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Toncam: The power of many

CFJ talks to Glen Tonkin whose father, Ian, founded Kingussie-based Toncam in 1996. Glen is now the director of the company.

1996 was a year to remember. It saw the launch of the Motorola StarTac, a mobile phone that is said to have kickstarted consumer mobile telephony; the Stone of Scone returned to Scotland; and Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell.

But 1996 was also the year that, Glen Tonkin, director of Kingussie-based Toncam, says his father, Ian, started the business.

As Glen tells: ‘After many years of working offshore and being in the navy he wanted to run a business that would give him a more balanced lifestyle being at home. He bought into a carpet and upholstery cleaning franchise called Stain Busters and became their Highland representative.’

After many years of operating with them he eventually became independent, ‘and,’ says Glen, ‘quickly established himself as the ‘go to guy’ for the services he provided to both domestic and commercial customers’.

But sadly, the story turned sour. Christmas 2004 saw Ian diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he passed away soon after at the end of January 2005. Glen tells how ‘he’d worked right up until Christmas, so it came as quite a shock to the family’.

Glen, his youngest son, took voluntary redundancy from the London-based company he worked for – as a project manager – to move home to support his mother, and, in the short term, keep the business operating.

From 2005
After taking the business on in 2005, ‘it,’ as Glen describes, ‘ticked along for several years operating just as it was’.

Then in 2007, Scott Campbell joined and brought the ‘Cam’ part of the Toncam corporate identity. Scott ran the business for three years while Glen took up an opportunity to run the wooden flooring department of another local company, Russwood.

Glen re-joined the firm in 2009 and brought with him ‘a wealth of knowledge’ he’d accumulated in his time away. It’s at this time the company rebranded to Toncam – ‘believe it or not,’ he says, ‘we paid someone to come up with this… I’m sure if we’d just gone out for a few beers we could have come up with it ourselves’.

The next three years saw two more join the company to help it diversify and grow – Rory Kennedy and Evan Menzies. The service side they joined was grown through courses taken to allow the company to specialise in stone and tile cleaning and restoration.

Toncam also became certified, via a specialist, Bona, to be able to sand, restore and finish wood flooring. As Glen explains: ‘By adding these strings to the service bow it meant we could clean and restore all types of floorcoverings – quite a unique thing to be able to do at the time.’

The next natural progression was, in Glen’s view, to go into retail. As he says: ‘If we could clean and maintain all these wonderful floorcoverings, why not sell them too? We eventually bought our first shop in Kingussie which used to be called ‘Something Different’.’

He explains it was a ‘very quirky and fascinating interiors shop. We loved their concept and felt our floorcoverings would complement what they did’. Toncam kept some of the shop’s original suppliers on, searched for alternatives and found itself in the position of being able to supply sofas, furniture and finishing touches ‘to make a house into a home’.

He says retail and online presents its challenges, but he tries to work with companies who respect and appreciate the time, cost, and effort of having premises. Glen monitors how suppliers operate or if their products are online while they push into retail; if Toncam cannot compete it will no longer sell those companies products. For him it’s all about the whole touch and feel approach which he hopes will never die: ‘We fully understand consumers want the best price, but there must be a balance between keeping places vibrant with shops offering great service both pre-and post-sale, compared to a faceless company.’

Beyond that, Toncam has also partnered with a company in Inverness, Highland Smart Homes, to dress and floor its showroom, which includes a cinema room, which now features ‘the plushest of carpets and the best quality Leather cinema seating’. Glen says the partnership works well ‘as we target a similar type of customer and bringing the two together is pretty unique in Inverness – there is nowhere else like it’.

And from what Glen says, Toncam seems to have seen off the competition: ‘Various companies have come and gone over the years, especially on the carpet cleaning side. If I’m honest although we keep an eye on what else is out there, I have always believed in doing what we do, and doing it to the best of our abilities… and offering a great customer experience with the service to match.’

The business defined
Toncam currently has four working shareholders and three employees. But Glen says the business is looking to expand and feels it’s ‘in a very good position to do this’. The service team involves four members, and the retail side has three including a flooring fitter. As he says: ‘We’d like to eventually recruit for more specific positions such as marketing, finance, sales, and definitely build a team of fitters. At the moment we’re very versatile; all wear several hats throughout the course of a working week.’

Glen adds Toncam cooperates with good subcontractors and likes to get stuck into projects: ‘We think it’s very important to collaborate with other like-minded businesses especially in the Highlands.’
And to the future, the aim, says Glen, is to possibly open further afield or look for bigger premises. But there’s an impediment to this growth. Says Glen: ‘I do feel there’s a lack of support out there to help businesses like ours grow and reach their full potential. More could be done to encourage us to take on larger premises and recruit more staff.’

He thinks it should really be a ‘win-win’ situation but with costs rising it isn’t easy.

In addition to retail, Toncam entered and has grown its wood floor sanding and stone and tile cleaning side of the business – and it ‘has been a huge success with two employees pretty much full time working in this area’.

He adds: ‘In the early days we did try things like general cleaning, car valeting and even contemplated widow cleaning, but we quite quickly felt it wasn’t the direction we wanted to go in.’
As for Toncam’s clients, Glen says it’s hard to nail down who’d be typical. As he explains: ‘We work with several different clients, both in the domestic and commercial sector, and we like to take the approach that no job is too big or small. So, we work with those who have very modest houses, to those who own estates and houses which could be classed as mansions. We have also worked in the odd castle or two as well.’

Commercially, he says Toncam has served several hotels, guest houses, offices, and golf clubs: ‘We love building relationships with architects, interior designers, developers, joiners, and housebuilders. In fact, the closer these relationships are the better. We share the same goals – which is to give clients the best value for their money and make their vision become a reality.’

On the retail – supply-side, the company works all over the UK, especially where it’s supply-only. That said, the service side is, says Glen, more geared up to most of the work being in the Highland area – ‘but we’ve travelled all over Scotland, particularly on wood flooring restorations and stone and tile work which are probably deemed to be a bit more specialist.’

Winning business
It’s only fair to ask an owner of a business that has made it through several global economic shocks – 1997, 2008, and the pandemic why it’s managed to win business and continue. And Glen’s response is: ‘I think we win business because we are great at what we do, and our reputation precedes itself. We’re very well established, but don’t rest on our laurels. We’re always looking to make improvements, increase our customer service and experience.’ He says Toncam is ‘by no means the cheapest, but I do believe we offer great value for money’.

It’s of note he recognises the company isn’t perfect and can make mistakes, but as he says: ‘It’s always how you resolve mistakes that means the most to the customer… I like to think the customer knows we’re working for them and have their best interests at heart.’

Glen’s pleased to say many of his customers ‘have become very good friends over the years, and I like to think people do genuinely like dealing with us’.

He thinks part of this is down to the shops which he describes as ‘lovely environments to be in – very warm and welcoming and oozing a bit of class and quality’. Further, Glen says Toncam has a great network of contacts that it’s willing to share with customers – ‘we go that extra mile to help wherever we can’.

Business matters
Another question that’s fair to ask is how Toncam manages its payments and whether it’s ever been caught out. On this Glen is quite clear. ‘Touch wood, excuse the pun, we’ve had no real disasters over the years. We have an accountancy package in place and have terms on our invoices.

Nevertheless, it’s frustrating when we have to chase up payments as it’s not something we really include in our estimate when pricing a job.’

Toncam does offer accounts to most of its well-established commercial clients, but Glen says much comes down to trust: ‘I think we have to be sensible with the amount of credit we offer, and we can only hope people aren’t offended when we ask for deposits or set a credit limit.’

But at the end of the day Glen fully recognises he must protect the business and those employed within it. As he says: ‘You do hear of some absolute horror stories which have put people out of business, I guess there’s an element of applying good working practice to ensure you don’t fall victim to it.’

On to the subject of those that Toncam works with, whether that is suppliers, subcontractors and staff, Glen says he’d like to think the company ‘works with anyone who shares similar ethics to ourselves’. He continues: ‘Suppliers have to protect shops to an extent, especially from the internet presence. We like to really get to know our suppliers and would class them more as production partners; by getting to know their products inside out we can offer the best experience to our own customers.’

As for his subcontractors, Glen again highlights the value of trust and working well together: ‘Everyone deserves a chance, but for longevity the mutual respect and willingness to help each other means much.’

And of his staff, Glen says Toncam has grown its team through having a personal touch. He says: ‘This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t offer future roles out there to the masses, but it’s important our team works really well together. At the end of the day, we’re all representing a business which has an image and level of service it wants to provide to its customers.’

He notes that there’s a lack of youth in the fitting side: ‘Many older guys aren’t getting younger, and it’ll be a crying shame if their skills aren’t passed on to future generations.’

An extension of the issue are standards and levels of skill in the sector. And this seems to bother Glen: ‘It’s currently a huge problem for us in the Highlands, but I’m sure it’s not exclusive to us.’

In essence, he’s found many fitters have become self-employed and so there are fewer to employ. That said, he says he’s ‘a great believer in employing for attitude as skills can always be taught’. By this he explains that ‘someone with great skills and a poor attitude will always cause problems. But there are courses which we would send the right individuals on, especially if they see a long-term future with us’.

Glen, however, offers a note of concern with this approach. And he points to modern apprenticeships in particular – ‘that companies invest a lot of time and money in people, then as soon as they are qualified, they want to set up on their own. I guess it can be a bit of an eyeopener though trying to run a successful business in the current climate’.

The state of things
Turning to the state of the flooring trade overall, it’s very apparent from the contractor profiles that CFJ has published recently that the sector is doing well. And so it makes sense when Glen says: ‘The flooring trade is relatively vibrant at present. I do believe it will always be around in some capacity… I can’t see how modern technology will ever remove the need for floor coverings, but I may be wrong.’

Brexit may be done-and-dusted, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still a concern for some. In fact, in Glen’s view: ‘Brexit has been a disaster if I’m brutally honest. For it to fall at the same time as the Covid-19 pandemic – you honestly couldn’t make it up. It was hard enough with the uncertainty of that, let alone Brexit being thrown into the mix.’

From his standpoint, he’s seen an increase in costs especially where imports are concerned. He states what is patently obvious: ‘These costs can’t be swallowed so unfortunately it means higher prices for consumers. Further, there is a shortage of various raw materials which not only has increased costs but also lead times on products.’

He says Toncam has faced at least three or four price increases already since Brexit. Further, the uncertainly of working with certain suppliers has affected the business.

Worryingly, the company had built up some solid relationships which Glen says are just no longer sustainable owing to various Brexit-related factors. This means the company spends more, and expends time, energy and money finding replacements for them – ‘it feels almost like you’re working two to three times as hard to just generate the same sort of turnover and profit as before’.

But he’s sanguine and thinks this situation ‘will eventually iron itself out as these things always do – but I’m yet to see any real benefits of Brexit if I’m being honest.’

And then there’s the impact of Covid-19 on the business, which Glen describes as being ‘huge’.
The company had to furlough staff, shut the shop, and at the same time try do what it could to survive an event that lasted longer than everyone had anticipated. As he says, ‘it’s far from over now, so the uncertainly hangs over our heads for the foreseeable future’.

Naturally, Toncam has had to follow the guidelines that have been set out, which again carries additional cost. As Glen would put it: ‘The business overall was affected on both sides and there have been long periods where we were unable to operate. And for the four shareholders this was especially difficult as our earnings are generally made up on how well the business performs.’

In summary
Glen ends by saying he’s worked for clients that he isn’t allowed to discuss, clients that are ‘absolutely amazing and inspiring’, and even the odd nightmare. However, as he says, ‘you never know what’s going on in their life, so I always like to just do our best and hope it makes a wee bit of difference to them’.

At the end of the day, Toncam loves to see clients with smiles on their faces – ‘if they’re happy – then we’re happy’.

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