In this second part of two reports, CFJ speaks to Darren Hope, director of Bolton-based Floor Design Contractors, about his company. By ADAM BERNSTEIN
The story so far
LAST month, CFJ readers were introduced to Darren Hope, director of Bolton-based Floor Design Contractors, who started in the trade when he was young. His first experience of floorlaying came as ‘a young and raw 19-year-old’ when he accepted the opportunity of an apprenticeship with a small company, ASD Flooring, that was based in Adlington, near to Chorley in Lancashire.
The apprenticeship, as Darren describes, involved attending Salford Technical College on day release basis while he was learning the ropes as a young floorlayer. Darren’s efforts paid off for he tells how he ended the three-year qualifying period with a credit in the theory examination and a distinction in the practical test. As he says, ‘I was on my way.’
In the early years after completing his apprenticeship he worked for several flooring firms in the Lancashire and Greater Manchester area. This led to an opportunity to work for Floor Design which was based in Bolton – then in Lancashire. He says he enjoyed the initial period with Floor Design because ‘the then owner of the business, Gavin Frew, assured me he was keen to expand the business into the contract flooring world. But that never really happened.’
Darren says he felt he was better suited to domestic floorlaying, so he decided to look for other opportunities and over the next six years or so, he continued to gain more knowledge and experience in the contract flooring industry by working elsewhere for a couple of northwest firms.
But during a chance meeting with the new owner of Floor Design, Bill Pennington, he was asked if he’d be interested in coming onboard to service the contract side of the business. ‘Bill said the previous owner had spoken highly of me. He wanted to move into the contract flooring world to broaden its opportunities; he was looking for a qualified contract floorlayer to join the team to help develop that side of the business. For the next six years, their ‘extremely long hours’ saw the contract side of the business growing steadily stronger. When Bill retired, he offered Darren the opportunity of taking over the business. With his partner Karen, they set up Floor Design Contractors and moved to a more spacious and modern warehouse and office that had better storage and logistical space. While Darren and Karen are both directors of the company and oversee all aspects of the business, the firm also has a contracts manager, Martin Hinds. He’s been involved in Floor Design for nearly 18 years – both as it was under previous owners, and as it is now.
FLOOR Design does still undertake domestic work and has many local customers who, Darren says, ‘have bought carpets and vinyl from us for many years, but the focus now is very much on contract flooring and that’s where we now very much see our strength’.
As part of this shift, Darren explains that the company recently embarked on a collaboration which he feels is quite unique within the flooring industry and of which he has been extremely happy with the outcome. In overview, Darren explains that the company was asked to tender for the costing of a large NHS job over in West Yorkshire which involved the supply and fitting of safety flooring and carpet tiles to five separate walk-in clinical facilities.
‘We supplied our costing for the work,’ he says, ‘but felt that contractors local to the schemes would win the job as historically that is what has happened.’
However, that’s not what happened: ‘One morning I received the email telling me I’d been successful in winning the contract.’ By chance Darren had just been speaking to an old friend of his from his early floorlaying years, Craig Hughes, where they worked together at Leo’s Flooring in Blackburn.
Craig, together with Mark Barratt, owns and operates a Swinton-based contract flooring company, Barratt and Hughes. Darren tells how it was a successful trading partnership which has lasted many years – they ‘have many loyal clients who have used them for years, because of the trust they have built up, the quality of their workmanship, and the competitiveness of their pricing structure’.
The standing of Barratt and Hughes became more important to Darren because, as he says, ‘when I took stock of the excellent news – that we had been successful in winning the tender for the NHS work – I realised that together with all the other work we had in place going forward we were going to be stretched to get it all done on time. So, I approached Craig to see if he’d be interested in collaborating with us to get the work done. Fortunately, he said that he would be delighted to’.
So, Craig and Darren went over to the site to work out how best to get the job done, and what aspects of the works they would allocate to each of their specific workforces.
The job ran for five months with most of the work being undertaken during the night and Darren is particularly pleased to say, ‘not a wrong word passed between us during that time’. He adds that everything went well – from the ordering and delivery of materials to their distribution to the workplace, to the laying and fitting of the carpet tiles and sheet vinyl safety flooring after large areas of subfloor preparation work had been completed with latex screed.
Darren says ‘if Craig was in another part of the country, I’d call to site to make sure his fitting team had everything they needed and would iron out any potential problems; and he did the same for me if I was busy elsewhere. So, all in all it was a very happy, rewarding and profitable project for both parties’.
It’s interesting that if a similar opportunity presents itself in the future, and Darren thinks it will, both he and Craig would have no hesitation in pooling their combined resources again.
Like other businesses, Floor Design has evolved over the years. And over the past five years Darren has noticed a distinct change of direction for the business – ‘we don’t carry out as much social housing refurbishment work nowadays owing to the logistical problems that area of work brings’.
He continues: ‘Refurbishment works normally involve relatively small workable areas, tight margins, and logistical challenges when trying to work to main contractor ever changing work schedules’.
He also says his staff are travelling much farther afield than they ever did – ‘we now find ourselves travelling down beyond the Midlands into the south and southwest of England.
‘We’re having to adapt to this type of work where the works often require that we arrange accommodation and facilities for our workforce to enable us to get the job done’.
Some of the company’s mainstream clients include the Royal Mail, Golden Lane Housing (part of the Mencap family), the Priory Group, the Bell Group, and various NHS and school and college facilities.
Pricing has become an issue for all in the construction-related trades. And it’s no different for Floor Design but Darren says the company can compete.
He details that ‘we’ve always been aware of the need to compete in what is traditionally a cut-throat industry. But we feel over the past few years the organisations that are using us have developed trust in the way we work, and with this comes peace of mind that they know us and what we’re capable of and are happy with the level of service we provide’.
Darren is particularly aware of this in relation to jobs that are some distance from his base in Bolton.
Now to Darren’s views of the pandemic. It’s not a favourite subject of his and asks, rhetorically, ‘who could have foreseen, back in February 2020, that so many people’s lives would be turned completely on their head and in such a devastating way as we saw happen?’
We may be out and on the other side of the pandemic, but Darren knows some are still losing their lives while ‘many businesses, both large and small, are going to the wall.’
He says his business, like many others, ‘struggled to come to terms with what was happening around that time. But we have managed to fight our way through it and despite many people paying the ultimate price we feel we’re stronger for the experience. Perhaps we’re more able to value the things we have that two years ago we may not have done’.
The post-Covid-19 world for Floor Design means having to contend with ever increasing costs for materials, transportation, and wages. This, for Darren, equates to ‘challenging times ahead… but we are prepared to meet whatever is thrown at us head on. The future isn’t going to be easy but if it was it wouldn’t be any fun now would it?’