It’s no accident that Winton Flooring is winning

CFJ talks to John Marsh, commercial director at family-owned contractor, Winton Flooring, about the success of the Manchester-based business, which was established by his parents in 1981 and which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in April By ADAM BERNSTEIN.

JOHN Marsh is commercial director at family-owned contractor, Winton Flooring. Based in Manchester, he’s part of the second generation that took over the business after his parents - Steve and Liz Marsh - established the company back in the mid-‘80s. Its origins, like many of the great advances in life, were born of fate. Says John, ‘Dad had a background as a fitter specialising in vinyl installations. But following an accident he was unable to fit anymore so he set up the company to manage other fitters doing the same work.’ Having first worked in TV, exhibition work and shopfitting, some 17 years ago John joined the business.

And it all seemed a natural fit: ‘I was used to the fast-paced demanding environment of the construction industry; it was very comparable to my previous job.’ On this John details that the owner of a large shop fitting company in Manchester taught him a lot about company image and how a business is perceived by the customers. ‘I was able to bring what I’d learnt to our firm - I redecorated with new paint, carpet, desks and computers.’ From John’s perspective, he could see that at the time Winton flooring was a successful firm but ‘very much still analogue in an increasingly digital world.’

He says that estimates, after the changes, ‘were now done on computers and quotes emailed to customers increasing our speed and accuracy. Gone were the old school paper roll calculators and typewriters. Our fleet of vans were upgraded with a new livery and a modern shop sign added.’ And the changes worked – the firm won new business and gained fresh impetus from the change. And two years after his joining, John’s brother, Richard, came onboard to bring his considerable experience in man management to the business. As John explains, ‘This combination made for a powerful team allowing us to drive the company forward.’

Evolution, not revolution
It’s a natural question to ask of any contractor for these profiles how their business developed in terms of geographical area, specialisms, clients and the business itself.

In answering, John reports that the company evolved over the years and has branched out into supplying retail, manufacturing and public sector industries.

Part of this success and growth has followed on from, as he tells, finding ‘that customers want the jobs doing to very high standards in very short time frames.’ This, he says, forced the company to look for new and innovative products including screeds, adhesives, vinyls and carpet tiles ‘which fortunately our clever manufacturers have advanced in the last few years.’ He’s referring specifically here to fast screeds and damp proof membranes from Bostik - and others - which can be laid and set within hours, looselay vinyls such as Altro Xpresslay, and Interface’s looselay level set LVT. All of this, he says, has made rapid installation possible - speeds which would have been deemed impossible just ten years ago. In an age of heightened competition, it’s telling that that John reckons that one of Winton Flooring’s strengths is based on the company being ‘a family firm and his working with his brother and sister to bring ideas into the business.’

Take his sister Elaine who, more than ten years ago, was working for an online business. ‘After joining us she has brought fresh ideas to enhance our online presence. ‘We now,’ says John, ‘have a successful online business - Flooring Supplies Direct - which has increased our turnover and online profile to new customers for Winton Flooring too.’ And from what John says, the two businesses work very well together supporting one another.

Social media is key
Promotion for every business is critical to survival for without it, clients won’t be able to beat a path to the door. And this is something that John fully recognises. But just like any other savvy businessman, he also recognises the power of a well-run social media profile – exploiting this lowcost medium is central to his marketing activities.

He explains that ‘with being a relatively young management team, we are very much of the iPhone generation and really understand the power of the internet and social media.’ John is well aware that exploiting social media goes well beyond the simple posting process. He’s learned over time that ‘it’s also important to boost your posts, run ad campaigns and have an SEO company promote your websites.’. We are proud of the work we complete and how it supports a variety of sectors. Social media allows us to demonstrate this.

The state of the sector
Of course, with many years spent in the world of flooring John has seen a fair few changes. In fact, as he puts it, ‘The flooring industry has changed a lot in the past 17 years that I’ve been part of it.’ And he compares his world with that of his father’s: ‘One thing that struck Dad before his retirement was the colossal amount of paperwork there is now with the job.’

As he outlines – and many will know from experience – email has replaced phone calls. Customers want pre-contract questionnaires completed and then there are risk assessments, method statements, compliance with COSHH, operation and maintenance manuals and so on. ‘The list,’ he says, ‘goes on and it all eats into an already busy day.’ Beyond the changes to paperwork, he also seen the rate at which business is done increase – and markedly so: ‘The speed at which jobs go from meeting, estimate, and order to installation and invoice can be a matter of days now, if not hours.’ But the question of whether the industry is in a good place is an interesting one for John: ‘The industry has seen a shift away from the midsized companies like ours in both directions.

Big nationwide flooring contractors have been aggressively undercutting the industry for years using their buying power and cheap labour to do the larger jobs. This cuts midsized firms out at the estimating stage, but it’s likely the customer will pay more in the end.

And at the other end of the scale are the sole trader fitters who work from a van without support staff and who have low overheads which is very attractive to builders and fit out companies as they are flexible and cheap.’ But while the sole trader may be less expensive than Winton Flooring, John does wonder how they deal with the paperwork – ‘it’s a mystery… there are so many organisations to be part of CHAS, Safe Contractor, Constructionline and CSCS. They seem so important to some firms and then not so much to others.’

Ultimately, he thinks ‘the best way to survive is to focus on what you’re good at, excel in that field, and be fast and responsive in everything you do, from the initial meeting, estimate and installation. Don’t leave a customer waiting and always do everything with a smile’.

Having weathered the coronavirus pandemic, John is very keen to praise his suppliers who, in his view, ‘work really hard to keep the industry moving’. ‘Added to this we also have changes related to Brexit. The important factor here is adaptability’. John maintains that British standards are very high and will continue to be innovative and provide market class solutions. We as a nation will have a lot to do post-Brexit and post-coronavirus to get the economy quickly onto the road to recovery and buying British is the best way to do it.’

Supply side
One question that ought to be on everyone’s lips is that of sustainability. Some firms seek to be proactively sustainable; others do what they can just to exist.

But where does Winton Flooring stand? In an ideal world, John would be sustainable in everything he does. But, as he says, ‘ as it stands the flooring industry is very difficult to be sustainable as most of the products are made from oil one way or another, and with contaminants they are difficult to recycle.’ He says that the company recycles what it can and uses the Interface reclaim scheme to take carpet tiles away. He notes that it is expensive and complicated to do, ‘but our customers were very happy with the service.’

On sustainable products themselves, ‘the ones we’ve installed so far from what is available tend to be expensive and underwhelming in the overall appearance and performance.’ He considers this a shame and points instead to ‘some great older products like Marmoleum, Tretford cord carpet and woollen carpets which naturally are sustainable.’

Some might say the direction of movement should be spurred on by government. But John, however, reckons the government can only do so much. John considers that the flooring industry has a real problem as products are predominantly made of nylon, PVC, polypropylene, rubber fillings and backings which are all mixed together. ‘This,’ he says, ‘can often be made worse with screed and adhesive residue making recycling almost impossible.’ He’s of the view government is unlikely to call for a standardised selection of products.

One solution he notes might be looselay on a tackifier – ‘installation would be easy and removing it would be easy too before it’s recycled. But reality isn’t like that as all customers have different very specific requirements for their flooring. So unfortunately, we are stuck with an industry that is not so sustainable and no amount of recycled fishing nets or car tyres are going to change that soon.’ John hopes that this will be a real opportunity for the industry to innovate, providing genuine sustainability that customers will be reassured by, ‘not just trends and gimmicks’.

And lastly… Everyone needs a reason to get out of bed, to keep working day in, day out. For John, the one thing that keeps him interested in the industry ‘is the random nature of it.’ He expands on this: ‘One day you’re measuring a job in a hospital or care home, then next you’re at a power station control room or a car factory canteen.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting some amazingly interesting places all over the country, which all have one thing in common - they need a good new floor.’ Over the years he’s come to realise that each flooring job comes with its own specific set of problems.

Questions he faces would not uncommonly be: What’s the uplift going to be like? Which product or products to recommend? Which manufacturer to go with? Work by day, at night or over the weekend? And is the floor timber, screed or damp? ‘It keeps your brain active to come up with creative solutions and sometimes, when there are none available, develop and manufacture your own.’ One stands out in his mind - a complex job at a large pharmaceutical manufacturer which called for a specific skirting and corners which just didn’t exist.

Our talented team were able to come up with the unique effective solution. Necessity is the mother of invention and 17 years later, the firm is doing well, and John is still keen to carry on doing what he does best. But as to the future, John thinks that the next five-to-10 years are going to be very interesting. While it’s hard to predict the economy, world and domestic events and changes to the industry his last word is very clear. ‘Winton Flooring has a very competitive team of directors which I think gives us a unique winning edge. We will continue to strive together to improve the business and provide a high-quality service to our customers.