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‘Companies failwhen they treatpeople badly’

FORMER Londoner, Gary Bricknell runs the now 25-year-old Mosaic Restoration Company. It’s very distinct, almost unique, in what it does – restoration of old mosaics as well as the creation of new designs.

Last month CFJ looked at how he discovered an interest in mosaics, learnt his trade and finds work. Now it’s time to look at how the company promotes itself, cares for its staff and deals with business issues.

The Mosaic Restoration Company, like other firms, uses social media to promote itself. Gary is thankful that he has ‘younger people’ that work with him to manage this part of the business: ‘We’ve got an Instagram page, a website, we post blogs, and we’re on Twitter. So, we’re relatively active – but we could be better in all fairness.’

Even so, he does think the website is the most important thing in terms of publicity. He tries to have it updated on a monthly basis with blogs – ‘little news things’ – if nothing else.

But even with the advent of the web and social media, Gary finds ‘promotion just happens.’ He adds: ‘We’re currently working at Manchester Town Hall. We did a big job in Rochdale church. We’ve been at Salisbury Cathedral, the V&A, and did a new commission at Westminster Cathedral. They are all quite noteworthy projects.’

Using the work at Westminster Cathedral as an example, Gary says it appeared in the cathedral’s own magazine which then went live on the cathedral website. ‘Because we’ve completed a couple of projects in Roman Catholic churches it tends to get the word out… it happens like that, on websites, and then I get a phone call.’

With a long and storied history, Gary tells how the company has completed projects of all sizes – from ‘tiny little commissions for people’s homes and a small one for Westminster Cathedral that was only 400mm by 1,500mm… but which took nearly nine months to make’ to the biggest of jobs where he’s worked at the Albert Hall ‘which took us two years’.

He says they’re currently at Manchester Town Hall for two years. But that’s not as long as a commission for Westminster Cathedral some seven years ago that took him three years to finish.

All in all, he says, in the same breath as mentioning St Paul’s Cathedral, that ‘some really massive projects can go on for years’.

But work needs managing which is why Gary aims to balance one big project – like that currently running at Manchester Town Hall which finishes in June 2024 – alongside smaller jobs such as those from churches and other commissions. But be it small private work, or a large public commission, each project – he says – receives the same attention to detail.

Staffing matters
Clearly with the volume of work that Gary has the company needs staff. And indeed, there are a number on the books. In more detail, he outlines that currently there are six people employed under PAYE – ‘the longest serving have been with me four, eight, 12 and 14 years’.

As for how they’re recruited, they’re mainly stone masons. Gary says that one’s a qualified conservator with a degree in conservation and there are another four specialist subcontractors that the company uses who are all specialists in their own fields. In essence, though, he says that ‘what we tend to do is hire either mosaic artists, conservators or people from similar trades who are skilled in stained glass windows, stone masonry, or are letter carvers and so on’.

Not surprisingly when hiring Gary has to sort the wheat from the chaff because, as he says, ‘we get lots of enquiries from people who think that making mosaics would be a nice thing to do. But there’s a misconception about sitting in a workshop and making or creating arty things. Sometimes it’s like that, but many times you’re on your hands and knees on a building site with a hammer and chisel and it’s quite labour intensive’.

The struggle for Gary is to find someone that has an artistic flair, is good with their eyes, and understands how to fabricate and design. But because the work is quite physical it becomes a challenge to find both. And that’s why he says: ‘I’m lucky my team are like me – they don’t mind getting their hands dirty while creating some amazing artwork as well’.

Apprentices feature in the business. Every year Gary participates in the Prince’s Foundation and has taken an apprentice on via the organisation in each of the last three years.

‘Currently,’ says Gary, ‘we’ve got one girl that’s been with us for a year from Historic Scotland on a formal apprenticeship. And we’ve got a young lad, who’s 18, in Manchester that we’ve made a bespoke mosaic apprentice.’

Gary says the aim is that at any one time he has one apprentice or more training with the company. He says they don’t necessarily stay after training, but still thinks it good to pass his knowledge on. ‘What tends to happen,’ he says, ‘is that they go and do their own thing… mosaics or tiling – an allied trade to ours. But what’s useful from my point of view is that with most of them I can pick up the phone to see if they fancy joining us for six months to help with a big job.’

Overall, Gary considers his company unique with ‘a fresh and friendly approach to running its business. And because staff are directly employed and trained to a high standard, they have pride in the work they carry out’.

Business issues
In response to a gentle prod Gary turns his attention to the thorny matter of payment and retentions.

He acknowledges he’s ‘very much tied to the construction industry’ and has ‘a couple of projects that are very contractual’. However, he manages this by employing a contract lead, a solicitor, to read through every contract that the company gets involved in. He mentions that ‘in my naïveté years ago I used to sign contracts. But I don’t anymore’. He says reading contracts is more about the principle of getting things right.

As for bad debts, Gary comments that the company doesn’t have any ‘because we don’t sign dodgy contracts and never accept retentions.’ He continues: ‘If they want to put a main contractors discount on, I’ll load the price. I never agree to performance bonds; all those sort things are totally out of order and retention should have been abolished years ago.’

He says he maintains some very strong feelings about this as a subject – ‘I know lots of really talented people that have been badly exploited by very onerous contractual obligations that they didn’t realise when they signed.’

Further, he says he’s ‘not a busy fool – I won’t work for people that just want to take advantage of me. I don’t need to do that’.

It’s interesting that Gary says that if he were winding the business down, because he has many years of experience, he’d offer that same advice to others. ‘I see a lot of really talented people up-and-down the country working really hard – in the construction industry – where they just get taken in by really naughty contracts.’

He says they don’t realise ‘they’re at a turning point where the specialist – I’m talking about myself and others that get their hands dirty – are now in the minority’. He feels those in this situation should start dictating the rules because ‘people sitting in offices writing these contracts aren’t really in a position to dictate rules that are unacceptable. If we all stand together, we won’t have the advantage taken. People have to stand their ground.’

Gary emphasises that in all his years, he’s never been taken to court and preserves good relationships with main contractors. Even so, he comments: ‘There are some main contractors that I won’t work for. There are a lot of people like me who feel the same… they wonder why these companies fail – it’s because they treat people very badly.’
Next month: Brexit, sustainability and health and safety.

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