’t tell you verbally, you just had to pay attention.”

 

Fast Fit Flooring, Wayne Mockble, Carpet Fitter, Flooring Fitter TOTM

 

Slowly, Wayne began to pick up the trade, learning as he went. “You come to realise, it’s a very technical job,” he said. “People might look at a room and think, a carpet for that, oh, it’s only a square, but it rarely is. Your preparation is very important. There’s a saying – measure twice, cut once – but you want to measure more than twice. Measure ten times if you can.”

When we catch up with Wayne, he’s halfway through a job fitting a new carpet and underlay for a staircase and landing. As we watch him work, it’s plain to see the attention to detail that goes into what is a relatively simple job.

“If it’s an old house, the stairs are all going to be a bit out,” he says as he measures up. “These two here are bigger than the one above. Then this one here is bigger again. It’s a nightmare sometimes. But some people without any experience will just measure once at the top of the stairs and just get on with it. You’re making problems for yourself then. You can carpet each stair individually if you have to, because the joints are all hidden, but it’s not ideal.”

Wayne works quickly, with simple tools, cutting with a razor-sharp carpet knife and knocking the edge of the carpet into place with a chisel. “My chisel is 20 years old and it’s still going strong,” Wayne says. “It cost me £5 back in the day. They probably cost a bit more than that now.” He cuts and pushes the carpet into place, casually swapping the tools between hands- as he says, “You have to be ambidextrous in this job, it can’t be done all with one hand. And you need to be accurate and confident. You can’t be cack-handed.”

 

Fast Fit Flooring, Wayne Mockble, Carpet Fitter, Flooring Fitter TOTM

 

The knife gets a new blade for every job – even between doing his cuts, Wayne swaps out the sharp blade before putting it away. “The first thing anyone asks me when they see what I do is ‘Have you ever cut your finger off?’ I haven’t but I’ve come close a few times. Half the time the biggest problem is nals and things sticking out of floorboards.”

When it comes to cutting neat, long lines in the carpet, Wayne doesn’t need any fancy tools: “A door bar is the best thing for getting a straight edge, and you need a straight edge with your carpet.”

Wayne is insistent on using good quality materials. “If your grippers are no good, it will make things very difficult. I also try and use glue where I can to make sure it all holds well – it costs a bit more money, bit it gets it done properly. Underlay is another thing, some old types had a black rubber back that will just perish into dust over time and leave flat patches under the carpet, you need to use a good one. It’s like any trade, there are plenty of cowboys in this game, I know which shops to avoid. There are also fitters out there who’ll tell you that underlay costs £150 a roll, when actually it was only £20. People don’t know.”

Wayne always encourages people to buy their own carpets, while he deals with the fitting. “I can give them advice, but it’s up to them to buy it. Supplying it can be a minefield – I could buy it all, bring it along, and then they change their mind; what do I do then? If I get my fitting fee, I’m happy. I’ve worked with carpet that was £85 a metre – you can’t go making mistakes with a £3,000 carpet.”

 

Fast Fit Flooring, Wayne Mockble, Carpet Fitter, Flooring Fitter TOTM

 

One thing he insists is on getting accurate measurements before starting any job. “If people give me measurements they’ve taken, that’s fine, but I want to go and measure up myself. They’ll have measured wall-to-wall but not take into account the leeway you need. If I fit it as they’ve told me, and there’s a gap or a join somewhere, they won’t thank you. I have to go and visualise the whole job first.”

After his initial run learning the ropes, Wayne has always worked by himself. “I like having the freedom, I pick and choose the jobs I want. Like any self-employed person, you have moments where it goes quiet. You’ve got to have some heart to soldier on when it gets like that. I’m not one of those people who has another job – this is my livelihood”. Thankfully, Wayne has been able to keep on going, even through the rough times, and his reviews on MyBuilder help him to keep winning work for some time yet. “I always ask people to leave feedback. I just ask, if they’re happy with the work that I’ve done, leave a bit of feedback, because it really helps me out.”

After finishing off the last stair, carefully following the curved line of the final riser, this looks like another job that will see positive feedback. We know how much work went into it, but the finished result if effortless. After all, as Wayne says, “it’s all about how it looks”.

 

Advice for Tradesmen:

 

  • Don’t cut corners: As Wayne showed us when he worked on the individual stairs, taking one quick measurement and assuming that’s good enough might leave you with a poor quality result. “At the end of the day, if there’s something wrong, you can’t go and blame your materials or the fact that the house is a bit wonky – it’s just poor workmanship.”
  • Explain everything up front: “People want to know what the finished job will end up like,” Wayne said. “Everything has to be explained, how it will work, what you’re going to do. You need to be open about what you’ll be doing and the materials you’ll use.”
  • Be careful when supplying materials: As Wayne says, supplying materials can be a minefield if you’re not careful – while it can be a profitable part of your business, it pays to be sensible about how you approach it. “You don’t want to be stuck with a piece of carpet you can’t use. You can’t drag money out of people.”

 

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When you meet Rob Joy today, you’ll find a confident, outgoing family man, leading a team of 15 painters and decorators as the head of his company, Finishing Touch Services. But this wasn’t always the case, 10 years ago you would have met a very different person indeed.

We met Rob not on a building site, but in a charity shop and community centre in the heart of Luton. SOAR is the base of Rob’s church and charity, Kingdom Cause Community, and the ambitious project has all been made possible through the achievements of Finishing Touch Services. Like many successful tradesmen, Rob started out on the tools as a youngster, but his career didn’t always go smoothly.

“My dad had a roofing company which was quite successful, so weekends and school holidays I’d go along and help out labouring for him,” Rob told us. “ I’d be on building sites and scaffolding when I was so young that my dad would have to tell me to duck if the police came past! But I’d get my five pounds for the day sweeping up broken tiles and what not, so I was happy.”

Sadly for Rob, the happiness didn’t last. Rob’s world was shattered when his beloved dad died, and the teenager soon found himself headed off the rails. “I hit rock bottom,” he admits. It went from flirting with drugs at the weekend to going in at the deep end. My dad left me a lot of money and I threw it all away on drugs, down the pub, at the football. From the age of 16 to 26 I was in it. The drugs destroyed me – I was 8 stone, my mental health had gone, I’d been in and out of prison. I literally lost everything.”

Rob’s journey back to sobriety was fueled by faith. “My mum had always prayed for me and I didn’t want to know, but I couldn’t deny the change I’d seen in her – whether it was real or not, it had an impact for her. I remember, one night, I just said, ‘God, is there any way you can change a man like me,’ and for the first time in years I went to bed with no fear, no paranoia. I woke up the next day completely and utterly transformed. No one could tell me it was just willpower – my mind had changed, my heart had changed.”

 

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The pleasure of painting

 

Despite this transformation, it took time for Rob to build himself back up, reconnecting with his family, and getting back into work. “I knew that roofing might not be for me – all the angles and the maths were too much to get my head round! But I’d done other jobs with my dad, painting here and there, and thought I could make a go of that. One of the first jobs I did when I got straight was painting those temporary buildings that go on building sites, just one after the other, and I enjoyed it. Painting is therapeutic.”

From those small beginnings, Rob began to build his experience. “I had this philosophy, short term loss for long term gain,” he explained. “For example, I did a job repainting a door, and I thought it would be simple, half a day’s work. But it wasn’t at all, it was falling apart, I had to take it back to bare wood, do loads to it, it took me much longer. I lost out on that job. But a few months later, I took on another door job, and I realised it was exactly the same situation, but now I knew exactly what to do.”

Rob joined MyBuilder two years ago, and soon realised that the feedback system would force him to up his game. “When you’re working for family, friends, friends of friends, they can say nice things but it’s not always the most honest. When you’re winning work on MyBuilder, that feedback is real. I realised maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was – you have to improve.” The feedback for the business still has a negative review from his early efforts, but with more than 100 pieces of positive feedback, he hasn’t let it stand in his way.

Like many setting up their own business, it was a case of long hours and low pay. “I’d do 17 hour days, out on site until it was dark, back to kiss my kids before bed, then out to quote, writing it up before bed, then waking up realising I’d missed something.”

Rob began to build the company, eventually bringing in other people to help. “The best thing I did was take on a guy called Alan, who’s now my business manager. He’d been in the trade for 35 years, and his skills, his ability, they’re brilliant. I used to be annoyed that he was slower than other guys I worked with, but I realised, his jobs never had any snags. It might be a day slower, but it was perfect – never any stress. So I went to him and said, look, I might be the one paying you, but I want you to teach me how to be a good painter and decorator. I was humble. And so for six months, he showed me what he knew. It helped me get better, helped me understand the materials and the techniques, helped me quote on jobs.”

As he says: “You can’t be a great decorator in a few years – you have to do it for years and years, always learning. You end up breathing it.”

 

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A matter of standards

 

The business is now up to 15 men, and Rob hopes to add more in the coming year. “I wouldn’t want it to get too big, because what I’m concerned about is quality,” he said. “I tell the boys, I don’t expect them to have the same faith as me, but I expect them to work to the standards I do.”

Profits from the business go into supporting the charity, helping both in the local community, and in Malawi. “I’m all about going out into the streets,” Rob said, “I never wanted to be preached at and I still don’t. It’s about helping someone who’s starving with some food, or giving a coat to someone freezing.” In Malawi, the charity is looking to buy land in order to start work on an orphanage, with some of Rob’s team ready to go out and work on the project themselves.

“We went there in April, took some guys from work and it’s changed their life. We took loads of toys and clothes, it was incredible. It broke my heart. I came back and said to my wife, the business isn’t for wealth, for big houses and fast cars, it’s for this.”

The lads will be hands on when it comes to the orphanage: “The standards of construction over there aren’t always great,” Rob laughed. “But we’ll be able to to really do some good there. We do as much as we can. We send out money for the women in the community to buy materials and make bags, which we sell here in the shop, with the profits going back to them. And we sell second-hand clothes in here, with those that don’t sell going directly to the kids there.”

Rob doesn’t make a point of telling homeowners where the money from their jobs will be going, but when it comes up, he says they’re always happy to hear more. “The customers are amazing, so many of them are now friend, they donate, they come and help out.” He always tries to lend a hand where he can where customers are in need – through a contact at Dulux, he has access to discount paints that can be used for worthy causes or sold on to raise money. He’s also happy to hear from any other tradesmen who are keen to help out on charitable projects for worthy causes.

Through Rob’s efforts, both the business and the charity have continued to grow, but he insists it’s still the quality, not the quantity, that matters most. “One thing I always say to my guys is that it’s not the past hundred jobs that matter – it’s the one we’re working on right now.”

 

Advice for tradesmen:

  • Always be willing to learn: “I still meet young guys who come from doing professional qualifications who think they know everything, but they don’t”, Rob said. “When you’re working with people with lots of experience, there’s always something you can take from them.”
  • Prepare accurate quotes: “The biggest source of issues on any job is if there was something in the quote that wasn’t clear,” Rob told us. “A tradesman should lay out everything, materials, hours, who pays for what, so that there can’t be any quibbles.”
  • Think long term: “No one can be great at something overnight,” Rob said. “You have to think about the long term, building your skills and growing the business. It can’t be rushed.”

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For Lewis Sage, it’s the little things that count.

“Everything is run precisely, military style,” he tells us as we stand on top of the scaffolding of his latest renovation project. “A lot of people wouldn’t like it, but I think I’m doing something right. My team does everything the right way, right down to the details, like keeping the skip covered all the time so rubbish doesn’t blow down the street. You have to think about the other people who live here.”

Lewis, the boss of UPS Home Improvements, which takes on major project work around Essex and London, takes his responsibilities seriously. When Storm Doris hit, it blew debris from the roof his team were working on down the next door neighbour’s chimney, covering their living room in soot. “It was an act of God,” Lewis said, “nothing we could really do about it, but out of courtesy to the lady, I said ‘send me a cleaning bill’, and I got one of my team to go in and repaint the ceiling. You’ve got to be good to people, you’ve got to keep people on side. I didn’t have to do it, but I wanted to.”

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Communication, Communication, Communication

Dealing with people is key to Lewis’ success as a tradesman. Despite the fact his firm takes on large projects – mainly renovations, extensions, and loft conversions – he has managed to rack up 170 pieces of feedback during eight years on MyBuilder, and all of them positive. “The secret is communication with clients. I always make sure I return an email or a phone call in two hours. It’s the least I can do to keep them informed and not leave them guessing.”

Lewis realised early on his career that he wanted to be overseeing a site and running projects. “I was made to be management!” he laughs. “I went to college and did all the City & Guilds qualifications, and went out working on the tools. My dad was in the building trade and we worked together for a bit, before I went to work with someone else. After a while I became a working supervisor, then a non-productive supervisor, so I wasn’t actually on the tools myself.” After stopping being hands on, he worked for five years as a contracts manager for a refurbishment company, before he started thinking about going it alone. “I finally did it about 10 years ago, just me and a couple of other guys. I had to go back on the tools in the early days when we were starting out – the money wasn’t there to hire anyone else.”

Starting his own business meant long hours. “When I first started on my own, I was working during the day, going home for a bit of dinner, then going back out again until late at night to meet people and do quotes. People want to do it then, because they’re at work all day, so you have to do it. But it meant 16, 17-hour days. It’s a bit easier now because I’ve built up my reputation through MyBuilder, but it’s still spinning plates.”

As for whether or not he misses getting his hands dirty regularly, he says: “I had fantastic times on site. I loved the banter. But I think I’m better at what I do now.”

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Strictly Business

Lewis relies on a personally selected crew to make his projects go smoothly, and admits he’s a strict boss. “I want staff that work well, I don’t allow any smoking, any swearing, they’re all kitted out properly, they’re all punctual, here for 8am and no messing around. But it means these boys can stay in work every day of the week, that’s the bottom line. All of my tradesman have been handpicked. Down the line, a few of the experienced ones might recommend some other people, but bottom line is, they’re handpicked by me. I’ve got to guide the ship, so I need the best.”

He has the capacity to take on two or three projects at a time, with the ability to be choosy about the jobs he takes on, preferring to go for jobs where the plans are already in place: “I’d say through MyBuilder I probably get something like eight shortlists a week. I don’t win every job I go and price, but if I like the job, I’ll really go for it. I want to get into the meat of it, because I love it. I love it. In my reviews, some people have said I’ve given them their dream home – how nice is that? People are spending their life savings on these jobs, so to know you’ve made a difference, you’ve given them their dream home, that’s brilliant. It makes you feel special.”

He acknowledges that feedback is crucial for winning work on the site, but says it’s the best way to hold tradesmen to account. “With MyBuilder, if you’re no good, you won’t last. You just won’t. You’ve got to keep the feedback up, once you build up bad reviews you’re sunk. It means sometimes you have to be a bit of a yes man to clients, be very approachable. If you can have those qualities, you can be flying. Of course you get the odd client who’s a pain, we all know that. But I can get on with anyone. You manage the customers just like you do your team.”

He added: “I always tell people to leave feedback. When someone leaves a review, it helps the next person – that’s what I tell them.” Once he’s actually meeting potential clients and quoting for work, that’s when he opens his contact book: “When I win jobs or I’m looking at them, I say I’m not scared about showing off my job. This current guy, he came and saw two of my previous jobs. When you leave people on good terms, they don’t mind when you phone up and say ‘can I pop round?’ It’s a different level from just showing someone a picture. And they can talk to the old client, and hear about how you work.”

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A Lifetime of Service

He insists on keeping customers on side, just as he does the neighbours: “The way I see it, just because you’ve paid that final payment, doesn’t mean you’re not a client any more. You’re a client of mine for the rest of your life. I won’t turn my back on you just because you’d paid up. It wouldn’t make sense for me – you’re cutting off all those people, all their recommendations.”

However, he’s wary of taking on too many jobs, or jumping in too quickly. “Just because you’re doing alright you can’t be greedy, when you’re greedy you stretch yourself, and when you stretch yourself mistakes happen. We know what we need to do, we know what our margins are. I like to take on the jobs where everything is ready to go. When someone says to me something like ‘we’re in the process of purchasing a property and thinking about renovating it’, I’m not as interested. In my view, if you have the drawings, if you’ve spoken to the council, if you’re ready to go, let’s go for it. I want to get stuck in.”

Thanks to his attitude, Lewis will be busy for the rest of the year, before taking some well-deserved time off after Christmas. Then he and his team will be straight back to work; nice and punctual, of course.

 

Advice for tradesmen:

 

  • Don’t get greedy: While Lewis admits it’s tempting to go for every job that comes through or follow up with every personal recommendation, he knows he has to limit the number of projects he takes on. “Like I said, when you’re greedy, you get stretched, and when you’re stretched, mistakes happen. Deep down, you know if you’re pushing your luck.”
  • Communication is crucial: As well as trying to answer all calls and emails within a couple of hours, Lewis likes to ensure things go smoothly face to face as well. “When I’m quoting, I’ll take along John (his regular foreman) so they can meet him as well, and everyone knows from the get go who’ll be there and how it works, you don’t need to explain anything twice.”
  • Consider the neighbours: According to Lewis, one of the best things you can do to keep up your reputation is think about not just the home you’re working on, but the whole street. “If you’re considerate, that helps you. You never know who’s going to want to get their house done next.”

 

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.”

MyBuilder is an online marketplace for homeowners to find quality tradesmen. The blog features competitions, advice and opinion pieces about home improvement.
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