The business end of things

As seems to happen so much in the world of flooring, those that enter the sector appear to have done so by chance. And so it was for Dave Caldwell, managing director of OSS Commercial Flooring…

IN his own words, Dave Caldwell, managing director of OSS Commercial Flooring, says: ‘I got into the industry by chance; I didn’t really know what I was applying for - I simply sent off four job applications and got an interview at CFI which was then followed by a second one before I was offered the job.’ No matter, he ‘just wanted a job’ and ‘was happy to try anything.’ And he refers to himself then as a keen 19-year-old, fresh from college who ‘was cheap.’

And Dave isn’t ashamed to admit that being green he made many mistakes. But in his defence, he explains that he ‘was given far too much responsibility too soon - I learned the hard way and am still learning now.’ He says that his knowledge of basic accountancy and the fundamentals of what goes into running small business ‘was lost on me for a few years, despite my elevation to contracts manager from office junior within six months of starting.’

He adds that while he learned many lessons, he also gained an ability to deal with people - ‘to get the best out of them and to treat them as you wish to be treated yourself’. He does, however, admit that he didn’t always get that bit right. In time, though, he forged relationships and established a good client base and slowly, but surely, started to understand the mechanics of running a business.

Development and progress
It’s always interesting to see how businesses start and then grow. With regard to OSS, Dave details how from the beginning ‘we always felt the need to cover the entire UK, it was essentially what I had done in my first role and I had been fortunate enough to bring clients along with me in my new venture.’ Beyond that, he says that putting limitations on what the company could and couldn’t do would weaken its stance as a ‘go to’ flooring company.

But OSS couldn’t do everything on its own; it needed help. Dave says that he found that working alongside manufacturers proved to be a valuable tool - they ‘put excellent products forward, safe in the knowledge that they would stand the test of time, they could be confident that our team would install their products to the highest standard.’ And this, he says, is something that OSS has looked to develop year on year so as ‘to avoid the constant spec’ switching, which is still a problem in the flooring industry, while allowing transparency and discussion with representatives who worked so hard to get the specification in the first place.’

It’s of note here that OSS added supply and install of Altro Whiterock to its portfolio. This was for a number of reasons and as Dave details, ‘while we have an excellent of team of installers, it also offers the lads a break from being on their knees constantly.’ Further, it helped the company take on ‘complete package jobs.’

An obvious question is how does OSS find clients? Here, Dave points to a very valuable lesson that his first managing director taught him - that ‘we do business with people, not companies.’ How right he was he says: ‘Our client base has grown exponentially as people - be it quantity surveyors, contracts managers or even site managers - left a company and started somewhere else but then given me a call when their first project arrived.’

It’s a matter of principle for Dave that he takes relationships with his clients very seriously and works with them, rather than against them - especially in trying conditions. He adds: ‘We find that it’s how you deal with a problem is what puts you in high esteem with clients.’

Turning briefly to the promotion of OSS, Dave is well aware of the potential for social media, but he confesses that ‘due to our internal team being relatively small, it’s not given the time it deserves.’ The company does have a Twitter page and is on LinkedIn, but presently the development of the group website - which has been on hold for a while now – is considered ‘essential to ensure we continue to move with the times.’ That said, Dave feels ‘that 2021 is the year where we take a much bigger step in the world of social media.’

Where is OSS now? Well, Dave is pleased to say the company now has a contracts manager, ‘who does a sterling job in ensuring the labour force and the work itself is delivered in a timely fashion’, and he now has more time to develop the company. He says that he wants to take the firm from £1.5m to £2m turnover within the next two years. OSS is gaining clients, whilst ensuring that it doesn’t lose existing ones.

‘And that,’ he says, ‘is achieved by delivering a high standard of finish and we feel, an excellent all-round package from the initial enquiry to the last square metre of flooring installed and the invoice sent.’

It’s worth pointing out that OSS runs a number of different teams that specialise, and they each cross-fertilise ideas and business.

As Dave details, ‘the group has an electrical, mechanical, reactive maintenance and a managed service provider team… so inevitably there is a crossover of clients. We have certainly gained a few contacts through our group set up. Most of my clients have either in house or regular sub-contractors they use though, so seldom am I asked if we have anyone who can attend to certain disciplines other than flooring.’

Being flexible is important for any firm to succeed, OSS included. It won’t surprise, then, that the company not only supplies and installs, but will also work on a labour only basis. But this can bring its own problems.

As Dave highlights, the main concern is not knowing exactly what is being fitted; this can mean that ‘a lot of labour only projects have some dubious quality products being installed that were bought cheaply from overseas.’ He says that whilst he can provide a guarantee on the sub floor preparation and the subsequent installation, he has to ensure that any failure in the product is dealt with by the main contractor. ‘Luckily,’ he says, ‘this isn’t something that has been a problem for us in the past, but we do need to make everyone fully aware of where our responsibility with the finished product lies.’

Another pitfall he points to is the poorer level of return due, very simply, to only providing sundry materials and labour. This means his labour mark-up clearly has to reflect this.

A view of Brexit
On the thorny issue of Brexit Dave doesn’t mince his words. He considers it ‘first and foremost the single most catastrophic decision made by this country, certainly in terms of finances anyway.’ He’s already seen manufacturers upping their prices by up to 8% at the start of 2020 in readiness for leaving the EU and has been hit with a further round of price hikes in January.

‘The problem is that many of the products within this industry come from the EU, so deliveries as well as availability, and obviously costs, are going to be impacted.’ He thinks that ‘there are so few companies who manufacture in this country that we won’t fail to see an impact.’ And his worries remind him of the last recession where he says that ‘the flooring industry, as well as construction in general, was hit very hard and it became a very dog eat dog existence just to survive.’ He’s not especially looking forward to potentially going down that road again, ‘especially after coronavirus which will make things doubly worse in the years to come.’

Staff matters
Firms in the sector clearly need good fitters and staff. Here Dave says that a number have been with him for quite some time. As he outlines, ‘my fitters in the main have worked with me for, in some cases, 20 years. It’s quite an incestuous business, once you are in flooring it’s quite hard to get out of it.’ He explains that the younger fitters tend to arrive because they know a senior fitter and want a trade or career – ‘we always feel we can facilitate that, especially as the senior lads won’t put forward someone clearly not cut out for the work… effectively they have been vetted before they arrive.’

On the subject of training, the development of his staff has been constrained for two reasons - OSS is so busy and because of the cost: ‘We usually struggle to have time to get the lads out on training courses, so we tend to pluck the young straight from school or college; they learn more working alongside senior floor layers in proper site conditions rather than a training school.’ That said, Dave says he is not averse to developing fitters and sending them on courses to improve certain aspects of their skill set. He specifically points to Altro who, he says, ‘offer a great Whiterock course, which we will be sending two more fitters on this year.’

Fundamentally, though, he thinks that a good basic knowledge of the industry is essential before anyone attends a course.

The state of the industry in a pandemic
That coronavirus has been destructive and costly is a given. But it’s interesting to note that despite the impact of coronavirus, Dave reckons that the industry has remained on an even keel – ‘while no records are being broken, I don’t think anyone has really struggled from a manufacturing point of view.’ He adds that his clients have remained fairly busy throughout, ‘although I have seen a shift in some of the types of projects they are now involved in, namely far more domestic projects.’ Indeed, he says that OSS doesn’t really advertise and has been happy to tick over ‘with some domestic work just to keep ourselves busy.’ For him it’s key to the company’s survival that ‘it is diverse and all-encompassing.’ As he puts it, by ‘not covering areas, only doing certain types of flooring etc., really limits your appeal. And we have found the addition of supplying and installing wall cladding has been a real plus point, especially as so few flooring contractors do it.’

In essence, he takes the line that ‘if you wish to thrive, you need to keep moving and not stand still - more now than ever. Keeping communication lines open, talking to customers and manufacturers is essential to understanding the moving trends and to keeping ahead of the curve.’

But back to the pandemic for a moment, Dave says that OSS has been fortunate that it was closed for just a month initially and then gradually brought fitters back from furlough from May onwards. In detail, the company undertakes a fair amount of work for care homes and that work was affected by coronavirus. But on a positive note, his work for schools through ‘probably a combination of them not having the funds next year and the fact that they were closed for a far longer period than normal’ picked up.

Naturally, working practices had to change in the sense that OSS needed to be extra vigilant from a health and safety aspect – ‘risk assessments conducted by our health and safety manager are now far more rigorous and we have new risks on site potentially, an invisible virus essentially, so we have to make sure the working methods of contractors and clients is deemed safe enough for us to carry out our duties.’

OSS, like every other flooring business, relies on having good relationships with its suppliers. Dave has, in his time, seen sales reps come and go and ‘many seem to move from one company to another at an alarming rate.’ But as he points out, ‘the ones that stick with one company for an extended amount of time usually enjoy the best relationships with me.’ And he would include the likes of Altro, JHS and Danfloor in that group. As he says, ‘they are as important to me as I am to them. We will promote their products and they are happy to promote us.’

He makes one interesting observation that should prick up the ears of suppliers: ‘I find some reps are either told by the powers-that-be or choose of their own volition to spend their time solely getting specifications and talking to architects; they forget the company buying and installing their product is also an important cog in the machine.’ He could name, but doesn’t, five or six suppliers where he hasn’t seen a rep for two years, where samples have not updated, and where there’s been no conversation – ‘which essentially equates to no business relationship.’

And lastly… a tale from the shopfloor
With so many years in the sector Dave
has a number of stories to tell. And one stands out.

As the story goes, he attended a meeting to conclude a large project with a quantity surveyor he had never had any previous dealings with. ‘My contact had left, and I don’t think the job had been too successful for the client; the quantity surveyor had come in with either a point to prove or had been told to eek every penny out of me at the final account. He was bullish, a little arrogant, and made many comments and observations throughout that led me think that anything I threw at him, he will bat straight back to me.’ And as Dave tells, that is indeed how it went. ‘My final account was ripped apart as he quoted various terms and conditions and informed it was a remeasure and he had measured it to x amount, blah blah blah, you know how it goes. So, I left with my tail between my legs and a few grand lighter than I’d hoped.’

Dave never saw that individual again until he re-appeared at another company in exactly the same situation – ‘a sort of enforcer if you will, with strong arm bully boy tactics.’ But this time Dave came out on top: ‘I let him listen to himself spout on endlessly about how he had measured the job and made it that we’d overcharged by around £3,000, and how he’d rinsed the painters and other trades.

‘But I simply put the original contract in front of him, which he hadn’t negotiated with me, and showed him the words lump sum, no remeasure. Not only had he wasted hours remeasuring onsite, but he had also spent half an hour telling me how good he was.’

Dave caustically says that he should read the contract documents more fully. ‘It was most satisfying, and I haven’t seen him since.’