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Big steps the Oakvale Flooring way

Oakvale Flooring specialises in sourcing, suppling, and finishing all types of timber flooring, and splits about 50/50 with respect to commercial and residential work.

BUSINESSES start for any one of several reasons. It could be an opportunity created through redundancy, the opening of a new market, or, as in the case of Antrim-based, Oakvale Flooring, the founder’s desire to strike out of their own.

From a little acorn…
As Neil McGuckin, managing director, explains, ‘the business was started in 1992 by my father, Joe, from our home in Ballinderry, a village in Mid Ulster, Northern Ireland. It was just himself at the very beginning – one man and his van’. The story Neil tells is of Joe working for Glenwood Flooring, but always wanting to start his own business.

Neil says his father ‘worked tirelessly over years to build the business up from small beginnings… every single possible job was taken on, long hours evenings and nights were worked, and nearly every penny made was reinvested back into the business’.

He tells how his father, in time, gained experience but had help occasionally from friends who were tradespeople. He built up small quantities of stock and bought more specialised machinery – ‘as my father told me, these formative years were all about getting the name out there’.

And the activity was clearly working because within a short timeframe, around four to five years, Neil’s father was able to take on the lease of a warehouse that had a purpose-built showroom not far from the family home. ‘It was,’ Neil says, ‘the next big step for him and it allowed him to carry more stock and separate work and life a little bit – although I don’t think my mother would agree. Oakvale was and is as much a part of the family as any of us.’

Siblings introduced
It appears flooring was coursing through the veins of the family. Neil tells how he and his brother Christopher have been involved in the business from their ‘early teens – our formative years; we were out and about, helping with whatever we could’.

He adds that a long-lasting memory of his from that time was ‘my dad and I buffing and finishing a floor early one Christmas Eve at a very grumpy customer’s house because the job had run over’.

He’s not upset when he describes himself and his brother as ‘basically (almost) free labour for the business for when the warehouse needed manning, vans needed emptying, or storerooms needed cleaning. We also would go out with the lads – if any help could be given on deliveries or small residential jobs, we’d quite often be gophers for the fitters. We enjoyed it all though’.

But as time progressed the brothers’ paths diversified. Christopher stayed on with the business after school and served his time on all aspects of the flooring trade, such as installation and sanding, as well as helping his father with whatever else was needed for the business. Neil, however, was, as he says, ‘lucky to be able to skip off to university and get a break from Oakvale’. However, he came back into the fold a few years later and took on more of the business side of the company.

Now Neil and Christopher run the business together although, as Neil says, ‘Dad is always there though to offer advice or step in if things get too busy. It will always be his business first and foremost though – we’re just looking after it for him… it’s his legacy and we’re very grateful to be able to continue it for him.’

The oak grows
Naturally, and thankfully, the move to the warehouse bore fruit. Neil explains that the business grew, and his father took on more contract work and so needed more employees – ‘it went from him and maybe two or three other fitters and joiners to five fitters, a warehouse manager, a receptionist, and also showroom sales assistant’. And Neil emphasises relationships were and are important when he says ‘they were all family, or friends, mostly so it really was a close-knit business’.

Part of the new workload involved Oakvale taking on larger projects that required more bespoke work. Neil says of this that it involved ‘lots of parquetry, which was becoming more popular and much more demanding schedules. As the work increased over the next few years, dad recruited another four installers, and built relationships with a further three or four independent installers who would subcontract for us if needed for larger projects’.

But just as time saw the business grow, so it’s seen a few changes and challenges over the years. In particular, he refers to a ‘massive increase in paperwork owing to the increase in importance of health and safety and The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations in commercial projects’.

He also says the tendering process is more drawn out and the emphasis on health and safety has meant he had to seek out, and complete, a postgraduate diploma in Occupational Health and Safety.

While officialdom is one area of change that Neil highlights, another is, very simply, the demands of customers: ‘Twenty years ago there wasn’t the same choice in timber flooring, but now you can almost have anything you want. Also, there’s such a wealth of knowledge available online about all aspects of flooring and building. This, coupled with rise of home improvement and shows such as Grand Designs, means everyone is now very clued up.’
In other words, customers are proactively taking an interest in what is going into their homes and the work that is involved.

But this, he says, can be a doubled-edge sword: ‘This has positive aspects in that often you don’t have to go into as much detail about the job as clients are informed. Unfortunately, the flipside is a that little knowledge can be a dangerous thing; some clients can have unrealistic expectations from the beginning of the process, and so a large part of our job now can be managing those expectations.’

He expands on this, noting that it’s not always possible to grant client’s their entire wish-list because of site limitations, budgets, or timber selection. He says: ‘quite often customers don’t like hearing that and can think we’re creating roadblocks to their dream home’.

The status quo
So, in telling where Oakvale is now, Neil feels the company has been well settled for almost a decade in terms of scope and size: ‘There have been some comings-and-goings, but generally we have six to seven full-time installers, including four who are very experienced in sanding and refurbishment works.’


The company still has relationships with many independent wooden flooring installers that it uses when required – ‘quite a few are ex-employees, and we know the quality of their work is of the standard we need’.


At present, there are four people running Oakvale’s office, salesroom, and warehouse: ‘We basically manage everything all of that entails… everyone has a role, but we don’t really have rigid job descriptions – we all dig in and keep things going when required. And for the most part it works.’


Of course, stability doesn’t mean the company doesn’t change or adapt. On this Neil makes the point that he and his brother are always looking at tweaking the business. And he gives an example where they recently bought in some shop machinery – a panel saw, a thicknesser, and wire-brusher – ‘we hope to be able to take on someone suitable to be able to do some of bespoke joinery items in house. Things like making our own treads, risers, nosing profiles for installing with our floors, and bespoke finishing them’. Currently this work is subcontracted out and adds a layer of complication Neil would like to do without.


The work categorised
A natural question to pose when looking at a contractor is its client-base, geographic reach of the business and the types of work that the business undertakes.


In answer to this, Neil says Oakvale’s customer base could be broken down to being almost a 50/50 split between private and commercial work: ‘The private jobs range from simple laminate bedroom installs a couple of miles from our base to bespoke marquetry panels in southern France’. He prides himself in saying ‘we don’t consider any job beneath us or too big for us to handle’.


But on the commercial side of Oakvale’s work, Neil says that that ‘has seen us very lucky to be involved in some amazing projects and gifted us the opportunity to travel a lot’. He details that the company has installed in ‘countless’ sports and community halls and schools all over the UK and Ireland. But the company has also sanded and sealed in embassies in Paris, installed herringbone on cruise-liners in Puerto Rico, and undertaken National Trust castle refurbishments.


Beyond that Neil says because the company likes to work with its ‘numerous partners’ to deliver high specification fitouts in the retail and hospitality industry, this part of Oakvale’s business has seen year-on-year increases in the share of its overall workload – he adds that ‘since early 2000s this has been the biggest increase for us’.


In more detail, he says the company works a lot in central London hotels, shops, and restaurants. And he takes pleasure in saying that ‘over the years we’ve redone the same shop fitout two or three times for maybe three different clients – it’s a very fast-moving sector and keeps work coming our way, thankfully’.


Of course, different years and different clients has led the company to diversify a little. On this subject Neil says although the company has been primarily involved in wooden flooring, it has also tried to diversify into hardwood wall cladding and into decking, including BPC and WPC composite decks. But as he comments, ‘they all were reasonably profitable, but we found they were too seasonal in demand and each came with their own difficulties, so we decided against investing heavily. We still take on some projects including decking and cladding but we don’t stock for them anymore’.


The secret of success
Businesses that aren’t fly-by-night, which have longevity in their genetic makeup, must have a certain ‘x-factor’ to keep them going. And as Neil describes it, when it comes to his home territory of Northern Ireland, ‘quite a large portion of our work comes through word-of-mouth.


He adds that ‘job referrals from satisfied clients are very pleasing and in their own way let you know that the quality of the work is good. Happy customers come back, and they are quick to recommend to friends.’


But Oakvale’s success runs much deeper. He says the company has also ‘built a reputation’ as being a company that specialises in parquet – herringbone and chevron – installations, whether traditional solid unfinished timbers installed and sanded on site, or newer prefinished engineered options.


He explains that his commercial projects are, for the most part, based on tenders. However, Oakvale is also on a preferred supplier and installer lists with a few contract firms ‘who look to us to be able to source the right materials for their particular jobs and trust us to get the best value possible without reducing quality’.


Fortunately, this is where time is on Oakvale’s side for as Neil says, ‘being in business for nearly 30 years brings with it a large supplier network so we can always source the products even the more exotic requests’.


In fact, he refers again to the company’s history – ‘operating as a family-run business for almost 30 years is itself a good selling point to begin with – we must be doing something right’.


Being treated correctly
Prompt payment is central to the survival of any business – it’s the reason for its existence after all. Oakvale, says Neil, has been fortunate in that for the most part it has had few problems in getting paid. He outlines that the company will only work with contractors who pay promptly – ‘if there is any issue then we are reluctant to undertake any further work with them. This maybe means not getting work with these slow payers, but I feel it’s important to work with firms that have the same values as us’.


It’s of note that Oakvale has experienced situations where several companies, over the years, have refused to pay invoices until they themselves have been paid their final account; some, he says, have had issues with a client where the matter is not connected to Oakvale’s work, but have held back payment nevertheless because it suited them. Neil’s take on this is very clear – ‘I wouldn’t, and can’t say those things to my suppliers or subcontracted people so won’t work with those companies again’.


Oakvale very much has a ‘people buy people’ philosophy, and he applies the same thought process to those that it hires. Some firms in the sector take on staff who have effectively been ‘pre-vetted’ – by existing employees. And Oakvale is no different for as Neil says, ‘we’re a close-knit company. Everyone who comes through our doors as an employee is an acquaintance or friend of an existing employee and like our own customers, we like to employ people because of a good recommendation’.


Of course, the relationship does not always work out, but he says: ‘it’s generally been good for us as everyone is already well-known to each other and it fosters a good environment’.


In general
The next topic addressed by Neil is that of the state of the flooring trade. He ponders questions relating to how it’s doing, what it could do better, and the situation regarding getting new workers into the sector.


First off, Neil is bothered about the trade and its future. He says he worries when he looks around to see that ‘the average age of most firms’ core workforce is increasing and there’s not the same level of interest from young people thinking about manually intensive employment’. He comments that this is not specific to the flooring trade and in talking to other trades he says they’re experiencing the same.


Neil develops the comment: ‘While we can get people in, a common issue is that after six months to a year they leave citing they’re ‘not fit enough to do this type of work’, and I get it. When we were younger, we were very sore in the beginning, but being able to do this or any trade doesn’t happen overnight, your body is using muscles previously not getting pushed but it adapts.’


And as with other business sectors, Neil points out that modern systems of work have made certain aspects of the trade less intensive than previously. Even so, it seems to irk him that ‘some just won’t give it the time’. He does, however, recognise that flooring isn’t for everyone: ‘Funnily, I’ve had a young man who quit saying the work was making his gym visits tougher as he was already sore from work.’


Sustainability in the sector
A major topic for flooring at present is sustainability. As a subject, Neil says he finds a ‘real mix of aspirations’ from customers. Of course, their budgets are tight, and he still thinks cost is the main concern. But he says: ‘there are an ever-increasing number of clients who view sustainability and green badges as a priority when choosing products… they’ll even value engineer – that is, pick a lower grade or a slimmer board – the type of timber they want if that means they are getting a ‘greener’ product within their budget’.


He says that they’ll do this over the exact specification if it ticks the sustainability box. This is a recent trend, but every year he reckons he sees more customers with these concerns.
But that said, with all the uncertainty that there is in the world currently, Neil worries that ‘sustainability is not for most people a primary driver’. The harsh reality, with costs increasing as quickly as they are, is that he sees many customers more interested in locking in a price so they can budget other aspects of a job.


Twin threats
On the thorny topic of Brexit, Neil considers it ‘a bit of a sea change for certain parts of our business’. He continues: ‘Some companies who we bought epoxy primers/DPMs from simply wouldn’t, or couldn’t, get the materials to us, so we had to change supplier which increased costs. Others who we relied on for next day deliveries were now quoting a minimum of three days, so we’ve had to increase stock of certain items which means more cash flow tied up.’


A key concern that Neil has following Brexit is a large increase in lead times and costs in relation to products coming from many manufacturers and suppliers from mainland Europe who use the UK land bridge to supply Ireland. He explains that ‘one French supplier, who we buy from, who would usually take one week to deliver is now taking two to three weeks… and the cost of haulage has tripled’.


The net effect of this, says Neil, is that ‘it’s had a large knock-on effect for our bespoke projects. The delays are one thing, but if we’re doing a 100sq m special order for a client, and the haulage is now three times more expensive, we can’t build that all into the price or it might be prohibitive – so we have to swallow a portion of it’.


Fundamentally, he says Brexit, haulage rates, and supply issues ‘are driving costs up across many supply chains and it’s certainly affected our business’.


In fact, he goes on to say that these ‘rising costs have put off some people I know from going ahead with extensions or newbuilds as they can’t properly budget for what the project will take to complete. Some customers, with large installs, have reduced quantities and replaced them with more economical solutions, or they have said that they’ll revisit next year with the hope that costs may have settled down. It’s all very uncertain at the minute as to how things will progress’.


Turning next to Covid-19 and its effect on Oakvale, Neil says the company had to close for eight weeks at the very beginning of lockdown: ‘All sites went into lockdown and all private clients called, understandably, to cancel jobs; we were anxious about how things would go. Mostly no one knew how long it would last and if some, or any, of the projects would still be there later in the year.’ Fortunately, though, he says that as the economy reopened work quickly ramped up to the point that ‘work was pouring in, and it has been the same since.’


But Covid-19 did bring in some changes. In particular, for contract work, Neil says there was a real appetite from many in the industry ‘to make things work in the new environment’.


He explains that many construction projects ‘used to be run on a ‘pour enough men into it’ approach’ but ‘after early teething problems most firms seemed to have worked out how to schedule things without too much friction onsite’. Key to the changes were revised risk assessments and new PPE provisions, but Neil says everyone was on board with whatever limitations had to be imposed.


Private work was a different matter Neil says, noting how now he has to arrange jobs with customers not present ‘as they aren’t comfortable being there with our operatives’.


Neil says this can bring its own set of challenges as some jobs require customer input and communication which has to be relayed on the phone; this can cause the job to slow down and confusion at times. Nevertheless, he says ‘we’re always respectful of peoples’ wishes though; at the end of the day, it’s their home and my men take health and safety seriously, especially with the added layers this ongoing pandemic has introduced’.


And as for the showroom, it remained open by appointment only for a long time after the end of lockdown. He says that it was better to control numbers, and therefore physical distancing, as ‘the last thing we wanted was for someone to feel uncomfortable during their visit to us.’


Overall, Neil says that running a business during Covid-19 has been a challenge: ‘Hopefully we’re at the right end of things; it’s doubtful that things will return to whatever normal was prior to this. We just have to adapt and keep going.’


A memorable project
It goes without saying that Neil can reel off the usual customer- and job-related stories that many in the trade have. Some are familiar such as ‘the repeated query from clients about liking ‘this’ board but not ‘that’ board in their floor; ‘why can’t they all be the same colour?’; and people querying why a herringbone looks differently depending on the angle it’s looked at’.


But one job that stands out as being particularly memorable for Neil was a project for a large hotel in central London. He explains that ‘we were asked to source a parquet panel in a thermo treated prime grade oak. It had to be exactly 436mmx436mm as the floor was to follow up the walls and then also the ceiling. The floor area was over 100sq m.’


Neil says the reasoning behind the specific size was the need to form an area to remove the requirement for any border timbers, leaving panels to link together and wrap around the whole room. Small run offs could be dealt with by resizing the panels.


As Neil details, ‘before fitting, we surveyed everything and while the walls were formed correctly to dimensions to suit the panels, the ceiling was 80mm short. The contractor couldn’t add more layers to the ceiling as they couldn’t afford the extra load as a series of large light fittings were going to be installed also.’


The solution, or so it was thought, was to remove the ceiling overnight and install a new one over a couple of days. ‘We surveyed the ceiling,’ says Neil, ‘and unbelievably it was now too low, so we flagged it up. We were never privy to exactly how the breakdown in communication happened, but the ceiling was not getting removed again. So, we introduced a border at the top and bottom of the walls to allow for the difference.’


While it wasn’t the end of the world, Neil says that he remembers the amount of work and money that went into first sourcing and supplying the right size parquet panels as well as the work and money required to attempt and fix the ceiling problem – ‘and then it was basically all for nothing.’


He finishes by noting that ‘that was very early in my career in this business, so nothing would surprise me now’.


To finish
While it’s entirely true that blood is thicker than water and that family businesses have unique bonds, it’s just as appropriate to say that from small acorns large oaks grow. And by the look of things, Neil is soon to have a forest on his hands.

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