Gary Anthony is managing director of Nottinghamshire-based Willowbank Contracts, and like many in the trade, he’s been in flooring for all of his working life. Here’s his story…
WINDING the clock back to his teenage years, before he left school, Gary worked Saturdays in a shop, Harry Fenton’s at the Victoria Centre in Nottingham, selling suits. As he recalls, ‘each suit had a spiv on (a coloured sticker – red, orange, blue, and yellow) and we would get different amounts of commission for each colour’. Gary quickly worked out he could earn more by switching the spivs – ‘I put the expensive spivs on the cheaper suits so that I would earn more money… I was the best salesman on a Saturday, until I got caught’.
In a similar entrepreneurial vein, Gary says when he was 17, he’d go to the Friar Tuck, a pub in Nottingham, with friends. He explains he and his friends ‘would put 10 pence in each to play on the slot machines. In those days the machines were made of plastic, so we’d press them to stop the reels from spinning to win the jack pot of £25’. Naturally, they were caught, but Gary says the landlord took a shine to them for he bought them all drinks afterward.
Unable to pursue education further
Back to the world of flooring, Gary’s journey began in 1972, when he left school aged 15 because he felt he was unable to pursue further education. As he puts it, ‘I always came 32nd out of 33 in my class – I wasn’t the smartest’.
He does however wish he’d stayed on at school. But with a poor level of achievement – academically at least – and with a mother who worked in the hosiery mills and a father who worked at John Player & Sons, ‘university wasn’t really an option for me’.
It’s relevant to this tack to say Gary worries that nowadays university is pushed too much at schools over apprenticeships. He adds that ‘from experience a lot of young people have a poor work ethic and expect things to be handed to them on a plate without them having to do any work. But not all young people are like that though; we’ve received good training opportunities from Essential Skills, but more training could be made available for young people’.
So, school not working out for Gary, lady luck smiled on him regardless through a family connection.
He tells how an uncle, Arthur, was a part-owner in a furniture shop, Coups Furnishings and Carpets Nottingham, ‘and recommended me as a trainee carpet fitter’. While he was there, Gary says he ‘worked on Barry Noble’s amusement arcades and clubs. I also fitted Barry Noble’s house with leopard print carpets’, which he says had been especially made in Italy.
Time passed and in 1976 Gary moved jobs to work at Deacon House Warehouse in Stapleford, where he says he fitted domestic carpets and undertook other small contracts.
Yet another move came in 1978 when he went to work for Tidmarsh and Rossing, ‘where I learnt to cap and cove, sew carpets, and completed projects in bingo halls as well as at the Queen’s Medical Centre Nottingham’. Here he expresses delight in saying that when he visited the QMC many years later, the vinyl he had fitted at the age of 21 was still there… ‘it definitely made me feel old seeing it again, but it was great to see that my work had stood the test of time’.
The world of self-employment
But the big change in direction for Gary came in 1979 when he took the plunge and went self-employed; he bought a Morris Minor van. He details that the decision to go self-employed was made because for one key reason: ‘I thought I could earn more – and there was plenty of work out there at the time.’
As part of the move, he set up C&C Warehouse and Nottingham Contract Flooring with a good friend of his, Ken Baggaley, formerly of Baggaley and Jenkins, Mansfield, a building contractor that served public and private sector clients. As Gary describes, ‘I initially started using Marley Thermoplastic Tiles and Laybond asphalt adhesive. We would heat the tiles up and stick them to the floor with bitumen adhesive.’ He says ‘it’s great to see how much materials have changed over the years’.
A risky business
During his time in self-employment Gary found himself in some odd situations. One that stands out relates to a night spent in Exeter. As the story goes, Gary was sleeping in the back of his van – trying to save some money – and woke in the early hours of the morning needing to go to the toilet. He offered morning greetings to a passer-by and went back to the van.
‘The next morning,’ he says, ‘the police were knocking on my van and arrested me. They believed I’d been an accomplice to an arcade robbery.’ He was interviewed but let go after, as he recounts, Barry Jepson, the owner of Barry Jepson shop fitters in Mansfield, testified he was working at a shop nearby.
In another van-related tale, Gary was working in Castle Milk in Scotland. Again, he slept in his van to save money. But instead of the police rudely waking him, this time he felt the van being jacked up – someone was trying to steal the wheels. He says: ‘It’s safe to say I gave them what for.’
But the biggest, and probably luckiest escape of his career, came on 12 October 1984, when working with a colleague, Tony Grant, fitting Amtico and Altro flooring for Rank Hovis McDougal at a site at the back of the Grand Hotel, Brighton. Nonchalantly, Gary explains he and Tony ‘were in the shop when the Grand Hotel was blown up by the IRA’. They survived unscathed and ‘went to work on another site the next day, like nothing had happened’. He adds: ‘To this day Tony and I remain good friends and I’m to be the best man at his wedding this year; we often reminisce about our times working together.’
Gary’s fitted carpets at Nottingham Forest’s football ground with the club’s emblem as part of the design; while there he had his photo taken with Sammy Chapmen, Martin O’Neil, and other players.
Closer to the turn of the millennium, Gary worked at the Derby Hospital where he ‘created a path in the shape of feet’ – a project that was previously featured in Contract Flooring Journal back in September 1999. Gary has also been onsite at BMI Baby’s offices at East Midlands Airport when Concorde landed.
Between 1999 and 2022 came a couple of companies that Gary says failed through no fault of his own; each was caught out by the failure of others – he was just one domino in a chain that fell over when others above him toppled.
In more detail, Gary says he was managing director of the two companies, Elm Tree Flooring and ETF Limited. Both folded owing to bad debts with other contractors that themselves had gone bust. He says his companies were unable to withstand huge losses that involved sums of £280,000, £90,000, and £30,000. They specialised in contract flooring.
A new start
Fast forward to 2022 and Gary is the managing director of Willowbank Contracts which he set up in 2010 to specialise, again, in contract flooring.
Gary is still very much hands-on and says he still sees his role as managing labour, pricing jobs, overseeing site progress visits, and ordering materials. He adds that he has ‘built the business by networking and building strong working relationships – I don’t advertise and all of my work comes from word of mouth or from people that I know’.
Willowbank works nationally with, Gary says, most of the work being based in and around the Midlands and London. ‘Most of our work is contract flooring and uses products such as Polysafe, Altro, carpet tiles, and latex screeds.’ There’s some residential work which, Gary says, has become a large part of his turnover in recent years.
The company employs two members of staff and uses five subcontractors. This split is based on Gary’s view that while ‘employing staff can be challenging at time, it can also be very rewarding to see them progress in the career’.
As to recent work that stands out, Gary points to the fitting of carpets for Leeds football player Patrick Bamford. He digresses a little here and says being Nottingham-born and bred he’s a lifelong Nottingham Forest football fan and says: ‘It will be great to watch Forest play Leeds in the Premier League next season; I was very emotional when they got promoted to the Premier League.’
Turning to the old chestnut that is Brexit, Gary comments says it hasn’t had a direct impact on contracts being awarded to Willowbank. In fact, if anything, he says ‘we’re busier than ever’. That said, he notes his suppliers are having issues with sourcing materials that are made outside of the UK. He’s also noticed – who hasn’t – that there have been price increases in materials, but Gary puts some of this down to Covid-19. During lockdown the business was closed for two months and furlough was claimed as needed.
Gary’s spare time is taken up by gardening, walking with his dogs and travelling. Now 66, he reckons he’ll never retire and has no intention of doing so – ‘I’ll be carried out in a box made of vinyl’.
Dicing with cancer
But now to a more serious subject for Gary, and one he’s very keen to tell the sector about as it’s so male dominated – prostate cancer.
Considering what it is and where it is in the male anatomy it can be an embarrassing subject to discuss, but as Gary says, a positive diagnosis isn’t always a disaster if it’s caught early enough. This is why Gary wanted to spend time talking about it.
For him the diagnosis of prostate cancer came in 2020 after a trip to Spain with his daughter when, as he says, he was ‘having trouble going to the toilet’.
Noting his symptoms, Gary went to his GP and had a routine examination which was followed up by an MRI scan and a biopsy. He explains that ‘symptoms of prostate cancer can include going to the toilet more frequently, needing to rush to the toilet, and difficulty in urinating – the NHS website lists a full list of symptoms which is worth checking’ (see panel).
He says that following his diagnosis, he felt terrible and ‘was unable to process his feelings… I’m now having counselling which has helped me a lot’. He thinks counselling and mental health problems in men shouldn’t be considered a taboo subject. He says the diagnosis ‘has been very difficult for my family – initially I wasn’t open with them and didn’t discuss how I was feeling so they couldn’t give me the support I needed’.
In medical terms, Gary says that he was given three options following his diagnosis – active surveillance, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, or removal of the prostate. He opted for active surveillance on the basis that it’s possible that the cancer may not get worse, and removal can create unnecessary problems if not needed. However, if the cancer becomes more of an issue, then the intervention can be escalated.
Statistically speaking, Gary says more than 47,500 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year – that’s 130 men every day. This is why, Gary highly – and strongly – recommends that if (any) men are experiencing symptoms relating to their waterworks they should arrange an appointment with their GP without delay.
As he says: ‘It might seem daunting and embarrassing at first, but if caught early enough prostate cancer is treatable and you can continue to live a full and healthy life; about 400,000 men are living with and after prostate cancer.’
But Gary being Gary, he wanted to raise awareness. He’s organised a series of events with the help of a good friend, Jamie Allan, with a view to raising £20,000 for Prostate Cancer Research.
He details that Jamie started the fundraising off by running 100 miles throughout May and a half marathon is planned for some time in September. Next on this list is a sky dive on 4 September where a group of 10-15 will be jumping from 15,000ft – ‘both myself and Jamie have committed to this’.
Lastly, Gary says that a charity football match is planned for September where an Ollerton Town Veterans team will take on Hull City Ex Tigers Veterans Team – at Ollerton Town. ‘This,’ Gary says, ‘will be followed by a family day at the Olde Red Lion in Wellow, with raffles, charity auctions, children entertainment and a band – Leeds United’s Patrick Bamford has already committed shirts and memorabilia for auction. Joining us on the day will be ex-boxer Jonny Nelson and ex-Coronation Street star Bruce Jones.’
Good luck is all CFJ can say; we hope Gary comes back and tells us how well he’s done with his fundraising.