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A diamond career in flooring

Six decades in flooring and working for clients such as Whitbread, Olympia, Earls Court Stadium, Hatfield House, and Buckingham Palace has brought David Cheshire a lifetime of experience – and anecdotes. By ADAM BERNSTEIN

OSCAR Wilde once said that ‘with age comes wisdom’. He also said, in the same sentence, that ‘sometimes age comes alone’. But in the case of David Cheshire, age and 60 years in the flooring sector has brought him plenty of experience for in that time he’s been a floorlayer, company owner, consultant, and expert witness.

A compromising position
David left school at the age of 15 in 1959 with, as he explains, ‘no qualifications and no idea of what I wanted to do’. He found work with a company in the City as a messenger boy. But, as he says: ‘The job didn’t last long; I walked into the director’s office and found him in a compromising situation with his secretary.’ Considering the situation David found himself in he felt it best not to name the company.

So, after one year in the City, David found employment, in 1960, as an apprentice electrician which he says he enjoyed immensely. Unfortunately, as he says, the electrician training him ‘wasn’t a good timekeeper and we were constantly in trouble with the boss’.

But when working with that electrician, on a newbuild library in North London, he struck up a friendship with a floorlayer named Mick who was installing cork tiles: ‘He saw I was fed up with the electrician’s poor timekeeping and offered me a job at £7 per week as his assistant – £2 a week more than I was already getting.’

As David details, he went home, told his mother about the offer which he wanted to accept. And all was well and good until, as he recounts, ‘mum asked ‘where does he live’?’

The problem was Mick had finished onsite that morning and wouldn’t be returning. Fortunately, David had remembered Mick had told him where he lived – the Russell Estate in Wood Green, North London. ‘So,’ he says, ‘I jumped on my motorbike, rode over there, and looked for his green Austin A50 car… he was most surprised to see me at his front door.’

David got the job, started with Mick a week later ‘and never looked back’.

At this point he refers to how work was done back then. He tells how he laid hundreds of floor tiles which had to be warmed on a hot plate before they could be installed on bitumen adhesive that had been spread on the floor and left to set. ‘It was quite a while before I got the technique of how much to warm them, for if they were too warm, they would stick together… and frequently they would come flying out through a door or a window with a few endearments following them.’

Mick, by the way, enjoyed calling David ‘boy’ which annoyed him immensely. However, it gave Mick a few laughs, but more on this later.

A good defence
The year is now 1962, and after a year working with Mick, David had been let go. The reason given was that he was too slow. But David offers up a defence: ‘We were working in new flats laying black floor tiles in the middle of winter. I had to cut around the toilet pan and sink stand with no electric light and no window to this area… I had a candle stuck onto a cigarette packet as my only source of light. So, was I slow? You bet.’

On to his next job, with Thompsons of Barnet, David says his then ‘boss’ asked him if he could install a complete floor area to a bungalow in North London on his own: ‘He would pay me the full piecework rate available at that time. Of course, I jumped at the chance thinking about all that money I was going to earn.’

The job took David two days which he says he laid 3in out of square. ‘I shut the door and hoped it would go away. But next day, my boss came to the site where I was working told me to stop what I was doing. I thought he was going to sack me. But no – he sent me back to the bungalow telling me I could overlay the existing floor with new floor tiles at my cost.’

David had been given a chance and it helped him learn quickly from that mistake and the fair treatment meted out. Even so, it took him a long time to pay back the replacement flooring cost through weekly payment deductions.

The Italian job
Still with Thompsons of Barnet, in 1963 David began working with an Italian parquet floorlayer to both install floors in dance halls, gymnasiums, new housing and carry out remedial works to old parquet flooring at sites such as Hatfield House and the chapel at Buckingham Palace. David says that it didn’t take him long to become proficient in installing wood block flooring and 18in square felt wood finger panels as well as sanding and sealing.

He recalls the treatment for timber and cork floors from then – ‘they mostly had a wax or oil-based seal finish. Cork floors were evenly coated with two coats of wax and buffed to a shine later. If the site was a newbuild, sawdust was put over the floor and continual foot traffic helped polish the floor whilst finishing works were carried out onsite’.

But to this David adds that the Italian also showed him how to apply a coat of button polish to the sanded timber floor. ‘This,’ he says, ‘raised the grain so we buffed the polish with a sanding machine and then applied either a coat of wax or a coat of oil-based seal giving a beautiful high shine.’

Thompsons, as David recalls, found for a while that work was in short supply for its timber business, so he was sent to a house to install cork flooring throughout.

But it wasn’t plain sailing: ‘Along with myself, the boss also sent Albert, a parquet installer, to help me. Albert took charge, telling me he knew what he was doing.’ As the story goes, David says ‘I applied one coat of oil-based seal to the floor with a domestic hand brush, applying it thickly to the floor. I objected but was told it was OK to apply one thick coat instead of two thinner coats.’

But Albert was wrong and two days later he and David were sent back to the site to strip out a thick coat of syrupy varnish which had not set, and which had left a mess of the floor.

Personal change
Back to David’s earlier friendship with Mick, from 1963 they worked together for a few years on different projects together – both as sole traders. But time had moved on for David though. He had married in 1967, moved from North London up to Dunstable and was working on his own in the new towns that had sprung up – Milton Keynes, Letchworth, and Welwyn Garden City to name but a few.

The work was there but David says that it wasn’t necessarily easy. He gives the example of the Lister Hospital, a new facility in Stevenage. ‘The work was tedious and difficult, and all of the fitters were having trouble making it pay. We complained to the management who employed a time and motion expert. He stayed with us for two weeks and wrote a report which suggested that our money was reduced.’ Not unsurprisingly, David says everyone walked offsite, re-negotiated their day rates, and three weeks later went back to complete the installation.

Around the same time as this – 1968 – David went to Tottenham Technical College to learn about carpet installation techniques. This, he says, opened different doors in his later career in the industry.

Come 1973 and David was keen for a change. He answered an advert in his local paper from F Ball and Co. The position was for an area representative and technical support and as David says, ‘To my amazement, I was given the job.’ Getting the role ‘was quite a shock’ as he wasn’t expecting to be chosen.

‘My salary was about 40% less than what I was earning as a freelance floorlayer at the time, but it had its perks – a nice car, a pension, and the technical experience I learnt from being with them for three years was amazing.’ He says that ‘the southern regional manager, once said to me ‘David I look on you as a rough diamond and I’m going to smooth a few of the edges down’. I like to think he was correct.’

In his time with F Ball, David modestly states that he ‘helped set up distributors in my area – James Faithful, Garrod Brothers, Ashmount Supplies, and so on – who from humble origins went on to become great companies serving the industry to this day’.

Arabian nights
Three years later, in 1976, it was time to move on again. By all accounts, a client David used to call on, knew his background as a floorlayer and asked if he’d consider working for them as a contracts manager. ‘The job came,’ he says, ‘with a good salary and a yellow Ford Granada.’ David isn’t forthcoming with the company’s name.

His first installation for the firm was in Qatar readying the Emir’s palace for the feast of Eid: ‘My company was also responsible for the installation of the drapes and luxury wallcoverings with silk shipped in especially from China, and suede brought from the UK. Needless to say, I’d never seen this before.’

But as soon as David had arrived he was thrust into an awkward position: the upholsterer who was installing the fabrics to the walls received a message to say his wife had been taken seriously ill; both he and his son had to return to the UK. This left David and two of his carpet fitters to become luxury fabric installers ‘having never done anything like it before’.

He says they worked up to 18 hours a day to complete the job and adds: ‘We did have a visit one day from an official from the palace. We were working on a scaffold, concentrating on what we were doing, and so couldn’t look down to speak to him. He complimented us on our productivity and enquired if we would be finished on time.’

David’s response – with words akin to ‘I hope so’ – might have been better chosen reckoned one of his colleagues who suggested it would have been more advisable to say, ‘no problem’. He had seen what David hadn’t – three soldiers armed with machine guns pointing in their direction. As if to reinforce the message, another morning David and his colleagues arrived to find a row of tanks lined up along the front of the palace.

Says David, ‘We were directed to the entrance at the back where a soldier armed with a rifle was on duty. He pointed the rifle at me and shouted something in Arabic. He was about 14 and looked quite nervous at the big American car with us – six guys – sitting inside.’ It turned out all he wanted was their passports. But all David saw was ‘a rifle pointed about two inches from my head’.

David continues: ‘One of the men in the back of the car said, ‘Tell him to f*** off Dave’… we all burst out laughing and totally confused the guard.’ Fortunately, an officer came to see what was going on and David explained the passports had been left at the main gate the night before.

So, with the fabrics hung on the wall, David’s team moved to concentrate on the carpets.

The upper area, he says, was to have a pure white wool carpet. He tells how, during fitting of the gripper and underlay, building labourers would cut across the floor carrying concrete blocks for the roof.

‘They gained access through an opening which was to be fitted with sliding glass doors. But after we’d finished one evening, we came back the next day to find the glass doors had been fitted. Suddenly there was a loud crash – a labourer had walked across the white carpet and straight through the glass door cutting open his head. There was blood all over the place.’

But as David explains, no-one was worried about the labourer; they were only concerned with removing the blood from the carpet before it stained it.

The job completed, David returned to Qatar a year later to find silk fabrics had been fitted to the walls of another property. But what was strange, as David recalls, was that the roof hadn’t been covered with tiles – it was open to the elements. ‘I queried this with the site manager who informed us it never rained out there, so we fitted the carpets and went back to the hotel.’

But that night David tells how there was a massive electrical storm ‘with lashings of rain’ and come the morning, looking out of the hotel window, ‘there was so much water on the ground we couldn’t see where the roads were’. Cutting the story short, he went to the site that afternoon to find the silk had expanded and was hanging in great loops on the walls – ‘the carpet was saturated, and we went home – never to return’.

The power of two
During his time with F Ball, David had called on a client company, CF Anderson, and befriended a contact there. The contact, Roy, went to work for a cleaning and flooring contractor, but he wasn’t happy there. Meanwhile, in 1976, David had decided to go back on the tools. Putting two and two together, he and Roy set up company with just £600 of funding between them along with two credit cards.

Working from his house, as he tells: ‘We were lucky things took off and we eventually became a large flooring contractor, Target Flooring, with up to 30 fitters at the peak.’ The firm had major clients such as Whitbread, Olympia, Earls Court stadium, and Warnford investments.

After seven years, David sold out to Roy and set up another company on his own – Cheshire Contracts. With this new business, David says he travelled all over Europe and Scandinavia fitting flooring into pubs, clubs, and hotels. He says ‘word had got around’ and was asked by a British manufacturer – Altro UK – where their materials were going.

When told, the company asked if he’d be prepared to act as a mediator and expert to a project in Europe which had gone wrong. David agreed and subsequently made his way to Belgium, to a meat processing plant, where safety flooring 3.5mm thick had blown and been replaced, only to blow again.

‘An investigation,’ says David, ‘had revealed the architect-designed drains weren’t made with the correct profile and allowed water to leech into the substrate emulsifying the water-based adhesive.’ And this was the key problem – epoxy, not water-based adhesive – was in the original specification. The solution was a replacement 2mm safety floor product from a competitor that was installed directly over a saturated subfloor.

As business grew, so David needed to expand and in a strange twist of fate, Mick – you’ll recall that he helped David enter the sector decades earlier – became his contracts manager: ‘The first thing I said to him was welcome aboard my company ‘boy’. Fortunately, he saw the funny side of this.’

While trouble could come at any time to any job, sometimes it worked out for the better. He explains one project in Barbados involved installing Amtico into a luxury development. When the team arrived, they found that the Amtico had been impounded in customs in Florida. However, the client paid for David’s team to stay in the complex for 10 days until it arrived. They also arranged and paid for David’s wife to come out for a holiday as the installation had been completed in time after the initial delay – ‘and this was thanks from the client’.

But, on departure a situation arose. ‘Reception,’ says David, ‘told us we had nothing to pay. But as we walked out to the taxi, they called out that there was a bar bill of $1,000 on our room tab.’ It transpired that David’s son, Nick, had been buying drinks in the evening and putting them on David’s room number – ‘unfortunately for Nick, I hadn’t paid him, so we came to a mutual agreement of how much he was going to pay me back’.

Around 2000, David and his wife decided to close the business because of the time and risks required to manage it – ‘it was taking its toll on us with 70-80-hour weeks plus all of the financial trouble involved’.

An inspector calls
So, after the company was closed down David moved to concentrate on consultancy and expert witness work along with NVQ Qualifications. This he did until 2005 when decided to concentrate on consultancy work only.

As to what he did during this latest stage in his career, David just says he ‘worked in some very exotic destinations’. In a little more detail, he says he’s been to Brazil to inspect floors that were giving off fumes – they’d been fitted in trains that he was inspecting in railway yards… he had armed guards for protection.

He’s inspected trains in Spain where he once boarded an empty carriage in a marshalling yard but ended up 100 miles away at some unknown destination. On this he tells how he ‘had problems trying to get back because the authorities thought I was a stowaway as I did not speak Spanish; they had to telephone my sponsor to get clarification’.

David inspected top stores and high-profile residencies in the UK with some ending up in court ‘which can be quite stressful’.

This leads neatly to advice to flooring contractors: ‘Make sure you’re completely satisfied you’ve carried out your work correctly, otherwise you’re in for a big bill which you may not be awarded on the final judgement.’

Glamorously, David says he’s also inspected sites across the world including most of Western Europe, some of the Eastern Bloc, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Angola, and Russia. But the biggest project he says he was involved in was the tallest building in Dubai, the Burj Khalifa ‘with some 85000sq m’.

David finally retired on 1 April 2021 at 77. It wasn’t an April Fool’s joke.

To finish
David says the industry has been good to him. He specifically wants to thank an unnamed consultant colleague – ‘he knows who he is – I did quite a lot of work with him over the years’. And his clients and technical experts at the manufacturers who I got to know and befriend over the years.’

But what do to next? Well, David has plenty of time to ponder that in his retirement.

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