THE GLUE THAT BINDS

How Mark Kelly’s management of Tilemaster Adhesives was shaped by his father’s near-death experiences. By David Strydom

WEDNESDAY 13 February 2002. Mark Kelly remembers that day as if it was yesterday, every detail etched into his memory.

For one, it was the day Southampton left back, Wayne Bridge, was due to make his debut for England. As staunch Southampton fans, Mark and his father, Paul, were looking forward to seeing how well Bridge would fare in the match against the Netherlands that evening.

But that day Mark, who was at the time working as an administrative assistant in the Preston benefits agency’s fraud department, received a call from his mother saying his father had been in an accident and that she was on her way to Royal Preston Hospital.

‘At the time, it didn’t hit home,’ Mark tells me during an interview at his office in Leyland. Tall, forthright and infused with northern matter-of-factness, he cuts an imposing figure at 36. But it’s softened by his pleasant, open countenance and the distinct sense of humility he’s inherited from his parents.

‘Dad has always worked unbelievably hard and I initially thought the issue must be his heart or something stress-related.’

The stress was caused, Mark explains, because his father was often out on the road trying to add to his customer base for his business, Tilemaster Adhesives, which he’d set up in 1990. But being out meant he couldn’t supervise the day-to-day operations at the site in Whittle-le-Woods, near Chorley.

‘When I got to the hospital, I discovered dad had fallen into the tile grout mixing machine,’ says Mark. ‘I assumed he would have been mixing ready mixed tile adhesive so I expected the worst. I remember thinking ‘How has he managed to come out of that alive?’’

The facts were these: two employees who were meant to be helping that day had called in sick, and because he was working alone, Paul left the guard off the mixer. The company had just relocated and were in the process of guarding up all the machines, but as luck would have it, the one Paul fell into was the remaining one. ‘That’s a mistake that absolutely wouldn’t happen today,’ Mark says.

On this particular day, rather than guard the mixer, Paul covered it with a sheet of cardboard to stop powder escaping. He then left his phone next to the mixer and went off preparing chemicals for another mix.

When his phone rang, Paul ran to answer it before the automated answerphone kicked in and operating on ‘autopilot’, stepped onto the cardboard covering the mixer. He fell into it, initially curled himself up into a ball and for about 30 seconds, he spun around, revolving about six times. At the time, he wasn’t conscious of pain or injuries but felt no fear. In fact, as he later told the Lancashire Post: ‘I felt terrific. It was as if I was wrapped in clouds and cotton wool, and I felt very comfortable.’

Paul said his peace and accepted he was going to die when the machine abruptly stopped, even though it shouldn’t have done, as it was blending half a tonne of wall grout. Not only did it stop, it did so with Paul’s head above the powder, and in the perfect position to get him out.

His survival depended on being fished out as soon as possible, and indeed a series of chance events led to just that eventuality, despite all the odds stacked against him.

A delivery driver, Mick Bethell, had decided to pop in for a cup of tea with Paul. On entering, he couldn’t find him, then he heard cries of ‘help me’. That’s how Paul came to be rescued, although his problems were only just beginning.

Mark takes up the story. ‘Mum, my sister Joanne and I were taken to see dad. He was heavily strapped up and we were given the news his left arm as well as all his fingers from his right hand had been amputated and his left leg was badly damaged.’ It was his left leg that had wrapped around the blades and tripped the mixer.

The options were to keep him in Preston where there was staff on hand to stabilise him, or fly him to Manchester’s Wythenshawe Hospital, which is a centre for microsurgery. There, a team of top surgeons operated on all three limbs.

‘Dad underwent 22 hours of surgery in one go, and 10 surgeons in three teams worked on each of his limbs,’ Mark continues. ‘At the time of the accident, the emergency services had found his missing limbs and put them in an ice-bucket, which they got from a local pub.’

Surgeons re-planted Paul’s left arm and fingers to his right hand and his big toe from his amputated foot was used as his thumb, which had been badly damaged in the accident.

But the emergency team was unable to find his little finger from his right hand. They couldn’t save his left leg and so amputated the leg just below the knee. They also dissected the amputated leg to get nerve tissue and tendons to use in his hands, providing movement and feeling.

The way this was done set a precedent in modern surgery: as Paul’s leg had been taken off close to the knee, they couldn’t create a flap of skin, which is required to close off a close wound. ‘There wasn’t sufficient skin to create a flap so the option was to amputate the leg at the knee to create a flap. But one of the surgeons had seen on a DVD how skin used from the sole of the foot could create a flap, so he applied that method and, as a result, dad healed quicker.’

Paul was, in fact, walking after only seven weeks. ‘The surgeons did a great job,’ says Mark. ‘Five or six days’ post-op, dad was visited by surgeons from all over the world as they wanted to observe the results of so much intense surgery. At one point, there’d been 10 surgeons in action.’

When Paul came around in the intensive care unit, Mark says, he was immediately switched on mentally. ‘He wasn’t fazed when he was told he’d lost his left leg. I think he’d accepted in the machine that his days were numbered.

‘It was as though he considered anything other than death to be a bonus and when 20-odd people have been working on you for 20-odd hours, you can only be positive.’

As Paul recovered, he told Mark he wanted to keep Tilemaster going. ‘It seems to be our way of doing things as a family, we just get back to work. The next day, my boss at the benefits agency had a quiet word in my ear, saying that as a civil servant I had one option in my career to take what’s termed a ‘career break’, for a minimum of six weeks and a maximum of five years.’

Given what had happened to his father, Mark’s boss said, he’d certainly permit him to take a break. But it was going to turn out to be a lot longer than either of them had anticipated. ‘I started at Tilemaster the following day,’ Mark says.

As for Wayne Bridge, he acquitted himself well enough that night against the Netherlands and was subsequently twice required as a substitute during the 2002 World Cup. But, for the moment, the game he’d missed was the least of Mark’s concerns. Now he had bigger fish to fry.
 
BORN on 19 July 1980 in Preston, Mark attended Balshaw’s Church of England High School, described as a mainstream, state-funded senior school in Leyland. There, he says, he spent most of his time daydreaming about football and trying to organise the next match.

‘I got into trouble in class because I’d be thinking of the football game at break-time. My geography teacher told me off for frowning when all I was doing was trying to concentrate on the lesson.’

He’d usually be castigated for not trying hard enough until ‘he woke up’ in time for his GCSEs. ‘I was just sports-mad. That’s where most of my attention was.’

From a young age, he was a keen saver who worked seven days a week on the paper round, a milk round and for Dolcis Shoe Shop at weekends. He stacked pound coins in his room and, when he had enough, used much of it to indulge his hobby: fishing.

‘I spent my first pay cheque on a posh fishing box for storing my floats, weights and hooks. I’d spend hours in our fishing shop and I’d work out how to save up to buy fishing equipment.’

His first brush with his father’s business was during school holidays. ‘Early in the day, before I went fishing, I’d visit dad in a unit he used as a manufacturing plant. I stood at the entrance of this rundown old unit - I didn’t want to go in for all the dust – and wave, and he’d come out to see me.’

The idea of working in the unit was ‘not on my menu’, Mark says. ‘In 1997, unbeknown to me, dad started making powders because producing ready-mixed tile adhesive was difficult to progress. Prices weren’t increasing – in fact, year-on-year they were decreasing – and he couldn’t compete as he didn’t have the buying power.’

As with his father’s first accident, Mark uses a football milestone to memorise a personal one. ‘I remember the switch to powders well because it was Euro 1996. We watched most of it at home. Dad had a young chemist over to join us – at the time he was helping dad develop formulations for powders which materialised in 1997.’

The resulting powder range consisted of three products: a basic, rapid-setting adhesive for ceramic tiles on solid floors, substrates; a flexible version for timber substrates; and a wall and floor grout.
Mark left school in 1996 but not to train as a paramedic, which he’d always wanted to do. Instead, he got a job at the local benefits agency, which he enjoyed but which he also remembers for his most embarrassing moment.

‘I was young and naïve,’ he says, ‘and I thought I was going on a date. When I arrived for the date, I’d been stitched up by my colleagues – they were all sat there chuckling away as I walked into the pub!’

His job at the benefits agency was ideal for giving Mark a more rounded view of a typical workplace but he admits now that it involved much clock-watching – he didn’t have as much passion for it as he’d have liked, which must have been difficult for someone who describes his idea of hell as being forced to do nothing and being made to standstill.

Of course, after his father’s first accident in 2002, there was little chance of his life standing still for long. One of the first things that was reviewed was health and safety.

‘Dad’s quite open about the fact that he had the accident because he was cutting a corner,’ Mark says. ‘There’s no longer any chance of that happening now. Ironically, I had to regularly clean the machine dad fell into when I joined Tilemaster.

‘We put a process in place whereby the mixer was isolated, locked off and the key given to someone else. Our processes are thorough to ensure an accident will never happen again. Also, four years ago we gave our health and safety process to ATG Risk Solutions to manage.’

ATG visits Tilemaster monthly and after a risk assessment and audit, it produces a comprehensive report for the company. ‘They’re the experts, so we let them get on with it,’ Mark says.
 
MARK gives me a potted history of how Tilemaster came to be. ‘Prior to dad founding Tilemaster, he and a business partner made pasting tables for B&Q and smaller independent DIY stores,’ he says. ‘But when B&Q stopped using dad, he was forced to close the business.’

At the time, a customer who couldn’t afford to settle with Paul, offered an old mixer as part of the settlement. Paul accepted. ‘Dad may not be a qualified tradesman but he’s always had an ambition to run his own business,’ Mark says. ‘He decided to use the mixer to make ready mixed tile adhesive and contacted a few former colleagues to set up a small business in Whittle-le-Woods.

‘At that point, the business consisted of going in early every morning, putting on a three-tonne mix, then jumping in a van and delivering the previous day’s production. That was dad’s way of making a living.’

Tilemaster went from strength-to-strength, although it was painstaking work, until Paul’s accident changed everything. Mark’s first day at the office in 2002 was a Monday, with Barry Wright who’d previously worked with Paul.

Now, Paul and Mark decided they needed Barry’s assistance to keep the business going. ‘Dad said Barry had the knowledge I needed,’ says Mark. ‘We went knocking on doors all over Chorley until we found him. After hearing what had happened to dad, Barry agreed to return immediately.’

At the time, Tilemaster had one delivery driver who delivered every order and as a result he knew the customer base well and as he did, Mark had an opportunity to succeed. ‘Our product was made-to-order. The business I came into was more of a service – the customer placed an order, we made it and away he went.’

Going from an office job to working in a manufacturing facility was ‘a real shock’ for Mark. Paul, meanwhile, started looking at the business as a ship he could steer rather than working in the engine room. It became clear to him where Tilemaster was going wrong and where it could improve.

‘Of course, he couldn’t do it himself,’ says Mark. ‘But Barry and I could. We decided to invest in machinery that would make the job easier – at the time we had an annual turnover of about £375,000 based on making between 20-25 pallets a week to order. But that was the limit of what Barry and I could manage.’

Because Tilemaster was service-led, phone calls were few and far between and most orders were faxed. Finding he didn’t need to be as engaged as he was previously, Paul worked for charities, including becoming an ambassador for North West Air Ambulance which had been so crucial to his survival.

‘Dad got a lot of press,’ says Mark. ‘He delivered speeches, talking about what the air ambulance had done for him. His frequent absences meant I’d occasionally be unable to answer phone queries, which bothered me. I made it my mission to find out the answers and that’s how my education in this industry started.’

Under Mark’s management, Tilemaster grew at about 20% a year over the next four years. ‘At the end of Year One, we were producing about 30 tonnes a week, later reaching 36 or 37. By 2006, we had six employees and were making 50-60 pallets a week while dad was still doing charity work.’

Mark was running the day-to-day operation but the business wasn’t a brand. It was producing, he explains, plain bags with a label.

‘We didn’t have a product guide. When I met potential customers, I’d go with a price list with nothing much to show. Meanwhile, dad was in training for his second charity bike ride which had planned to cycle Pisa to Paris. This followed his first charity bike ride which was done one year to the day after his accident when he’d cycled the length of Ireland for charity.’

Each morning, Paul set off at 5.30am to cycle 30 miles. He’d get home at about 7.30am, have breakfast with his wife, Rhona, then come into work to see how Mark was doing. Then, in August 2006, he got a call from his mother at about 7.50am, asking whether Paul was at the office. He wasn’t.

‘Mum and I assumed he’d probably cycled a bit further than usual,’ Mark recalls. ‘Twenty minutes later, she rung again, but there was still no sign of dad. At about 9.15am, I got a call that almost exactly mirrored the mixer incident in 2002. Dad had been in an accident and mum was on her way to Royal Preston Hospital.’

Mark set off for the hospital and as he got onto the motorway, he saw the accident scene and thought: ‘That’s my dad!’ As it turned out, Paul had been cycling around a roundabout when a van had come off the motorway slip road. The driver was blinded by the sun and drove into Paul.

This time, his skull was fractured from ear-to-ear and he had brain damage. The helmet he was wearing had saved his life although he was, in fact, technically dead at the accident scene. ‘One of the first people on the scene was an off-duty doctor who brought dad back to life,’ Mark says. ‘But his brain was touching his skull and he was in a coma. If his condition worsened, that would be that. I told mum we had orders to get out, customers to look after. It was difficult but we were such a small team I decided to go back to work.

‘I don’t want to sound blasé about dad’s accident, but the situation was what it was. Luck would help us out or it wouldn’t. Dad had been my sounding board and provided all the reassurance I needed at 25. But we still had the business to look after on a day-to-day basis.’

Driving back that fateful day, Mark passed the accident scene again, and thought: ‘This is my time. I need to step up.’
 
FORTUNATELY, Lady Luck blessed Paul Kelly with a return visit and he recovered, albeit slowly.
‘We decided dad wasn’t getting the same standard of care at the hospital that he would at home,’ Mark says. ‘As a result, we brought him home two weeks after his accident and he remained bedridden for three months.’
To keep his father involved in the business, Mark went home at the end of every day and updated him on orders and other details. ‘He was glazed over during my visits and had lost his motivation for living. He had no energy nor desire to do even the basics, such as going to the toilet.’

Then, out of the blue, Paul phoned Mark one day and said, ‘Son, we’ll be okay.’ Mark said: ‘What do you mean?’

‘I woke up this morning and took myself to the toilet,’ Paul replied. ‘Today my brain has woken up and told me something different. I can see the progress and I know I will recover.’
A fortnight later, Paul returned to work.

By then, Mark had the bit firmly between his teeth. A few months later, in early 2007, he hit his stride with a masterstroke when a longstanding customer said to him: ‘Mark, there’s a product from another manufacturer that’s selling well. If you make something similar, I’d prefer to buy it from you instead.’

Mark picked the brain of a supplier who’d previously assisted him with chemistry formulations, and was put in touch with a consultant who helped him make what he describes as his greatest business achievement – Levelflex. To this day, it remains Tilemaster’s bestselling product.

‘At the time, there were few other products like it in the marketplace,’ says Mark. ‘As a versatile self-levelling compound, it ticked all the boxes. The more I considered it, the more I saw a big gap in the market.

‘Our core business is tiling - it was all we knew back then. But a typical tile retailer had five or six different self-levelling compounds on a shelf, all doing various things. Each one was very limited.’

Mark phoned around and got about 30 decent-sized businesses to take samples of his new product. That, he says, is when the journey really began.

‘By 2008, we really started to make progress,’ he says. ‘The more feedback and encouragement we got, the more we could get out there, opening new doors. I printed off the tile association A-Z retail list and phoned everyone. I worked out that there was a pattern. If the retailer I was calling stocked certain brands, they seemed to show more interest in Levelflex.’

Tilemaster was unheard of in 2008 but Mark was discerning: he only chose to work with those retailers where success seemed likely. His aim was to have a stockist in every major town or city and although he came nowhere near achieving that in 2008, his goal has been accomplished since then.

‘I had a plan,’ Mark says. ‘It didn’t matter that we supplied only one product with each stockist; what mattered was that providing we managed those accounts professionally and successfully, it would be a matter of time before another manufacturer let them down with other products and they turned to us.’

Some accounts started out buying between 1 – 2 pallets of Levelflex per month, Mark explains. Now, Tilemaster is supplying the same customers up to 50 pallets per month of a mixture of products based on the launch-pad provided by Levelflex.

The company made its first £1m turnover in the year ending January 2010, but once it reached that milestone, there was no turning back. ‘We’ve just taken off,’ says Mark.

The key to this success is honesty, Mark says, pointing out that manufacturers should never promise to deliver something they can’t. ‘Dad and I are very straight – what you see is what you get. We have a real desire to do as much as we possibly can for the customer and not let them down. If that meant staying at work until 10pm for someone’s order the following morning, which might have been worth £300, then that’s the way it was.’

Mark credits his honesty to the way he was brought up. He points out that his family is hardworking and believes in the saying ‘You get out what you put in’.
‘Nobody was going to hand us a new order book or build up a customer list. We had to do that ourselves, from scratch. There were many tough times such as the time I set off for Scotland for three days and came back empty-handed.

‘When that happened, I’d always reflect on the reasons I’d been unsuccessful, and I’d never hold it against the customer if he chose not to buy from us. I came away thinking ‘What more could I have done?’ and ‘How will I play it differently next time?’

‘I watched how people responded to offers, noting whether they took to certain things and not others. I just always hoped that when we presented ourselves as a business that the passion, desire and determination shone through.

‘Fortunately, that approach worked for us and many people were good enough to give us an opportunity.’
 
WITH the UK’s exit from the EU looming large after the triggering of Article 50, Mark points out that because Tilemaster doesn’t export, it’s protected to a degree from Brexit-inspired damage. But, as with many other UK manufacturers, Tilemaster imports raw materials from the EU. Owing to sterling’s devaluation since Brexit, prices have had to go up.

‘It’s quite costly now,’ Mark says. ‘But we’re all in the same position because all UK manufacturers import the same raw materials from Europe. Something had to give and as a result we had to have a price increase in the New Year. The bottom line is that Brexit has had quite a big impact.’

Tilemaster doesn’t often get involved in large projects such as big builds or redevelopments, he points out. ‘We’re a relatively small organisation and I don’t know how we’ll be affected. It is what it is and we’ll just work as hard as we can to continue to grow the business. Sales-wise, we haven’t been affected. Margin-wise, we have been however.’

While the UK waits to see how negotiations with the EU pan out, there’s not much anyone can do except ‘keep calm and carry on’. To that end, I ask Mark about a typical day at the office.

Unsurprisingly he points out he’s passionate about his job and sometimes comes in over the weekend. In fact, if he could, he’d be in at 6am every morning and leave at 7pm. The hours go in a flash.’

He still manages several customer accounts even though Tilemaster has five area sales managers. ‘I say that as a positive,’ he says. ‘I may not see those managers often but we have a wonderful relationship and I keep them fully informed about the business.’

Mark’s main role is overseeing sales and marketing but as it’s a family business, and given the experience he’s accrued, he gets involved in meetings about the laboratory, the shop-floor and production.
‘I’m here to support the team as well as to strategize and keep my eye on the bigger picture. I’ve had to adapt because Tilemaster’s now employing 60 people.’

As it happens, I’ve come to Tilemaster over an untypical period. On the morning before our interview, Mark was helping a new employee who’d started the previous day.

During the fortnight after the interview, he ensured his new customer services employee – who was hired owing to the company’s exponential growth – got the correct induction. ‘Customer services is a busy department,’ he explains, ‘and I can’t expect them to do their day job while also training new staff.’

Asked to name the key people around him, Mark shakes his head. ‘Everyone is key. Fundamentally the most important thing here is what we produce. We’re manufacturers and we’re only as good as our last ton.

‘Believe it or not the most important cog in our business is the people on the shop-floor. The production operatives, the lads who make the product. If they don’t care or enjoy their role or if they have a bad day, we can potentially produce a bad batch. A decade-long relationship with a customer could be ruined by one bad batch.’

Every detail and every customer matters, Mark says. ‘It can be challenging. I don’t always achieve what I want to but at the end of each day, as long as I can satisfy myself that all the orders have gone out and all our customers have been looked after, I can live with that.’

The only time I see Mark struggle for words during the interview is when I ask him to describe his management style. He’s clearly not comfortable praising himself.
He falters, then says: ‘I engage. I’m one of the team. I’m an arm-around-the-shoulder type of person. I praise where I can.

‘My management style, I suppose, is engaging, anyone can approach me and converse. I can’t take this business forward without them. We’ve built such a wonderful team. Considering we’ve gone from 24 to 60 staff members in two years and accommodated a business that’s doubled in size over those two years, I think we’ve done a remarkable job.

‘What excites me is there are so many new staff members doing such a fine job for us already and they’re just going to get better with time. Six of my seven lab staff weren’t even working in this industry two years ago. The more experience they gain, the better they’re going to be.’

Competition is rife in the adhesives and substrate preparation sector but Mark is modest about how Tilemaster stacks up against its competitors.

‘I don’t think it’s fair on the likes of F Ball and Ardex to put us on the same level. Yes, they’re competitors – we supply the same customers they do but they have such wonderful histories and so much experience. Other competitors are Mapei, Uzin, UltraFloor, Bostik and Tremco. It’s a bigger field than the ceramics market.’

Tilemaster differentiates itself from these manufacturers by using a model that worked for it in ceramics, which is dealing with independents and businesses like itself.
With respect to distributor exclusivity, loyalty in the flooring industry can sometimes be lacking, Mark says. ‘I understand we all have to grow our businesses but we choose to work exclusively with chosen distributors. We have only one distributor per city and that means they have exclusivity with those products.

‘If those distributors can generate interest in our products while remaining competitively priced it means they have something exclusive to offer their clients and have one over on their competitors.’
Tilemaster client, Roccia, for instance, is quite a large company in the ceramics sector but many of Tilemaster’s ceramics customers are two or three-man band operations. ‘They’ll still sell one or two pallets of adhesive a week and they’ll have a direct account with us – that’s how ceramics works,’ Mark explains.

‘It’s not the same in flooring. The retailer, who could be selling carpets or flooring, will buy from the distributor, mainly owing to service levels. They want it the following day. We can’t deliver that quickly but the distributors can. The result is that with tiling, we mainly go with retailers.’

Mark ensures the company is regularly in touch with its customers; his area sales managers visit the end-users. ‘Our two guys in technical are always conscious of feedback. If there’s feedback from my customer base, they’ll phone and tell me.

‘It’s the usual scenario: if you don’t hear anything, you know things are going well. But as soon as something doesn’t go according to plan, you’ll quickly find out. It’s fair to say no news can be good news. We’re very much in touch and keep our ear close to the ground.’

As for the future, Mark says there are ‘still some unknowns’. But, he’s looking to facing the rest of 2017 and beyond. ‘There are developments we want to launch, which excites me. I feel we’re going to be better-placed than ever to make real progress in the flooring industry.’

Back in high school, Mark was once bundled off to detention for lighting matches in a physics class just before working with Bunsen burners. These days, his actions aren’t quite so inflammatory but they’re still destined to ignite a few fireworks in the adhesives and flooring sector.