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Peal-ling back the layers

Tim Peal of Essex-based Millside Floors has spent more than 30 years in flooring. Now, in his early 60s, he’s seeking a new adventure. As we’ll see, Tim has several strings to his bow. By ADAM BERNSTEIN.

BORN in 1960, Tim was educated in the English boarding school system but, as he says didn’t enjoy it and ‘ran away aged 15’. The getaway was not quite on the scale of The Great Escape and was at the end of the day unsuccessful.

The next stage of his life saw him embark on an engineering apprenticeship when he was 16 at Anglo Swedish, a Volvo BM distributor, before he travelled to Australia when he was 18. He spent four-and-a-half years there working in various roles – he had a water drilling business in the bush, was a long-distance lorry driver running between Brisbane and Sydney over weekends, was a motorbike dispatch rider in Sydney, and lived on a hippy commune in Cairns.

He returned to England in 1983, aged 23, and tried out various jobs including truck driving, being a potato merchant, futures trading in the City and went into car valeting which ultimately led to his buying a small cleaning business which he spent the next 10 years building up. By the early 90s he was running what has become a cleaning and decorating business and it was this that led him to the world of flooring.

‘A friend of mine,’ he says, ‘was working for the importer of Witex laminate flooring which was, at the time a ground-breaking new product. He found he could sell the idea of laminate flooring to carpet retailers, but they couldn’t find anyone who could fit the floors.’

That’s when, in 1992, Tim took the logical step of employing a carpenter and started doing the measures for the shops himself: ‘Before long we had developed a good stable of clients and had two floorlayers working… and I went on fitting courses and out with the fitters to develop the skills.’

By 2000, he’d handed the cleaning business over to his wife on its way to being sold. He was working full-time in the flooring business and had two young children – he needed a simpler life. Work, as he says, ‘was a balance of contract fitting for shops, with supply-and-fit work, along with contract work for the contracting division of the Witex importer.’ And it was through his contact with Witex that Tim ran training courses for the company for fitters.

It’s all about people
Having spent 10 years running a labour-intensive cleaning business, Tim decided he didn’t want his flooring business to become an employer; he wanted to keep it simple and small.

As he says, ‘I never employed more than one full-time fitter and worked with subcontractors mainly instead. I found directly employing fitters was more trouble than it was worth.’

He details how he had a van stolen, with all the tools in, from outside a pub that a fitter was drinking in. He also found it difficult to find people who were prepared to work as hard as required to fit floors ‘to earn decent money’.

Overall, he says using family or subcontractors to help lay flooring made life pleasanter.

That said, he’s seen how work can be lifechanging and life-affirming and recalls a couple of teenagers he’d taken on through a local student referral unit. Both, he says, had poor disciplinary school records, and in one case was being educated in a special unit.

Tim found what they really needed was to be out of school and the classroom and instead, in the world of work: ‘The combination of firm boundaries and the motivation that came from earning their own money was all they both needed. They’ve both gone on to be happy and successful in their adult lives.’

Tim believes that this was when he first realised just how much pleasure he could get from helping others to find their potential. And to illustrate the point, he says his daughter Emma, who’s now a 25-year-old teacher, and his son Jack, 23, ‘both grew up with hammers and saws in their hands… they learned floorlaying from a young age’. Both, Tim says, worked for him during their holidays.
Jack, by the way, trained as a carpenter and now divides his time between carpentry and subcontracting to Tim’s business, Millside Floors.

Present day, Tim is in the process of building up a counselling and hypnotherapy practice (more on this later) and, in time, it’s hoped Jack will take over the flooring business. ‘At 6-foot 5-inches in height, he is not,’ says Tim, ‘the ideal shape for a floorlayer.’

Tim thinks this means he’ll concentrate more on contract work and use subcontract labour – ‘my guess is I’ll continue to do the measures and admin for the business, and between us we’ll either do the physical work or manage subcontractors.’ He says he and Jack ‘are fairly relaxed about things and will work it out as we go along’.

Contract work
As for the work Tim’s company undertakes, one of his first involved the fitting of solid oak flooring in a Fatty Arbuckles restaurant, airside at Manchester Airport, about 20 years ago. The story he tells is one that would make a present-day health and safety officer squeal.

He was subcontracting for the Witex importer and explains that the solid oak plank flooring was very poorly machined, not end matched, and the installation took much longer than anticipated. Having finished the main installation, he headed home for the weekend.

Tim picks up the story: ‘On returning to site on the Monday, we found there’d been a leak over the weekend and the oak flooring had got wet – it was sitting about three feet in the air where it had expanded and ripped itself up. None of this was our fault, and after some tense negotiations we were tasked with ripping it all up, repairing the subfloor, then fitting the floor again.’

While the refit was a problem, the finishing could have been disastrous: ‘At the time,’ says Tim, ‘I wasn’t aware of the extreme combustibility of floor-sanding dust, and we’d been tipping all it into a bin ready to take offsite later. During the job I went to empty my dust bag into the bin and to my horror I saw at least half a dozen glowing embers in the dust.’

The only way Tim could think of – quickly – to extinguish the embers was to use water from a small sink which was scooped up into hard hats. He says he has ‘no idea if someone had dropped cigarette ash – that’s how long ago it was – or if when sanding we’d hit nails which had caused ignition. Either way, and since then, dust is now always sealed into bin bags which are tied shut.’

It’s fair to say he was under tremendous time pressure and only completed the job by working 44 hours straight with a two-hour sleep in his van. As he says, ‘there’s no way I’d consider agreeing to something like that now’.

In terms of other work, he points to a 10-year period when he, his family, and teams of subcontractors, undertook contract on the Howard de Walden estate in the west end of London. He says: ‘This tended to be high end quality refurbs of multimillion-pound houses and flats. Although the work was very profitable, waiting up to two or even three months to be paid by the main contractor was a challenge for such a small business as mine.’

Nevertheless, Tim says the work led to his most prestigious job – the installation of Junckers solid oak flooring throughout the Piggot Gallery’s public areas at Kensington Palace. As he describes: ‘This was fitted using the Junckers Clip System which allowed us to fit the floor without touching any of the original timber of the palace… even the architraves had to be covered with new handmade architrave blocks to avoid having to cut into the original architraves for expansion gaps.’

The flooring was finished with Junckers Oil to give it an extremely hardwearing finish.

The job was completed with a friend and colleague, Barney Hipperson of Hip Flooring Solutions. Barney, says Tim, is a former technical representative from Junckers who branched out on his own about 15 years ago. ‘We’ve fitted many metres of this system over the years and so are very practiced and confident with it.’ Tim and Barney have since been back to clean and re-oil the floor. In his view it’s holding up well.

Beyond Kensington Palace, Tim has also worked closely with Mark Paine at Athena Flooring in laying vinyl, marmoleum, Amtico, and other commercial hard floorings. The company provides Tim with the bulk of his contract work in schools and public buildings. It’s notable that as Tim points out, ‘as a small contractor I prefer to subcontract from companies such as Athena; I’ve no interest in getting bogged down with the amount of paperwork required for most contract flooring works’.

Over the years
Looking back on trends, Tim says of the early ‘90s that laminate flooring was the product to have. He says he ‘was fitting for large retailers and they were selling bucket loads of laminate. Then as we moved into the new millennium, I noticed a trend towards engineered oak flooring which started with a three-strip pattern, but this then moved to the 148 and 190mm width planks that dominate the market now’.

He says he’s tended to stick with two main suppliers over the years – V4 and Xylo. He looks after any warranty work that Xylo requires – maybe the odd board replacement, ‘but their products are of such good quality that this is not a regular income stream for me’.

More recently, Tim has seen herringbone block flooring as a trend that has increased dramatically over the past few years: ‘The style has changed from solid that had to be sanded and sealed, to prefinished engineered oak and this requires great attention to detail to avoid unsightly gaps between the blocks.’

It’s worth highlighting the fact that, as Tim points out, ‘most of my work comes by word-of-mouth these days; I don’t do any marketing, but the work still keeps rolling in’.

And on the combined subjects of Brexit and Covid-19, Tim thinks they’ve done him a favour – he’s been able to earn more.

‘Fitting rates,’ he says, ‘had remained static for many years, but I noticed after Brexit that rates appeared to be firming up and I’ve certainly felt much more confident in increasing my fitting rates by 50-70% over the past three to five years. The pandemic combined with Brexit appeared to be very good for an installer like myself. After the initial five weeks of shutdown, I’d never been busier – the effect of people not being able to go on holiday was that they spent money on their homes instead.’

Having said that, Tim says he’s noticed enquiries have dropped off a bit recently

It’s all in the mind
Earlier in this profile we touched on Tim’s new venture – the building a counselling and hypnotherapy practice. In talking about this, he tells how he’s always been interested in people and what makes them tick. It started with his teenagers ‘and then my years coaching mini-rugby gave me an insight into the pleasure I gained from helping people realise their potential’.

It was this and knowing that he both wants and needs to work into his 60s and doesn’t want to stay in flooring forever that moved him to look for something else.

The spur came from when he was working on a domestic installation about five years ago: ‘I got chatting to the client who was training to be a psychotherapeutic counsellor. I was interested but didn’t do anything about it. Then I heard of a two-day mental health first aid course locally.’

Tim made two discoveries on that course. The first was that each time he talked about being sent away to boarding school, aged eight, he’d break down in tears. The second was that he really loved working in the field of mental health.

‘The concept of the wounded healer is very strong in mental health and many people come into it partly to understand their own issues, and partly to use that understanding to help others. My journey through the three-and-a-half years of training has been one of great self-reflection and work on my own inner child.’

He knows many people carry around the scars of their childhood without realising the damage it’s doing to themselves and their relationships. In Tim’s case, he says he self-medicated with drink and drugs for many years and now understands this was part of a strategy to suppress the mental damage he suffered in his childhood.

‘The good news,’ he says, ‘is that even at 61 it’s not too late to recover. I’ve finally been able to change how my mind reacts to my childhood and this gives me great hope for the future.’

Tim(e) to train
In terms of the training Tim details it involved a year of learning to be a hypnotherapist and then a further two-and-a-half years of training to be a counsellor. Remarkably, he says ‘throughout the course I’ve been one of the only men. My final class of 13 was all female except for myself… this means there’s a great shortage of male counsellors.’

He says once trainee counsellors have completed the first two years of learning, they must take up a placement with a counselling provider and start seeing ‘real’ clients. In Tim’s case, he spent a year working with adults at an agency, Just Talk, based in Sudbury, Suffolk. It supplies affordable counselling by recruiting student counsellors like himself. ‘We don’t get paid and the agency charges a small, means tested fee to cover administration and room rental costs.’

Not unsurprisingly, Tim says the pandemic created real problems for the counselling world. Many sought training in online working and moved to work via Zoom. This, he says, kept him working and logging hours throughout the pandemic. Many counsellors now work on Zoom and have found this stye of counselling can be very effective.

The next stage for Tim, after he had completed the 100 hours of client work required by his course, was to further challenge himself: ‘I heard another agency was looking for student counsellors to provide counselling in secondary schools around London and in the South. I applied, was accepted and I’ve since been doing a day a week providing counselling at a secondary school on the edge of East London.’

And this couldn’t have worked out better for him. He’s found he loves working with children and young people and has realised this is an area where he can really make a difference. ‘Many counsellors,’ he says, ‘avoid working with children because there are so many safeguarding issues.

This means there’s a shortage of children counsellors and an even greater shortage of male children’s counsellors.’

He continues: ‘Part of my healing process has been to confront issues relating to my experience of my school days and to put that to good use. I am very proud to say that the school asked me to stay on once my period of unpaid work finishes to become a paid counsellor.’

Plans for the future
As for his future, Tim aims to build on his work with children along with a couple of friends from his course and start a counselling agency for children. He says he’ll ‘continue to work with adults and use a blend of counselling and hypnotherapy to tailor therapy to suit each client’. He works via Zoom, from his home in Essex, and from practices in Bishops Stortford and Braintree.

There’s a natural question to ask of Tim here – can he help the flooring sector with its mental health? In response, Tim says he’s not assessed the state of mental health in the sector, but surmises ‘that like any other area of work, there’ll be many struggling with the effects of their childhood or the pressures of their adult life. If so, I would encourage them to find a good counsellor and see if it helps them.’

When seeking help, he says ‘the most important aspect to searching for a counsellor is to find someone who you feel safe with. Some people will try a few before they find one that really works for them’.

In parting, Tim is happy to offer a discount of £10 per session to CFJ readers from his normal rate of £60 per session. Just mention this article!
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