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Rinable carpets: Running in the family

How familial bonds have helped drive the success of a Luton-based carpet and flooring contractor with extensive experience in commercial and domestic installations.

A GERMAN medieval proverb, first noted some 850 years ago, tells how blood is thicker than water – indicating that familial bonds are stronger than friendship or love. And from what Ben Kemm, managing director of Luton-based Rinbale Carpets, says, it’s precisely those bonds that have kept the company going since it started back in 1968. Ben tells how the company was established by Ian Balaam and his brother Richard.

Back then, 1968, the original business was known as BB Carpets – short for Balaam Brothers – but this would eventually change in the early ‘70s when their other brother, Nick, also joined the family business.

And so, Rinbale Carpets was established in 1972, the name being a combination of their initials, surname and a nod to their mother, Edith, who also worked for the business from the ‘80s right up until she passed away in 2002.

As Ben explains, in the beginning, Ian and Richard ran the business together installing domestic flooring. However, a few years after the business started, a property developer who they’d been working with, was looking to open a hotel – the Norfolk Plaza Hotel in Paddington – and asked them for flooring throughout.

‘The 100-room project was the first hotel they completed and led to a shift away from domestic work and into commercial projects. At the same time, EGE Carpets had just come to the UK and Rinbale had one of their first big orders for this project.’

Soon after, as the story goes, Richard and Ian decided to open a shop – not far from where the current office is in Luton today. However, Ben says once a three-day week came into effect, back in 1973 – readers of an age may remember government brought this measure in to conserve electricity during a miners and rail workers strike – the shop was closed, and that part of the business moved to a factory unit in the centre of Luton.

But it appears the company was able to make the situation good says Ben, and so, during what was a period of complete uncertainty, they were in a fortunate position of being able to carry out works to restaurants when they were closed. They had a rapidly expanding commercial portfolio. From 1972 onwards, they began working with Trust House Forte which at the time, was Europe’s largest hotel, catering, and leisure group. Despite the three-day week, they carried out works to restaurants, hotels, and motorway service areas throughout this time.

In fact, Rinbale carried on working for Trust House Forte for many years in Little Chef Restaurants together with Happy Eaters and Welcome Break Services. Ben says the company also began working with Travelodge, starting with the third hotel the chain opened around 1978: ‘This would become a relationship that spanned more than 30 years, with Rinbale working on all newbuild, refurbishments and reactive jobs for the hotels in the UK until about 2018.’

Interestingly, he adds that Ian also carried out work to the very first Travelodge hotel that opened in Spain.

There were other projects at that time too, says Ben. In particular, Rinbale embarked on a refurbishment programme with a local builder carrying out works to Ladbrokes Lucky 7 bingo halls.
But this being a family run concern, Ben says the brothers were also joined in the business by their father, Albert, who worked in the factory, ran the office, and organised deliveries. But when he passed away in 1989, the working dynamic changed again – ‘Richard had to take a step back from fitting to run the office and Edith then joined to look after the accounts – a job she did pretty much until she passed away’.

Ian and Nick continued to work throughout the UK, but when Richard passed away in 1998, they made the decision to both give up fitting to run the office. ‘At the time,’ says Ben, ‘the workload was so high it became essential for two people to be in the office project managing and overseeing the volume of work coming through.’ He says that at one time, Rinbale was among the largest flooring companies in the UK, installing about 40,000sq m a year which, at the time, was a high volume for this size business to be handling.

Naturally, over the years, Rinbale has seen its fair share of changes and challenges. Nick retired in 2017 and with Ian semi-retired also, a joint director was appointed. Eventually, Ben says, ‘it was no longer possible for the business to sustain two directors. So, Ian took over sole ownership of the business once again and I took over the day-to-day operations from March 2019 until April 2021, when I was made managing director’.

He notes, though, that even though Ian is semi-retired, he remains ‘heavily and actively involved in all aspects of the business, not only owing to his wealth of experience and knowledge but because of the reputation he has with everyone he has worked with’. He adds that ‘even with the company facing difficulties, he never wanted to see it close – it’s been a major part of his life for a long time’.
With Ben’s involvement in Rinbale it’s appropriate to explain how he rose to become managing director.

s Ben explains, flooring was a completely new industry for him. He’d been to University in Leeds and after graduating, remained in the city, working for ENACT, a conveyancing company.

‘I stayed with the company for seven years working in various roles – from customer service team leader to project management. I then moved on to a management role for Step Change, a debt management charity where I stayed for two years but following the birth of our first son in 2015, my wife Sam and I decided to move to Hertfordshire where her family live.’ It was this move that led to his father-in-law, Ian, offering Ben a role in the company.

Ben says it was a project management position but once he joined in August 2015, ‘I was very much starting at the bottom but was happy to learn. I went out on jobs with the fitters, learning about how they did things and why. I’d also go out onsite visits to get some first-hand experience of how it all worked.’

He says the company’s suppliers helped enormously too – ‘GAAS Flooring for example, took the time to provide me with some in-depth product training so I could learn and understand all about the various products used – I was keen to learn the trade’. He says his role has been a huge learning curve and ‘on reflection, it’s been fundamental in getting me to the point I’m at now. I’m now responsible for all site measures and quantify all plans myself. My product knowledge has grown and continues to grow’.

It’s interesting that Ben comments that despite his previous career being in a completely different industry, his skills were transferable: ‘I’ve solid experience in client facing roles and know the importance of good customer service – an essential skill to have no matter what industry you’re in. I think exceeding customer expectations with great service is what helps drive client retention and I keep that at the forefront of how we operate and treat every client we have.’

But beyond his customer focus Ben adds he has ‘a strong sense of what working as a team means too and I wanted to learn from the fitters – I was happy to do whatever was needed in order to get a job done’. It shouldn’t surprise that Ben says those same fitters are still with the business and although he’s now managing director, ‘nothing has changed in that respect – I’m still willing to get stuck in and get a job done’.

And it’s just as important to know Ben considers those early days ‘a great foundation for building solid working relationships with the subcontractors that work for Rinbale. I like to think there’s a mutual respect between us. When embarking on projects, questions crop up, we’ll discuss the best way of approaching certain aspects of the job, so it’s a team effort’.

Moving beyond the people and on the business, Ben says Rinbale focuses largely on commercial projects. ‘Like I said, when Ian and Richard first started, they were only doing domestic jobs but that very first hotel they completed led to other large-scale refurbishments and developments. Eventually, it got to the point where the scale of projects they were working on, together with the number of projects, were so big domestic jobs had to take a backseat.’

He adds that as the company continued to grow, it’s stayed predominantly focused on this area and has worked with some well-known brands across a range of sectors including Travelodge, APEX Hotels, Days Inn, and Holiday Inn to name a few. And more recently, the company completed flooring works on the new Premier Inn hotel in Romford too.

But none of this is to say Rinbale doesn’t, or won’t, embark on domestic jobs, but Ben says any he does complete tend to be on a larger scale. And he gives an example: ‘Recently, we worked with a client who was refurbishing a three-storey house in London. It was a great project to work on – one that took a huge amount of planning and required a great deal of skill from our fitter owing to the design the client wanted.

‘Ian was heavily involved in this too, discussing the best ways of approaching certain aspects of the job and was a prime example of how invaluable his wealth of experience is. The finish was excellent, and the client was delighted with the end result.’

ith a company as busy and as experienced as Rinbale, it follows that its work spans the UK and Ireland. As a result, Ben notes ‘planning and organising a schedule can take a lot of time but it’s key to ensuring we have everything prepped and ready for all jobs’. He adds that ‘with multiple projects underway in various locations, often at the same time or with some crossover, logistically it can take a great deal of planning to ensure we’re meeting our deadlines and handing areas back to our clients on time’.

He says hotel rooms, in particular, can require a huge amount of planning owing to time constraints: ‘It can often be the case that we’re given a small window of time to uplift and replace the carpet to guarantee there’s minimal disruption to the hotel and guests. The longer the room is kept offline, the more it’s costing the hotel so getting these completed and handed back on schedule is paramount. Likewise, for service areas which are open 24 hours a day with constant footfall, we try to tackle these areas out-of-hours to avoid closing off busy areas at peak times.’

Fundamentally, Ben says Rinbale is happy to work with clients and schedule in works to be carried out late into the evening or even overnight in some cases. As he says: ‘It’s about putting the needs of the client and their business first so we’re as accommodating as we can possibly be in these instances.’

A similar view is taken with Rinbale’s suppliers where Ben thinks ‘maintaining good relationships with suppliers is just as important as those relationships we build with clients… I need to know I can call on a supplier and obtain products, often with limited notice’.

He notes that, like others in the sector, Rinbale has had some issues lately with not receiving deliveries on time. He says: ‘Although this is sometimes inevitable, it really impacts on our whole schedule of works. It’s the difference between getting a job completed on the day or at the time initially given to the client or having to rearrange which I absolutely leave as a last resort.’

He’s pleased this hasn’t happened often, ‘but waiting on a delivery of items you desperately need for a specific job is the type of thing that can cause some stress day-to-day, especially when managing multiple projects at once’.

On the matter of finding new business, Ben comments that Rinbale has clients that it’s worked with for several years and continues to work with on either large-scale projects or a reactive basis.

‘Luckily,’ he says, ‘many of our previous clients are now aware it’s Ian that solely owns the company again and that I run things day-to-day which has seen some clients return. I find word-of-mouth is still key in generating new business because it’s that personal recommendation that often generates more than an advert can.’

And the effect of that is illustrated by Rinbale’s work in education. Here Ben explains that ‘we’ve been working with several schools in and around Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire and found that one had recommended us to another and so on – in the past 12 months we’ve carried out refurbishment projects on seven schools in the area with more projects to complete in the coming months’.

The key takeaway here is that because of the standards and ethos of the company, Ben says ‘we’ve never advertised in the traditional sense, and I don’t see that changing just yet’. That said, he’s ‘keen to utilise social media more to promote our work and projects going forward’.

No flooring contractor can function without fitters and the ethos that Rinbale applies to customers and suppliers is extended to its staff. On this Ben notes there’s a common theme in the sector – ‘that obtaining good fitters can be difficult’. He points out, however, that ‘the subcontractors we have working for us have been working with Rinbale for many years – some for 20 to 30 years. I also have several fitters I can rely on to help as and when needed which is essential when additional projects come in that need to be completed quickly – particularly reactive jobs’.

s for younger fitters, Ben says they mainly go to Rinbale ‘because they know a senior fitter, but this seems to be occurring less frequently nowadays. Personally, I appreciate recommendations because I know my fitters would only endorse someone they believe to be a good fit for the team’.

Onto the state of the flooring sector, and Ben’s view is ‘the industry is in a fairly good place overall’. But he sees that luring the youth into the sector is a challenge. As he knows, ‘learning to lay carpet, LVTs or vinyl is a skill and it takes years to master; anyone entering the industry really needs to have the drive and determination to learn and a willingness to start at the bottom’. He worries this isn’t something that will be appealing to many.

But he feels this obstacle can be countered: ‘I think it’s important to highlight to young people that there’s so much more to this job than what many might think. For example, ‘creativity’ might not seem like an adjective a person would use when thinking about the trade – how creative is laying a floor? But it does require various skills – problem-solving, a careful, methodical, and accurate approach, an aptitude for numbers (important for measuring and calculating etc) as well as creative input and an appreciation for design and for matching patterns.’

Ben wonders if these attributes are ever considered by young people: ‘When it comes to other construction trades, some may see those as having an advantage over flooring and I wonder if this is what draws the young to them over flooring.’ He also expresses some concern about ‘the push towards college and university by many schools today which for many, is the right option, but for some it isn’t’.

Notably, Ben seems to like people who might be termed a ‘blank canvas’. And he explains what he means: ‘I’d say that being well-educated doesn’t always play a part – if someone came to me straight from school or college without experience but they had the right attitude to learn and a strong work ethic, I’d be happy to take them on. You can’t teach someone those things.’ His point is that the skill of laying a floor can be taught gradually over time, but the dedication and willingness to work hard and learn must come from them he thinks that’s what is missing in the youth of today.
Brexit may well have been and gone for many, but it will maintain an influence on the UK for some time. For Ben, ‘Brexit,’ he says, ‘brought a nervousness and reticence to the industry as a whole – largescale projects were put on hold as companies re-evaluated their strategic decisions that were perhaps outlined pre-Brexit.’

However, he feels most of these projects seem to be back on track. ‘On the whole,’ he says, ‘I don’t feel it’s something we’ve been massively affected by just yet.’ That said, he’s noticed some manufacturers and suppliers increasing prices, ‘but I think given the pandemic as well, that was an inevitable repercussion – everyone is trying to recoup lost sales and for our industry, I guess that was one place to start.’

There’s one aspect of Brexit that he worries about – that most of the health and safety regulations in the UK flooring industry were dictated by the EU. On this he says ‘it will take time to see the impact this has. We’re yet to see if the industry will continue to follow EU standards – or if government will introduce its own legislation’.

And what of Covid-19? How did it affect Rinbale? Ben’s response is that the pandemic did have quite an impact and that it’s not been an easy time for many industries and trades. ‘Like so many,’ he says, ‘we had several large projects planned for 2020 – Covid-19 isn’t something anyone could have foreseen happening though and it had a knock-on effect on our schedule of work. Even when sites reopened, it was a case of waiting for other trades to get onto site to complete works before we were able to start.’

Despite the setbacks that Covid-19 brought, Ben says 2020 wasn’t the worst year. If anything, he says, ‘it really gave us some time to focus strategically about the direction of the business. Sometimes, it’s often so busy it’s not always possible to take a moment to plan new avenues to explore, but we took the opportunity to do this, and it’s really paid off’.

It’s interesting to note Covid-19 struck at a time when the business had been trying to get back on its feet after the issues with a previous director. Indeed, Ben says ‘it’s taken three years to get us back to the position we’re now in, focusing on our relationships with clients and spending time connecting with previous clients and generating business. Despite the issues we’ve faced over the past few years, one key element hasn’t changed and that’s our work – we’re still known for our quality work’.

He emphasises that he keeps an open relationship with clients, ensures they know of the progress onsite at all times, and discusses any issues as and when they arise. For him, ‘it’s this honesty that also plays a big role in taking on and retaining clients’.

o business can operate without cash and so it’s logical Ben isn’t a fan of having to chase payments from clients, but as he says, ‘sometimes, it’s unavoidable’.

Overall, though, he says that while Rinbale has experienced late payments from clients, ‘fortunately, it’s not too frequent and is often the result of a minor oversight. It’s nothing a quick chat with our client hasn’t solved so far. However, I know Ian has had far worse experiences with this in the past and like he says, unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done if say a client has gone into administration or worse still, bankrupt’.

Ben adds that these issues cannot be eliminated and ‘with largescale projects come huge outlays from the business to even get going, so it’s essential we have a mutual understanding in terms of timely payments’.

But knowing the effect receiving a late payment can have, he says he’s ‘keen to ensure we pay our suppliers swiftly and always on time’.

On the subject of retentions, Ben’s made it a top priority to retrieve these funds. He says here that ‘so often, many businesses fail to recover retentions – it can be a time-consuming exercise and one that often requires some level of legal input so I can understand why they are left unclaimed’.

He realises it may be necessary to have some system in place, but his personal view on retentions is that he’d much rather they were no longer part of the industry. As he says: ‘Why should we complete a project but then wait far longer than the agreed terms in order to receive payment in full? Part of our profit is left to sit in another company’s bank account, which in my view, is ridiculous.’

The next subject that Ben tackles is that of sustainability. Here he says Rinbale tries to take environmental and sustainable issues into consideration where we can, but it’s definitely a process which I hope to improve on over time.

He notes that creating a floor is an involved and complex process with many elements, and the impact it has can be different at each stage – from materials used to manufacturing processes. This is why he says it’s ‘important to consider what happens to flooring at the end of its life. Some is designed to be hardwearing and longer lasting, so shouldn’t need to be replaced as often; this is how the manufacturer reduces their environmental impact too’. He seems pleased some flooring is fully or partially recyclable, so no waste materials end up in landfill.

Looking to the future, Ben says the company is trying to be ‘as mindful as possible with regards to waste when it comes to embarking on new projects, and we work with our clients to find the best and most efficient way of completing jobs’.

He gives an example: ‘Some work we completed for the main entrance of a service station had high footfall. The entrance matting obviously needed to be durable, but we worked with the client, advising that using single tiles as opposed to a large, single matt would have several advantages.’ As he explains, with such a large area to cover, ‘using one single piece of matting meant that should any part become damaged, the entire area would need to be uplifted and replaced. But by using single tiles, individual areas could be replaced if required making it not only cost effective for the client but also a more environmentally considered option’.

Ben’s aware of the significant carbon footprint in the supply chain for flooring so, where possible, Rinbale tries to use companies that manufacture in the UK… however, often this isn’t possible.
This thinking extends to waste management and Ben tells how the company has a large skip outside the office on a permanent basis and it was important to work with a waste company that takes sustainability seriously.

Says Ben: ‘It’s no longer acceptable for any organisation to dispose of waste to landfill without consideration for the environmental impact. We work with our skip hire service to recycle as much of our waste as possible – plastics, cardboard, carpets and underlay etc.’ He says this is an ‘ongoing process for us’ and ‘we continue to improve on our day-to-day practices in the office too’. The company isn’t quite able to be a ‘paper free’ office, but it’s careful to not print unnecessarily and ensures all paper is recycled too.

he company has had a challenging few years – Ben’s words. He says: ‘Both Ian and Rinbale have had a strong reputation in the industry for decades but there have been challenges as there are in any business.’

He says since he took over, in March 2019, he’s focused on the company’s many strengths. ‘It’s a business that Ian set up with trust, loyalty and integrity at the core of how it operates, and I want to carry on running the company based on those values.’

And he seems to be winning for as he says: ‘Despite the difficulties, it’s been a positive change for the business and everyone involved. It’s certainly made the company stronger as a result.’

He says he and Ian were keen to ensure the industry was aware the business was in safe hands, with Ian as the sole owner and Ben managing the company overall. So confident was he that the company would continue to soar, Ben says Ian purchased their office and factory unit outright which has afforded the company a stability many businesses don’t have.

What appears to have held true is that, as Ben points out: ‘It’s a family business once again with Ian’s daughter Lucy, my sister-in-law, working with us as project manager too. It feels good to have a strong level of trust running through the team – we all have a common goal and that is to drive the business forward and continue to grow.’

He hopes the sense of trust they have as a family and the enthusiasm they still have for Rinbale filters down to clients, subcontractors, and the company’s suppliers. ‘We continue to prove we have an excellent work record, we’re reliable and dependable and most importantly, we’re honest.’
But looking ahead, for Ben ‘it’s onwards and upwards for us – 2022 is going to be an exciting and busy year’.

The company has some big projects coming up and is looking forward to working with several of its former clients again as they embark on their own plans for expansion – ‘with some large projects in the pipeline, it’s great to have a team in place that can help support the workload’.

And it looks like the company is having a facelift too. As Ben explains, ‘Lucy comes from a PR and marketing background, so we’ve used her experience to give the Rinbale branding an overhaul too. We’ve given our logo a refresh, we’ve rebranded our vans and we’re in the process of redeveloping and redesigning our website with the aim of launching our new channels for 2022.’ He adds: ‘It really feels like a fresh start which will be an encouraging way to kick off the new year for us as a company.’

In finishing, Ben sees ‘some others that keen to grow their business at a rapid rate – perhaps working on thin margins based on the volume of work to be carried out’. But when discussing projects with prospective clients who benchmark other costs from contractors against a quote that Rinbale has provided, but it makes him think, ‘how are they making money based on those figures’? He says: ‘I’m not willing to cut costs so dramatically it ends up costing us more to complete the job. At the end of the day, we’re a business and profit is important but for me, I also want to focus on a steady but sustainable rate of growth.’

It’s perfectly clear Rinbale has seen some turbulence in its 54 years. But it’s just as apparent a combination of family, good service, honesty and a sense of pride will carry it on for another 54 years – or more.

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