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Running a Bentley in the countryside for success

Priory Hardwoods came about by sheer accident as its managing director Tom Bentley explains in this profile of the contractor.

TOM Bentley, managing director of Priory Hardwoods, is a child of the ‘60s. Born in time of the cold war, the space race and then growing up with the grim fashions of the ‘70s, Tom entered the world of flooring in 1988 when Yazz, Kylie and Jason Donovan, Cliff Richard, Tiffany and Phil Collins were topping the charts. Feel old?

A new environment
As Tom sets out, he began his career working for Wilton Royal in its London showroom back in the late ‘80s: ‘It was just off Berkley Square and so was ideally situated for architects and designers to call and discuss projects.’

Tom was 22 at the time – 1987 – and had successfully won a position as sales office assistant for the company. And he says it was ‘a complete career change as I originally trained as a sign maker in between working in my father’s china shop that was located in the Lake District’. He adds that it was ‘quite a difference from being out on the hills one minute to the buzz of the hustle and bustle of London living. It was great for a 22-year-old’.

But there’s a hint of likelihood to Tom’s new career; his father used to work in the carpet industry many years before and was still receiving magazines for the sector in 1988. Says Tom: ‘Flicking through, I saw the advert for a sales assistant and went for it.’

However, 1989 saw him leave the contract division of Wilton to work for Ege Contracts before then moving on to CFS in 1991. It had a small division which sold timber flooring through specification primarily to theatres, sports facilities, high street and latterly developers when timber was once again becoming on trend.

Tom says working for CFS was a challenge he ‘lapped up… I found myself working on prestigious jobs supplying The Royal Opera House, Saddlers Wells Theatre, Bridgwater Hall, Liverpool Philharmonic, St Georges Hall, Lipa Building and many others’.

After that came Wollimex from 1998 before he joined Timber Trade Connect in 2000.

Proving a point
But change was coming Tom’s way – for the better as it turned out but based on serendipity; Tom was about to set up a business.

As Tom tells the story, Priory Hardwoods was set up in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Back in 2002, Tom had, for a while, ‘liked the sound of a couple of other companies within the industry which, without seeing their product, you sensed they offered good quality traditional products’.

He continues: ‘Mulling over what name to use, sitting in the garden while up in the Lake District visiting my parents, my father said how about ‘Priory’.

Tom’s parents live on a hill that runs down into Cartmel; the garden overlooks the whole village, and the Priory is the most dominant building in the village. So, Priory it was.

The business was set up, says Tom, to prove a point to his then boss at Timber Trade Connect – that branding works. He explains that a journalist friend of his ‘sent out details about the company which some flooring publications ran with. My boss fell for the article and was keen to visit this interesting company in the Lakes. He proved the point’.

But the ploy backfired and Tom lost his job. As he says, he suddenly became ‘master of my own destiny with babe in arms and a two-year-old; I had six months to make Priory work’. But fortune smiles on the brave and Priory Hardwoods has now been going 20 years this year and Tom ‘still loves the industry’ in which he works.

So, it’s clear Priory Hardwoods came about by sheer accident following Tom’s boss being taken in by an attempt to create something fresh and new; he must have felt foolish when he realised just what his firm was missing.

Tom lays out that that was most definitely the case. He explains the company he was working for before Priory Hardwoods ‘had no brand identity and seemed just to be selling on price. This is perhaps fine if you’re selling to areas where price is king, but the areas we were pushing to get our products into I thought needed more. This is easy to do when you’re the salesmen though… but when you’re doing it all yourself you soon realise it’s a different story’.

Tom does say if the boot was on the other foot – if someone had done the same thing to him, ‘I think it would show initiative on something I’d missed and would run with it rather than firing the guy’.

And it’s interesting to hear from Tom that after his departure his former employer began spending heavily on marketing and brochures.

But as to what his family thought of the sudden change in circumstances, Tom just comments that ‘they thought I was crazy, converting part of my garage into an office… but that was the start of Priory Hardwoods’. And he’s very grateful to those companies that he has worked with for many years who have continued with their support and the steady growth of his business.

That said, he acknowledges that ‘as a naturally risk averse person there have been some nice opportunities that I have passed up on. This has resulted in the business not growing quickly though for some, though with the banking crisis, perhaps this option was fortuitous’.

The business outlined
Most businesses start off with an idea of what they want to do, but then, in time, develop and change their goals to meet the market.

And so it was that Priory Hardwood began, as Tom describes, as ‘purists, offering solid and engineered timber flooring’. But a visit to Domotex changed his outlook ‘after seeing many interesting finishes only to find the companies tied to another company in the UK’. As result, Tom decided very early on that his company would produce its own finishes – and ‘this has proved to be perfect for the areas in which we work’.

He illustrates what he means: ‘We would often be asked about our floor finishes for tables which we used to pass on. But over the years we have grown to include a production department that produces lots of tables which work well with our customers. We also use lots of reclaimed timbers also which again work well in the hospitality industry… until Covid-19.’

As for the sectors and types of business that Priory Hardwood serves, Tom says the company works well in the hospitality industry supplying floors, tables and reclaimed cladding to many brewery companies nationwide. He adds that products have changed over the years ‘from a standard factory lacquer finish to being able to offer textures to the timbers to give a ‘lived in’ look which we then lock in by using several coats of a tough commercial grade lacquer’.

But as the world and markets changed, so the company has had to adapt. Tom notes how ‘over the years things have affected the market in which we work, the most significant being the smoking ban a number of years ago’. This, he says, enabled LVT products to be used in areas where previously timber was used.

Another change Tom has seen relates to technology which has led, he says, to larger prints, embossing offset cutting, tougher surfaces and lower cost. ‘This,’ he says, ‘has definitely had an impact, but end of the day it’s not wood.’ Regardless, he’s witnessed brands that have moved away often come back to him as timber can be refreshed at a fraction of the initial installed cost – ‘this makes timber a good long-term investment’.

Beyond that, Priory Hardwoods is, according to Tom, ‘always looking at new areas where we can offer something different; the most recent example is a large laser engraver/cutter where we re-purpose out timber offcuts into bespoke personalised items, and so further reduce waste’.

As for geographical reach, Tom says the company works nationwide on projects, but has supplied products in Europe and further afield by request. In talking about the jobs in Europe, Tom says this ‘has been an extension to the work we supply to brands in the UK; it’s supplied to companies in the UK, is then put in containers and sent abroad along with the rest of the fit-out’.

But while the work in Europe is appreciated, Tom says he hasn’t pushed or promoted Priory Hardwoods in the European market as ‘we’re busy concentrating on the home market’. And when work and the company is promoted, the chosen route is social media – ‘it’s something we’re starting to push as things are moving at such a fast pace’. He adds it’s because the company specialises in bespoke work – ‘if we were to produce a brochure, designs and product would be out of date as soon as it is printed’.

Of course, social media isn’t perfect which is why he says its use depends on the market in which a firm works and the products it is promoting. He does say, though, that ‘I see social media as a way of potentially reaching people you’d never have connected with via traditional media. Social media is something as a company I know we need to be dedicated to, constantly keeping up dated; it’s something we’re getting to grips with’.

And as would be expected from a positive reputation, having worked in the industry for moreover 30 years, Tom’s found ‘people you have worked well with move, introducing you to new clients which is really appreciated’.

In terms of staff and subcontractors, Tom says the company currently employs five people and uses six subcontractors who are spread across flooring and table production, installation, sanding, and sealing – though only on a local basis, and warehousing and administration. All live within a five-mile radius of the mill which he describes as being ‘out in the sticks on the outskirts of Ripponden, West Yorkshire’.

With regard to getting the young into the business, Tom says the very nature of the work means ‘it’s quite ‘hands on’ physical work – we’ve had a fair number of youngsters come and go as they’re not used to being on their feet for eight hours a day’.

The team at Priory Hardwoods are aged between 20-60 and Tom describes them all as ‘fantastic, enthusiastic and who all work well together to get rush jobs out on time… it’s the beauty of working within the contracting world’.

Other matters
A topic on everyone’s lips is that of sustainability – are clients specifying sustainable products or is cost the main driver?

From Tom’s standpoint, price point is often a primary factor in selecting materials though he says that ‘all the timbers we offer are FSC or PEFC certified. Unlike other manmade floorcoverings, I think timber is seen as being a sustainable resource’. He adds that the company made a conscious decision several years ago to source its timber from Europe significantly reducing the carbon footprint against Chinese production.

A worrying concern though is the added difficulties caused by the war in the Ukraine – much of European oak is sourced from the Ukraine and birch plywood comes from Russia. Tom says: ‘The lack of both products has seen a reduction in availability and a near weekly increase in material cost’.
The company is, like most others, battling a number of threats – fuel being a serious contender for the worst.

Tom comments that ‘the price of fuel has had a massive impact on our distribution cost as we primarily put our products in the hands of pallet distribution companies. Their fuel costs alter weekly which we did absorb initially’. Now the company has to quote and charge on a spot price basis and try to get its products out to customers at the most reasonable price possible.

And then there is – was – Covid-19. On this vexed subject he says that, as noted earlier, the business had been primarily working within the hospitality industry and ‘we waxed lyrically that through wars, banking crisis and all that has happened over the past 20 years people will still want to drown their sorrows so pubs will always be busy. Covid-19 put a stop to that for a long while – it’s only just coming back within the last year and is steadily building’.

Fortunately, Priory Hardwood has more than one basket in which to place its eggs. As Tom tells, ‘our saving grace I guess is that we have a sanding and sealing side to the business so over lockdown many people had the time and money to concentrate on home improvements’. Then when restrictions allowed, he says that the hire side of the business then boomed – ‘and being based in an old wool mill we had plenty of space to be able to demonstrate how all the machinery worked’.

Overall, Tom’s business has certainly bounced back though he expresses concern with interest rates and the rise in the cost of living and the impact they’ll have on the industry.

Of Brexit, it’s certainly had an effect on the company. Says Tom: ‘Most of the raw materials we use are produced in Europe which has had affected timescales and cost of all we buy.’ If there’s a saving grace, it’s that Priory Hardwood isn’t alone in facing this problem. And it’s led to a change of materials used – in a number of instances Tom says this has outpriced timber in favour of LVT or other floorcoverings.

Wrapping up
As mentioned earlier, Priory Hardwood is situated in what Tom calls ‘an idyllic rural location which still has a mill pond used to run the machines back in the day.’ He and his team recognise that they’re lucky to be where they are: ‘Often at the end of the day, we have people coming down to fish in the pond if the resident herons haven’t already spied them.’

While there’s also a venue space above the mill which Tom says, ‘is fully booked up for weddings and proms’, he adds that ‘thankfully we haven’t had a situation where we’re loading an articulated lorry while the bride and groom are having photos taken beside the pond’.

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