Carl Hart of Birmingham-based City Carpets & Flooring talks to CFJ about how his business was founded, and about the external pressures it faces.
CARL Hart of Birmingham-based City Carpets & Flooring is a busy man. Like others caught up in the pandemic, he emerged from the worst of it only to be flooded with numerous enquiries, all while trying to juggle work as he home schooled his children. The work wasn’t considered a curse, but it did make his life a little interesting.
From little acorns
His time in flooring started when he was 15. ‘One day, I’d just got home from school and my uncle, who was a carpet fitter, was sitting on the sofa with my mum. They asked if I wanted to work with him for some work experience, just for a couple of weeks.’
His first instinct, he says, was to ‘laugh my head off at the thought’ for it was something he had never previously pondered. But on seeing his uncle open his wallet to show its contents Carl soon changed his mind.
‘And from my very first day on the job I was sold, I knew straightaway flooring was to be my future.’
As for City Carpets & Flooring, that began when Carl was about 17-18 years old, when he created a presence through a free website that he built himself.
He promoted it locally by printing leaflets and investing time delivering them. He also put leaflets and business cards up in local shops and ‘gained a quite a bit of interest in my immediate area’.
He says he was still working with his uncle and fitting flooring that had been bought by customers.
By the time Carl had reached the tender age of 19 he’d saved enough to buy his first van. ‘I planned ahead and bought just before Christmas. That meant I could go around local shops to introduce myself.’
That was a smart move as it turned out – Carl knew that through smart timing he’d be able to pick up work that shops had won in the pre-Christmas rush: ‘I’d say I made a name for myself by doing all of the jobs that other fitters didn’t want to do – I’d take anything on.’
The business grew and Carl felt that incorporating – that is, forming a limited company – would set him up to offer a more professional approach in the eyes of his customers. This, for him, was the way forward.
Base of operation
City Carpets & Flooring operates throughout the Midlands currently, but Carl says he’s also undertaken work as far away as Weymouth, Bristol, and Plymouth.
As for the work itself, he says he enjoys all aspects of flooring ‘but my favourite is domestic. I’m a people person so I love seeing different faces every day and dealing with different customers, addressing issues or concerns and problem solving’.
In essence, Carl feels he wouldn’t generate the same job satisfaction from working on a building site. He explains that he has had contracts with newbuild companies, including Persimmon, but doesn’t gravitate towards it: ‘We completed a plot of newbuild homes for them, but it wasn’t for me; there was a lot more pressure applied to us on those jobs.’
That said, the company currently has contracts with housing associations and estate agents putting new flooring down in void and tenanted properties, as well as our general domestic work. ‘This,’ he says, ‘is much more suited to us and the way we operate.’
Having a great relationship with customers is important to Carl. He aims to quickly judge a character so as to adapt to put the customer at ease. It bothers him that there’s always the occasional customer that’s unwilling to understand, or take onboard, any advice given. In these circumstances Carl has learned to walk away – ‘it’s something we hate doing, but with a combined 30 years of experience between myself and my colleague George, there’s really not much we haven’t taken on and achieved’.
In other words, he’s aware of what will work and what will not and will fail. Carl doesn’t take too well to failure.
Generating new business can be very time consuming and it is expensive to boot. It follows, then, that word of mouth is invariably the best form of advertising and it’s one that Carl fully embraces. He says that it’s ‘music to my ears when I hear people tell me they’re going to pass my details on to their friend’s auntie’s cousin’s uncle. It’s so satisfying because we take so much pride in our work; the fact our customers offer free advertising for us is a massive bonus’.
But alongside word of mouth, City Carpets & Flooring also uses social media. As Carl says: ‘It’s a fantastic way of gaining business exposure; we aim to take photos of as many jobs as we can and upload them. We don’t always have sufficient time to be able to do this, but social media is such a great form of free advertising. I urge everyone to take advantage of it.’
‘Once bitten twice shy’; such a great saying. And it’s the reason Carl always takes a deposit on jobs to secure an order: ‘I learned the hard way that I had to take deposits when I purchased flooring for two separate customers. They both assured me they were going to go ahead, then never answered their phone to me again.’
On smaller domestic jobs the company makes it clear the final balance is payable on completion of the work.
And in a move to close more deals, the company, as Carl explains, has recently begun to offer finance options for customers ‘which gives us a wider audience, it allows us to get paid quicker for a small fee, then it’s up to the finance company to collect final balances’.
In contrast and in relation to larger commercial jobs, Carl understands he’ll have to wait for 30, 60 or 90 days for the final balance to be cleared. But if, after a short while, a customer hasn’t paid he will send gentle reminders that the balance is still due. As a result of his stance, there have only been a handful of occasions – may be one or two – where the company has had to take legal action to recover the debt.
And Carl’s experience with the legal process hasn’t been good. He explains that very recently he instructed a debt collection agency to recover a large debt, which was unsuccessful, and it ‘resulted in spending more money with no return. I won’t say who the agency is, but they’re quite famous and on TV’.
Fundamentally, he says ‘it’s been a very hard lesson learned for us and it has made a difference to how we operate on future orders for new customers’.
A busy man
It’s entirely clear the trade is very busy. And City Carpets & Flooring is no exception. As Carl highlights: ‘In the current climate… we’ve never been busier. I’m not sure whether that’s down to us doing what we do and how we do it, or owing to the impact of Covid.’
That said, he thinks a contributing factor is that customers ‘have realised more and more that they’re able to shop online, especially during lockdown; we’re purely based online and offer a home service to customers.’
But given this, what is Carl’s view of the traditional bricks and mortar shop? His response is he doesn’t think the high street will die out any time soon. He believes ‘there’ll always be a market for high street flooring shops, but it’s obvious the online market has gained a lot more recently and this works well for us’.
Standards are important to Carl. He makes great play of the fact his company is proud to be NICF Master Fitters, Quick-Step Master Installers, Karndean approved and CITB NVQ level qualified. And with a nod to the future, he says the company is looking to expand its credentials further in the trade.
On to the jobs he’s most pleased with – those that are more notable – he outlines several which include artificial grass at a restaurant, the Rub Smoke House, on Broad Street in Birmingham, and the Holiday Inn hotel at Birmingham Airport.
At another recent job, Carl installed carpet in a high-end boutique store in Birmingham city centre. ‘This,’ he says, ‘was a great experience and completely different for us as we had to complete the work on a tight time schedule and out of hours. Starting at midnight we had until 5am to complete the job so the cleaners could go in and get everything ready for the big reveal the next morning.’
He says the main issue to overcome was that this was temporary measure – the carpet was being installed on top of LVT and it had to be reusable once pulled back.
He has also undertaken work for Channel 5 on Cowboy Builders, and for ITV he’s worked on Bad Builders Bang to Rights. He makes light of the fact that after some three to four hours’ worth of filming, he and his team found themselves with just five to 10 seconds of airtime.
As for the process, Carl tells how on every occasion that he’s been on TV he was first contacted by a member of the production team to explain what was needed and when it was needed.
‘They’re usually after a quick turnaround, and we will always endeavour to do what we can.’ This he adds, applies to all, not just TV work.
He continues: ‘It was always explained to us that they’ll record much more material than what is needed so they can trim down and keep the best bits – which makes sense.’
While he says appearing on TV was worth it for the sense of pride on seeing his company name roll up during the credits, he can’t say he has had any business come from it – ‘nobody really knows unless I mention it… maybe I should get an ‘As seen on TV’ logo on our van?’
But his favourite job, however, was for an exhibitor at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham: ‘It was the showcase of the entire show and the exhibitor had a casino on their stand. We had to hand-cut spades and clubs from the four corners of the stand in red carpet, then join black carpet back in. It made the news and I’m gutted I didn’t take better pictures.’
Threats dealt with
Brexit was a very clear threat to the trade – and every other sector too. For Carl’s City Carpets & Flooring it made for ‘an uncertain time for all of us’.
He continues: ‘Most of us were never completely kept in the clear about what may happen with regard to stock levels and price changes. It has, however, become completely clear now prices have gone up across the board.’
Fortunately, he says the playing field is still level: ‘We’re all in the same boat so if the price rises for us then so does it for everyone else. Unfortunately, though, it’s the end-user who’ll be footing the bill for most price increases.’
Carl says he was initially concerned about the impact of Brexit and was expecting a drop in custom. Thankfully, though, that hasn’t yet materialised – yet. He’s upbeat when he says that ‘hopefully people will stay positive and continue to spend with small local business like us’.
As to the topic still on everyone’s lips – Covid-19. As with Brexit, the uncertainty of the pandemic was a very worrying time for Carl – but in a manner most wouldn’t expect. He details the problem: ‘When the high street shops closed their doors, our phone lines were jammed, and we were taking bookings faster than we could write them down.’
That, he says, wasn’t anything to worry about.
The issue that could have derailed the business was something else: ‘We didn’t actually know if we should be carrying out the work? Was it essential?’ He found that if he asked one person he’d get a response in the negative, but if he asked another, the answer would be the exact opposite – that the work was, of course, essential.
Fortunately for Carl, being a member of the NICF meant he had someone to ask for an official view. As he says: ‘We had some great advice, and we were kept updated with the latest information of what we could and what we couldn’t do. In the end we did continue to work, but absolutely made sure that we asked each and every customer all of the right questions.’
Beyond that, Carl said everyone working on a job – himself as well as his team – were working with full personal protection equipment (PPE) and taking ‘every measure to ensure the minimisation of the spread of the virus while carrying out what we and our customers deemed essential work’.
One threat to the planet, sustainability, is on Carl’s radar, and he considers it should be much more thought about than it currently is: ‘I think we should all take accountability and do what we can by using more eco-friendly products and in the general handling of waste management.’
He firmly thinks the buck stops with the ‘big guys’ of the flooring trade – and that means suppliers and manufacturers.
He feels ‘if they can get the wheels in motion then the smaller guys would follow suit’. But back to the ‘real world’ Carl reckons ‘pricing, and not sustainability, is definitely one of the biggest factors when choosing a floor’.
It is important to Carl that he recognises the efforts of others. He specifically wants to offer his appreciation to two individuals – ‘Andrew Hart who taught me everything I know, and George Ellis who’s my right-hand man’.
Elaborating, Carl tells how Andrew, his uncle ‘was the person who got me started in flooring and has always helped me along my journey, he’s always had a great depth of knowledge, always pushed me to do things ’the right way’ and had ways of making sure I did exactly that’.
He specifically recalls how Andrew told him that, when he was laying gripper rod, he would take 50p out of Carl’s wages for every ‘dink’ he put into a skirting board. As Carl says, ‘little things like that pushed me on’.
As for George Ellis, Carl tells how as his ‘right-hand man’ he’s ‘an instrumental part of our team. I trained him up as a fitter straight from school and have watched him go from strength-to-strength for the past 10 years into the great fitter he is now’.
George, says Carl, handles a lot of stress for the business and strives to do better: ‘I’m very proud of him and very much look forward to what the future has in store for us.’
Finally, Carl also highlights the help United Carpets in Northfield have given him in the past. As he says, ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without these people.’