Bill McCallum, director and owner of Contract Flooring Services (London), runs a business perfectly at his home office with large jobs up to a quarter of a million-pound.
By ADAM BERNSTEIN
DESPITE spending 43 of his 60 years in flooring, Bill McCallum, this was not his intended plan. In fact, he had intended a career in football. As he says, ‘I started in flooring because of a contact at Rangers Football Club, where I had been a schoolboy signing since I was eleven. This got me an apprenticeship with a company that was owned by a fanatical Rangers fan. Sadly, my football ambitions were cut short with a knee ligament rupture ACL.’
So, aged seventeen, he started out at a Glaswegian company, Fitting Services, and has been in Flooring ever since, and, by his own admission, has done quite well.
But it wasn’t always so, says Bill: ‘Coming from a poor background, I jumped at the chance to earn a weekly wage although it was significantly less than my friends were earning’. In his time, he’s been around the block.
He talks of a previous employer which was, he says, ‘full of behaviour that would never be tolerated today as it was abusive’ and how it ‘has made me the man I am today in many ways, in particular, showing kindness and offering help to young people’.
Worryingly, he sees how the flooring trade attracts a certain type of individual, whom are not often favourable and doesn’t understand why this is. ‘I’m talking about installation teams that approach me for work and nine times out of ten you’re left disappointed with their skills and attitude.
He says: ‘In my experience there are floorlayers who leave sites too early, and this has been going on forever and frustrates me. My rule is if they leave before 3.30pm they get paid a half-day, which seems to stop the early dayers.’
In the past he’s had guys texting late at night saying, ‘I need to get paid; I have no money for train fare’, etc. This was causing so much stress, especially when you have to finish a job and at midnight you’re being asked for payment so that they can get to work the next day.’
Bill had to make changes. He says: ‘At first, we changed from weekly to bi-monthly payments, then we took it one step further and outsourced subcontractors’ payments to an umbrella company, several years ago. This takes care of the grey area of a worker being PAYE or self-employed as we have in the past had a tax inspection assessing just this.’
Bill left the umbrella company last year and has signed up with a new one. It too requires pro-forma payment, but he’s comfortable with this as his due diligence found it to be a healthy company.
Going it alone
So, winding the story back, after a few years working for others, he felt it was time to strike out on his own, so he started as a sole trader in 1988. He met his second wife, Judy, an Accountant, in 1994 and, says Bill, ‘she helped me organise and develop the business. 28 years later, it’s a successful commercial flooring business, and my two sons are now working in it too’.
He puts some of this success down to Judy’s organisational and financial skills which work well in tandem with Bill’s sales skills – ‘the growth of the business has surprised me when I stop and think about it. The work just seems to always be there’.
It’s interesting how, over the years, Bill says work isn’t so enjoyable now‘, due to the fact that he is getting older and less tolerant, but in the same breath says there hasn’t been much change.
That said, in working for different main contractors, he sees an element of cultural differences between these contractors, specifically project managers, as they can differ so much within just one organisation.
‘There doesn’t appear to be a specific way of doing things. One project manager could be a delight to work for; the job will be completed and payment signed off no problem, but another will have you waiting for money ninty days later… leaving us to battle to sort out the final account while our phone calls and emails are ignored.’
Overall, Bill says his ‘regular providers play a straight game with good work rewarded with future works.
But there is one thing that seems to keep Bill going – his family and their participation in the firm.
Beyond his wife, there’s Bill’s eldest son, Grant, 34, who’s an installer and has been in the business for eighteen years, and his other son, Glen, 30, who’s been in the business for ten years. He used to be an installer but now assists with Estimating. There’s also an Office Assistant, who has worked for the company for eight years and we have between six and eight subcontractors.
With such a strong level of familial participation, some might wonder how personal and business matters are kept separate. However, Bill is quite clear – ‘family tensions are very manageable and don’t get in the way of having a happy family life, and, the bonus of working with my sons is I get to see a lot of them. Of course, we have our moments, but it works well… we’re a close family’.
As for the business itself, in raw numbers, turnover tends to sit at about £1m. But Bill notes: ‘We’ve turned over as much as £1.9m and it does vary. I remember in 2007 we turned over £980,000 and the next year it was £1.6m.’
But turnover isn’t the be-all and end-all as he explains, ‘we earned more out of the £980,000 than we did the £1.6m, so that did hurt – but some good things came out of it, like new clients.’
Speaking of his clients, Bill says they’re mainly office design and build companies and also we have several big building contractors. There are some occasional end-users too. Most of the jobs are in London, but the company will work all over the UK, if required.
Like many firms, the company has diversified. ‘We have a sister company, Contract Building & Decorative Services, that takes on decorating and partition works.
He adds that it was about three quarters the size of the flooring company, but profits were on par. Bill said he still welcomes decorating works for selective clients.
In addition, he has a successful portfolio of investment properties; houses, bungalows and apartments.
One question the curious might ask is why do clients keep returning with repeat business? In answer Bill reckons it’s down to ‘a combination of price, quality of service and, of course, a good business relationship helps massively once it has been built up’.
But when all is said-and-done, he also makes clear that ‘it’s who you know that generally wins work’. That said, he adds that if he wants to work with a new client ‘I’d price low to attract attention; I’ve done this many times as a necessity. Of course, a new client may take advantage of the price we give them by taking a chance with a new company. But I understand that it doesn’t always work out in the long term as it’s not always sustainable to discount jobs.’
In a trade such as flooring, getting paid on time is a concern and, for Bill, this is no different: ‘Cashflow is a big problem in my business. Clients rarely pay on time; some can take 40-90 days on a 30-day invoice. This is problematic in that suppliers mainly offer 30-day credit terms with payment at end of the following month. We run debt collection weekly and, if done thoroughly this helps get payments in.’, but if clients are worryingly late, Bill will turn to a credit control firm to take over the chasing.
Naturally, Bill has to think very carefully before he hands the collection on. But as he says: ‘If it has gone on way too long and we’re getting nowhere, then we don’t hesitate as we shouldn’t have to plead for our money when the client has got exactly what was requested and ordered.’
Fortunately, the first stage of debt collection doesn’t cost much because just three letters are sent out. But if there’s no response, then Bill gives authorisation to go into stage two and this costs him 20% of monies successfully recovered as a result.
‘Stage two,’ he says, ‘is more serious and normally gets the debt paid, but we have only had to use this on several occasions. Most pay at stage one.’
Beyond that, Bill has looked at restricting credit limits offered to clients, just as suppliers do to him. However, he’s found that ‘requesting pro-forma payments feels like you are asking for the world with these big construction clients. They seem to think because they’re giving you big jobs, then you should take on their big credits. This wouldn’t be so bad if they paid within the 30 days and you weren’t chasing your money after 40-90 days.’
Even so, the business is going to begin to be stricter with pro-forma invoicing ‘and will sacrifice any loss of work not coming our way as a result’.
And in a side dig at quantity surveyors, he says ‘some are excellent at stalling tactics when money is overdue… this can affect mood to say the least’.
In other matters
And as for external influences, such as Brexit, Bill is pleased to report that so far, it hasn’t affected him directly: ‘I’m sure some of suppliers have to rely on overseas supplies. However, we don’t seem to have had issues.’
Coronavirus was a different situation though. Because the first lockdown in March 2020 affected all ‘non-essential essential’ businesses, Bill says he was in a situation ‘where we had jobs ongoing on thirteen sites and all were closed. Everything was frozen … no suppliers were paid – we weren’t paid, and all work came to a standstill. But once construction was open again, we could continue as we were.’
The business did benefit from some of the government assistance schemes to keep it going. As Bill summarises: The year ending 2021 was not our best year, but we need to put it behind us and draw a line under it. We’re anticipating a better year for year ending 2022, especially having seen a couple of my flooring competitors gone out of business. However, I’m wondering what the future holds.’
Fortunately for Bill and, the sector, for that matter – there will always be a healthy market in flooring, ‘but I’m concerned about the big construction companies at the top of the chain and whether they can survive as it will only take a big knock from one of them to take us down’. He expands and comments how he experienced a £70,000 loss from a company that went bust around ten years ago – and it hurt.
Plans for the future
So, with his financial position secured and, in that respect, his retirement too, Bill does want an exit from his flooring business, possibly within 5 years’ time.
In a twist to the story, Bill’s youngest son, Glen, recently moved overseas with his wife and Bill is now a proud grandfather at sixty. ‘So, although,’ he says, ‘my youngest son still estimates for me remotely, this is short-term as he has a completely different career path in mind. This leaves my eldest son, Grant, who’s only ever worked for me since he was sixteen and is doing extremely well running sites.’
That leaves the question of Bill’s spare time come retirement. On this he hints at another property development project. That aside, ‘reading has become a positive and enjoyable for me during this last year’.
In addition, he says his physical fitness and golf, playing off six,, are his favourite hobbies: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever missed a week of physical fitness since my youth football days.’
‘Also, Bill likes hiking and walking with his wife and travelling extensively. Favourite holiday destinations are France and California.ery soon.’
In finishing, Bill states that he is proud of his business achievements thus far
He says he knows he has a successful business, but sometimes it’s run ‘to the detriment of one’s sanity as there’s a lot of pressure all the time’.
I ask him if he enjoys flooring. ‘That’s a no,’ he says. ‘I do it for my family.’