AS THE FALCON FLIES
Charles Hassall, contract director of Falcon Contract, believes careful planning and transparency are the keys to a successful business
ESTABLISHED in 1984, Falcon Contract Flooring is a family-owned carpet and vinyl specialist, and a CFA member.
From its beginnings as ‘basically two guys in a van’, to a nationwide flooring contractor with 20 internal staff & over 100 installers on the road. Falcon’s success can be attributed in part to the commercial drive of contracts director Charles Hassall & projects director Thomas Hassall.
Charles & Toms father Ian was the original contracts manager at Falcon, and after ‘the two guys in a van had a bit of a falling out’, Charles recalls ‘one ended up going to South Africa, and one ended up in Spain which left the business in the hands of my dad’.
Falcon’s early trajectory was shaped by its relationship with Whitbread, who hired the ‘two guys in a van’ to install the flooring of their first ever Travel Inn in 1987.
‘We ended up refurbishing the hotel for Whitbread. It was a brewery at the time and we were doing a lot of the pub work for them so that’s how we got into the Travel Inn side.
‘The business developed from there and obviously we’ve grown since, there’s no doubt about that. We grew on the back of Whitbread. As the Whitbread’s estate grew, we grew with it.’
Ian (who remains the MD of Falcon to this day) brought Charles and his brother Tom into the business over 13 years ago.
‘I started off at the very bottom, sweeping floors, and my brother Tom went out fitting. The idea was that he went out on the tools and I stayed internal and worked alongside my dad, so that’s what happened.
‘At one point there was only dad and I in the office, going back four or five years.’
While Whitbread would ultimately prove to be Falcon’s most valuable client, Charles immediately found himself concerned about Falcon’s dependency on the hospitality company.
‘We were beholden to one client which was a big issue for me and the company, but dad was 60 then, he didn’t want any more business. He was happy to just do business with them and a couple other small contracts , but I saw a big problem with that as far as winning new business and being able to feed the installers every day without Whitbread putting the brakes on which did happen from time to time.
‘Fortunately - touch wood - we’ve won some big contracts since then, and to work directly with companies such as Whitbread who own Premier Inn, Brewers fayre, Beefeater, Table Table, Hub by Premier Inn , Bar+Block & Costa Coffee & then big brands like BMI Healthcare , HCA Healthcare , Travelodge & Busy Bees is something I’m really proud of.’
The broadening of Falcon’s clientele has effected a shift in what products the installers deal with on a daily basis.
‘We used to fit 80% carpet, 5 years ago, but that dynamic has changed now and we install roughly 40% carpet, 60% vinyl. We’re doing a lot more vinyl than we used to and LVT as well.’
Currently Falcon operates nationwide, installing flooring for a host of well-known clients, although the business is still run from a single headquarters. Charles believes this works to the company’s advantage.
‘We have storage in Scotland and in London as well but it’s quite easy to operate in the midlands. I find operating from one large hub a lot easier than operating from numerous. We talked about opening new premises, one in Scotland, one in Manchester, one down the South but I think I’d find myself more in the car floating between the branches.
‘Granted we could maybe make a better margin because we wouldn’t have the travel involved if we were operating from separate sites but my job would become a lot more complicated as far as running around the country just checking that everyone’s okay. Also the staff’s communication could breakdown between them branches & affect our service & relationship’s with the clients.
Of course, operating from a central location isn’t without its challenges. Charles recalls a recent job.
‘Recently we did the operating theatres down at Princess Grace Hospital in the centre of London. HCA healthcare is the biggest private healthcare company in the world; it employs more than 140,000 people and we look after all their branches in London. We installed 650m2 of Marmoleum, out-of-hours and in phases.
‘Remember, we had no storage, no parking and no waste removal so everything had to be precisely planned. We needed entry and exit strategies. We can’t just go in there and expect the job to go smoothly if we haven’t set it up properly.’
He also admits the high-profile nature of Falcon’s customers comes with its own obstacles.
‘The calibre of guys we have on the road is important because we’re working within trading environments. We’re not like builders that can shout down a corridor to each other.
‘We have to be really mindful especially when we have paying guests on the hotel and healthcare side. People will be paying a lot of money for that room or healthcare so it’s important we take that into account.
‘But we don’t really look at it as a challenge anymore because we’ve sort of mastered the art of being invisible.’
Charles is willing to admit things don’t always go perfectly but says issues can be resolved with clear accountability.
‘It’s important as a contractor to be very clear to the client and the people that are working for that client. What we’re doing daily is very transparent - there are no lies, no grey areas.
‘It’s very black and white, and if we do mess up, which from time to time we do (you can’t install a million sqm a year and not have a problem!!), how we put that right is so important.’
Despite the challenges Falcon encounters, Charles is confident about its forward trajectory.
‘I’m not worried about our future. We have some really good ideas floating around, so we’re going to keep up with the times and we’re going to continue to grow this business into something that in ten years’ time will be ahead of the rest of the market.
‘We do a lot of install only where all the materials are free issue, so we go out and measure the site, plan and quantify, then we call in the material direct from the chosen manufactures on the receipt of a purchase order. Many clients are going down that route now and we encourage this. 10% we make on all products procured. If we purchase 1 million pounds a year worth of product that’s 100k profit minus overhead cost. FCF don’t want this. They want their client to keep it and carry out a few more projects with FCF.
‘If we were pulling the free issue material in we probably handle about £5m in carpet alone every year, but because we don’t have to buy it then it doesn’t go through our turnover. But this year is estimated at £5m. If we were buying it it’d probably be more like 10m turnover. We’ve had some good growth this year and is to continue into next so the plan isn’t just to sit stationary.’ Our growth this year to date is 24%.
He attributes this confidence primarily to the quality of Falcon’s employees and the customer service the company values above all else.
‘We’re very bespoke in who we take on. Just because you can fit Mrs Jones’s lounge doesn’t mean you can work for FCF. We have set procedures so when a subcontractor or an employee comes to us for an interview, (s)he’ll be tested in our warehouse. There are work boards set up for cap and cove, latex, carpet installs and then before (s)he even goes out onto one of our projects alone (s)he’ll go with a team of our installers first and a report will be assessed and decisions made on his/her quality.
‘(S)He’ll only be released on his own once we get the feedback from the site that allows him/her to go and work. I feel like we’re a market leader in service and quality. I think you’ll struggle to beat our service anywhere in the world. We go above and beyond. If we have to fly guys to the moon to complete that job that’s exactly what we’ll do.’
While Falcon’s selectivity is a key strength when it comes to the company’s employees, Charles suggests this can make the recruitment process difficult, particularly in regards to school leavers, traditionally considered the largest pool of potential flooring contractors.
‘It’s a difficult trade to get into. Especially contracting. I don’t see a problem with flooring in general, local shops and domestics. Bigger contractors like us however, we have installers loading at 4am and getting back at 10pm, and then little Timmy’s mum is ringing us up saying he’s been out the house for 14 hours, and that’s a difficult one.
‘While I’d love to set up an apprenticeship scheme, so we have more youngsters coming through, the problem with the youth of today is they just don’t understand the logistics and sometimes the mums and dads don’t understand the logistics even when its explained before they even start.
‘It’s very difficult in our environment, we’re so time driven. Everything’s scheduled so if we are given a window of 10 hours and the work will take 10 hours that’s exactly what we do and work for 10 hours. This is hard for the younger generation and their families to understand. We have even ran 24 hr shift projects with handovers every 12.5hrs.
‘We’ve started to aim more at 23, 24-year-olds rather than school-leavers. We’ve had a couple of school leavers that have turned out really well but we’ve had a lot that have gone the other way as well, that have been quite poor, just not getting out of bed or just not interested and all they want is the money come the end of the week.
While much is expected of Falcon’s employees, they can expect a lot back for their hard work.
‘We work in a nice environment. We have high tech offices, with slick white screens, white tables everywhere. People walk in and say it’s like an architects’ office but that’s what we wanted to create when we invested £1m into this building that we bought only 18 months ago. You have to spend a lot of time here, why make it miserable? We all have a bit of banter at the same time which is good, it keeps the morale high.
‘We also do incentives with the staff as well, the give-back is important for me. We hold a massive Christmas do, but now we’re also doing monthly meals out, with the staff who are doing really well. Recently we took some to the Marco Pierre White’s in Birmingham. It cost the company a thousand pounds but it was well spent, that it goes a long way with the staff.’
We don’t clock holiday for the employees. We like to call it flexi-time. The rules are don’t go off when we are busy, Don’t take the mick and if you do want a day off make sure you are all up to date and done a quality handover to one of your team members. This works in our favour so no school play or family event is ever missed and the staff feel valued because we trust them. It’s like a family at Falcon we are family run so we try to make all the staff feel part of that family. Sorry if that’s sounds a bit Mafioso.
When asked about Brexit, Charles’s answer was straightforward and pragmatic, revealing the spirit that has been instrumental in Falcon’s success.
‘I don’t see Brexit affecting us massively. It’s done now, we’ve decided we’re coming out so it’s how we negotiate that and come out of it successfully that matters. We were asked to work in Germany only last month, and I don’t have any problem doing that, we’ll continue to work worldwide.
‘If the job’s there and the money’s in the job and we’ve quoted the job and they raise the purchase order, we’ll continue to do that job regardless of whether we’re in Europe or not.’
Speaking to Charles, it was clear Falcon’s continuing success is no accident. His answers demonstrated the family-owned flooring contractor takes every step possible to make sure all projects are completed on time and to a high standard.
‘I’m 32, I’ve got plenty of years left to make sure this business succeeds on every level,’ says Charles, and on that statement of commitment alone, it’s difficult to believe it won’t.