Sawston carpets and flooring

Sawston Carpets and Flooring was incorporated in 2004 and has grown into a successful, established retailer and contractor in the 15 years since. Jackie Sharp, director of Sawston, tells CFJ she believes there’s still a lot of scope to go further.

Prior to starting Sawston, Jackie’s personal career journey gave her a solid base of knowledge in both retail and flooring. This meant when the opportunity arose for her to begin her own business, she was perfectly suited to take advantage.

‘Well I was in retail first of all, and then due to circumstances I had to get myself a job within the trade. So I worked for the Headlam Group for five years as one of their contract reps, and that gave me quite a good grounding into learning about the products and things. Then an opportunity came about for me to get back into retail again and start up my own company.’

At the time, Jackie says, she loved her job and the customers, who were spread throughout Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire Buckinghamshire Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire.

‘I think I was with them for about 5 years, and I had some really lovely customers, but when this opportunity came along, I had to give it a lot of thought and ultimately decided to go for it!’

And so, in 2004, Sawston Carpets and Flooring was incorporated, at the time consisting only of Jackie and one other employee.

‘I’ve now got myself, my husband joined the company and he does estimating and measuring, we’ve got two staff in the shop that serve and we have about 7 or 8 fitters now here. So we’re just quite a small company, but we’ve grown quite a bit.’

Sawston has expanded a lot in its contract work but it still focuses significant effort on its core business which is domestic work.

‘We’re still building up the company really I feel’ she says, adding: ‘There’s still a lot more scope to take the company further in the future as well.’

In terms of its commercial work, Jackie describes Sawston as a ‘small contract’ company.

‘Universities, nursing homes, schools, offices, we do work for English heritage. We’ve got some nice contracts. We supply and fit the flooring so usually we go in, just have a look at it and take a view of what they need, what their requirements are, and then we start the contract from there.’

In November Sawston was effectively forced into moving premises, when its current location became the site of a new development.

‘It actually worked in our favour because we moved from a relatively small space into a much larger one, and we were able to put everything together in the one place, so the storeroom, the showroom.’

With that, because it was a lot bigger than Sawston even needed, the company took the opportunity to sublet part of the area. The other part of the building is now occupied by a company that sells curtains and crafts.

In a sentence, Jackie describes Sawston Carpets’ work as: ‘The supply and fitting of any type of flooring’, but of course the story doesn’t end there. The contractor specialises in LVTs, naturals, sisals and wood.

‘We’ve tried to cover all angles in here, so hopefully whoever walks through the door, we’ll have something they want, rather than lose them as a customer.’

Sawston carries out floor preparation including the application of screed, along with DPMs. ‘We can do all of that,’ says Jackie, ‘But we don’t do the ultra-specialised materials like resin. I wish I did actually!’

Jackie says in particular she was ‘quite proud’ of the work Sawston Carpets carried out for English Heritage.

‘A lot of their buildings are listed buildings, so our work involves making sure the buildings aren’t damaged in any way. Obviously we can’t damage the subfloor in any way either.’

Sawston provided English Heritage with carpets for their headquarters and offices, which is a particular point of pride.

‘It’s a massive building and we’ve gone through it bit by bit, just as and when they ask really!’

Sawston also fitted the floors in two recording studios, which necessitated some special considerations.

‘There was a lot of wiring which had to be installed underneath the floor, which we had to accommodate. We also had to work with them to ensure proper sound insulation.’

Sawston installed a contract LVT in the studios and the producer whose studio it is works for artists including Adele.

One of the significant challenges for any contract-based business is giving the right price, and for Jackie, this issue has only become more problematic in the digital age.

‘I do find the internet quite a challenge with pricing! In our particular area, in South Cambridgeshire, there are a lot of flooring companies nearby so everyone is going for the same work. That can be quite challenging.’

Jackie says Sawston’s philosophy is to stick to its original prices, ‘because I personally feel that you should win the contract on the basis of what you do. For your service and for your knowledge. I don’t like to get involved with cutting prices. I’ll put my price in, and hopefully do the best we can to win a contract, but I don’t like to get involved in the race to the bottom.’

Oftentimes this leads to customers attempting to barter based on other offers: ‘We can get the job done for x amount, can you match it?’ Jackie says she takes these common queries on a case-by-case basis: ‘Sometimes I’ll look at it and sometimes I’ll just say its not worth it.’

Of course, like many other contractors, Sawston has to work hard to avoid being undercut by other trades encroaching onto the floor.

‘Kitchens, bathrooms, builders. We’re up against the same thing there as well, where you have abathroom company selling LVTs or vinyls, and that’s another challenge, where they’re taking work away from professionals, all the time.’

Quite often, Jackie suggests, people come into Sawston at the end of their wits; something has gone wrong in their installation because the work wasn’t carried out by a professional.

To counteract this kind of thing happening, Jackie ensures all of her subcontractors are properly trained, although the extra effort this entails can make it difficult to keep people motivated.

‘I like to make sure my fitters go on courses for the materials we fit like LVTs. If there are any courses available to them on I try to do that, because ultimately it helps us.’

Sawston has tried taking on apprentices over the past two or three years, but unfortunately it’s never worked out.

‘We seem to get to about a year before they get fed up! I think it’s mostly due to how hard the work is. It’s a lot of heavy lifting, fitting is very difficult, and the hours are long.’

One of the other issues Jackie identifies is that there aren’t enough people coming through the system either. A lot of older floorlayers are now retiring, and the industry isn’t necessarily getting the people coming through training.

‘You have to be reasonably fit to be able to do it. It’s something that, when people start to get into their 50s or 60s, either their backs are gone or their knees are gone.’

Sawston works with the local college, which means it hosts young people for work experience but unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to translate to keeping apprentices on board.

‘I think you’ve got to be prepared to work hard and put the hours in if you want to get good at what you do, but once you’re there the rewards do match. It’s good money. It’s hard work, but if you’re prepared to work, it’s a good living!’

The variability is another aspect Jackie says makes floorlaying a worthwhile and interesting career path: ‘A job can be one thing, and then someone will walk in out of the blue and ask you for something completely different.’

As to the country’s current political predicaments, Jackie’s approach is one of persistence. While she has noted prices have crept up on products like underlay, flooring will always be a necessary concern for construction, so Jackie isn’t worried about business drying up any time soon.  

‘Work will still continue. Prices may go up, but nothing is going to stop, we’ll just keep going as we have done before.’

It is this ethos which has seen Sawston continue to grow from humble beginnings 15 years ago, and will likely see it thrive long into the future.