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The crown prince arises

As heir apparent at A Cumberlidge, Matthew Reeves will have big shoes to fill, and a multitude of industry challenges to face. But he’s confident he’s well-placed to weather
the storms ahead.

When I meet Matthew, his father Andrew, managing director of A Cumberlidge, and Tim Vaughan, the company’s media-savvy financial director, at company headquarters in Dinnington, Tim tells me about the ‘sunset clause’ which will see him (and eventually Andrew) retire in the knowledge A Cumberlidge will be in safe hands.

‘The business has been going for a long time and like all businesses, successions come and go and A Cumberlidge is no exception,’ says Tim. At the time of Matthew’s appointment, he pointed out he was a ‘real asset’ to the business.

‘His skills as a quantity surveyor are exemplary and will benefit each and every one of our clients. He’s already taken a ‘hands-on approach’ to the position with a real focus on getting out onsite, meeting clients and forging the long-term working partnerships we value here at A Cumberlidge.’

‘I worked in main contracting with Galliford Try before entering the flooring world,’ says Matthew. ‘I know that’s the other way round from many people in this industry.’

Skills honed at a big beast like Galliford Try aren’t to be sniffed at. The company is more than a century old. The original Gulliford business was Midlands-based while WS Try was founded in southeast England in Uxbridge, about the time of World War I.

The businesses merged into a national contractor in 2000, and with the acquisition of Morrison Construction in 2004, the group became a major player in the building and infrastructure sectors across the UK, including Scotland where Morrison Construction had been operating since World War 2. ‘The projects I worked on were valued at more than £110m and included the commercial sector, quantity surveying and flooring,’ says Matthew.

The company he has joined has a rich history of its own. It was founded in 1947 by Arnold Cumberlidge, a plastering and tiling contractor in the South Yorkshire region. Today it’s a proud team of 27 operatives, specialising in contracts between £1,000 and £250,000.

‘Arnold, ostensibly, was a plastering and tiling contractor, well-known to a number of contractors. The business moved on, transformed and morphed, as industries and demands dictated,’ says Tim.

At the time, he says, housing estates such as Wimpeys and Bramhall Construction were building massive communities in the Sheffield and Rotherham areas.

‘And so, Arnold and subsequently his son Brian, were doing an awful lot of work, what you might call ‘stock work’ in the dwellings.’

The commercial side of the business morphed from there, and the soft flooring side also, as Arnold and Brian took on jobs in the various dwellings. Products such as vinyl from Polyflor would be installed in these areas as a standard specification, Tim recalls.

‘But that’s how the business grew. The steel industry was a large employer in the local area too, Brian did a lot of work for the steelworks at Stocksbridge and did work for British Coal too. It was a lot of heavy industry, the sort of work Brian and Arnold did in the ‘50s and ‘60s.’

Today, A Cumberlidge Flooring has graduated from heavy industry to commercial flooring, largely accounted for by the organisation’s adaptability in the face of fluctuations in British industry.

‘The split of the business, at this point in time, is 90% flooring, and 10% ceramics. The dynamic has changed over the past 10-15 years.’

The explanation for this is simple, Tim says: supply and demand.

‘Access to work, opportunities over the past eight-10 years, and austerity measures from local authorities. Funding in the ceramics industry has just been curtailed in this part of the world. We haven’t replaced retiring employees with new apprentices, because there’s not been the demand on that side!’

Despite the relative decline in ceramics and other areas, A Cumberlidge’s Flooring’s commercial installation business has gone from strength-to-strength. Perhaps owing to the company’s history in heavy industry, its focus now is almost entirely on contract flooring.
‘We’re not domestically orientated,’ Tim says: ‘It’s a different kind of animal. Very rarely do we get involved in residential properties.’

He suggests A Cumberlidge Flooring would only get involved in residential installations as a bespoke event, which would tend to come through from one of its commercial clients who the company would be doing a favour, as a one-off.

‘Commercial is what we know. The market isn’t as crowded. Residential properties tend to be a little bit simpler. It’s not something we’ve ever chased down. We’ve always had a client-base in commercial, and our client-base is growing.

‘In turn, if they grow, we grow with them because we don’t lose clients. We like to think we retain clients, and if they get busy we get busy.’ Tim says A Cumberlidge has no desire to ‘chase the dragon’.

‘We’re small, perfectly formed, and we like it this way. We know our client base, we’re loyal to them and they’re in turn loyal to us. We’ve got a good team of personable, knowledgeable and attentive employees and staff.’

O, what’s the state of the company Matthew is due to inherit? Pretty good, overall. But when I meet up with the A Cumberlidge management team in Dinnington, Covid-19 is still a factor, although by this point, it’s beginning to lose its stranglehold over the country – and the world.

One month before the pandemic took hold, Matthew had returned from a cricket tour in South Africa, where he’d spent a week in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and nine days in the country overall. It was, he says, one of his best-ever experiences. ‘I could easily have stayed another nine days.’

But once he got home, events soon overtook him – and everybody else. Says Andrew: ‘We had six subcontractors when PM Boris Johnson made the lockdown announcement and, yes, we were working on significant contracts at the time.

‘We wanted to continue working on the hospitals so we got the lads in and explained the situation around lockdown, furlough, social distancing and the other aspects of life which constituted our ‘new normal’.

‘One of the biggest projects we were working on was a self-contained unit at a hospital where A Cumberlidge was completing the hygienic cladding wall. At that time it was a big enough building that we could put all our lads in and not be compromised by having too many men. Meanwhile, we were getting emails and letters from hospitals asking us to continue our work with them. Yes it was scary – we didn’t know how long it would last.’

The team gave themselves until Easter to see how the situation would pan out. Andrew continues: ‘Three weeks before Easter, we suddenly found work was coming in, particularly from the NHS. We placed four members of staff on furlough for three weeks so, in effect, we never stopped working.’ Around this time, Andrew visited a hospital where medical record rooms were being converted into temporary wards.

‘There was a roadblock at the end of the parkway and the police were stopping everyone,’ he says. ‘But fortunately I had an NHS pass. It was surreal.’

Tim points out Covid-19 hasn’t affected the business as badly as it might have as it carries out regular risk assessments. ‘The nature of the work we do means we were well-placed to ensure Covid-19 had minimal impact on our business. Plus there was the fact the chaps weren’t working at close quarters with others.’

As for those who weren’t furloughed, Tim said he had to be sensitive to the perception they were having to work hard while it seemed much of the rest of the country was on a fully paid-up extended holiday.

‘We got together and I told them we know its sunny outside and your mates are enjoying themselves and you feel ‘woe is me’ for having to work but at the end of the day if you can soldier through the next six to eight to 10 weeks, your head is going to be in a far better place.

‘At that time we thought lockdown – and Covid-19 itself – might last three, six or at most eight months; nobody had a real idea. We never thought it would still be going on but here we are, more than a year later, still talking about it.’

Tim points out that while Covid-19 is ‘a serious thing’, A Cumberlidge didn’t allow itself to be defined by the virus. ‘We felt we had the risk assessment in place and we made sure not to compromise people – ourselves and our clients.

‘And sometimes, from a personal point-of-view, it feels like other people aren’t doing the same thing – even now. We know we’ve been touched by it, having to isolate etc. In some respects because of what we do, we have an advantage, as we were jabbed early – in January this year – because of being key workers.’

Covid-19 meant many hospitals such as Rotherham, Sheffield, and Doncaster, had to remodel their entrances so they didn’t compromise their patients. ‘For many clients, the workload was going crazy so over Easter we were refurbishing theatres and the Doncaster infirmary.’

Andrew provides insight into what those times were like: ‘Some building firms we were working for closed down – just like that. Nonetheless, over Easter we found ourselves working on temporary ramps in Rotherham so patients coming into the hospital could be diverted into two different directions: those with Covid-19 in one direction and those with other illnesses in the other. The backdrop to this was that other NHS jobs were still coming in fast and furiously. Many were asking whether we could ‘visit today and have the job done tomorrow’.’

One of the biggest advantages through the initial stages of lockdown was caused by distributors closing up shop which meant contractors such as A Cumberlidge could get materials direct. ‘For instance, we only got to know about the Good Friday job on the Wednesday before. We organised it on Thursday and asked Polyflor to pick up the vinyl on Thursday afternoon so we could start it on Friday and complete it on Easter Monday.’

Tim says the way A Cumberlidge has changed its business style and its client base means many customers have come to expect such a rapid turnaround. ‘They know they can ring at 5pm on Friday and have the work done on a weekend so they’re up-and-running on Monday morning.

‘That, however, places us in danger of being a victim of our own success because there’s an expectation about it.’

However, Tim adds, it’s this rapid-fire response, sensitivity to price as well as quality and assurance and a focus on the local area that makes A Cumberlidge so successful.

HERE Covid-19 did cause an unexpected hurdle for A Cumberlidge was in the fact Tim was in the early stages of taking a backseat so Matthew could grow into his role. ‘But that minor issue wasn’t nearly as bad as the one caused by the 2008 financial crisis,’ says Tim. ‘The austerity measures made life really difficult for us; there weren’t any capital projects for us to work on.’

And anyway, Tim knows one problem Matthew definitely won’t be having is a lack of experienced personnel to guide him through the months and years ahead.

‘Most of our lads have been around for what seems like forever – they get carried out in a box. One guy started here when he left school. He left for a time to be self-employed but eventually returned to us.’

Apprenticeship schemes are a A Cumberlidge speciality, and the company has had one in place for 30 years. ‘We took on two apprentices last year and two guys four years ago,’ Tim explains. ‘We try to grow them organically but it can get tricky because of other contractors trying to poach young skilled floorlayers.’

Seven of the current staff are apprentices, aged between 16-22. ‘As an organisation, we used to throw the net out extensively which means we got applications from Derby, Stoke or Wakefield,’ says Tim. ‘But then we were faced with the problem that the apprentices couldn’t make it to Dinnington by 7.30am. So we had to change the way we did things.’

To make the scheme work for them, A Cumberlidge – as a member of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) – approached a local comprehensive school, only a mile-and-a-half from the company’s offices.

‘The kids tend to come from a catchment area within three miles of the school,’ says Tim. ‘That means once they’ve gone to college in Liverpool, they return home which is within spitting distance of their workplace. Then it’s up to us to nurture them.’

Tim has never shied away from holding politicians to account when it comes to improving conditions for local businesses. In May 2019, he invited Lee Rowley, MP for northeast Derbyshire, to A Cumberlidge offices for a wide-ranging discussion that encompassed ideas for improving regional business opportunities, HS2, a new home for parliament and last (but not least) Brexit.

‘I think it’s extremely beneficial for politicians to visit local businesses such as A Cumberlidge to talk about what’s happening in government and how it directly affects us on a variety of levels,’ says Tim.

He said at the time: ‘We talked about how many businesses in the Midlands and north of the country feel ‘ignored and let down’ by those in power in Westminster. It’s abundantly clear the north-south divide has only been exacerbated by Brexit. The fact is, however, there are thousands of regional businesses that are thriving in spite of this ongoing political distraction. It’s been business as usual here, irrespective of our own personal opinions on whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU.

‘We’re one of those companies that’s thriving but as is often the case, we could be doing even better if educational and healthcare spending were to be increased, a specific point we raised with Lee. We also presented our proposal for gifting Westminster Palace to English Heritage (think of the tourism revenues!) and relocating parliament to the Dearne Valley. That would certainly shake the political system up!’

These are the sort of issues Matthew will be tasked with when he takes over, but it’s clear from his calm demeanour and comfort with the subject matter that he’s bullish about his prospects. The flooring world is one he has taken to like a fish to water.

‘This weekend we’re working on a hospital project where the floor has perished, the subfloor has completely deteriorated,’ he says. ‘There’ll be outpatients and busy corridors, and we’re getting it done at the weekend so it’s up-and-running for Monday morning. It’s all go; the hospital can’t afford to come in on Monday and for it not to be done.

Before my visit, Matthew tells me A Cumberlidge had just completed an installation at the A&E in Doncaster infirmary. It took the floorlaying team nine visits, all out-of-hours, to ensure the job was done. ‘The A&E had to be open at all times so we had to do it in sections,’ Matthew explains.

This was even trickier than it sounds. For instance there was a medical cabinet in one of the sections which needed to be accessible at all times and which couldn’t be moved. ‘We ended up using rapid drying screed,’ says Matthew.

Andrew adds: ‘We had to start some sections at 3am. The layout is open-plan but we partitioned it up as there were patients there. Tarpaulin separated us from the patients, and that in itself created complications. We try not to use contact adhesive anyway but in that case we definitely couldn’t so there was Bostik Roll tape everywhere.’

But it all worked out well in the end. ‘I’m going to blow our trumpet,’ says Matthew, ‘and say the end result is fantastic!’

In Tim’s opinion, one of the most important things Matthew brings to A Cumberlidge is an outstanding grasp of contracts which, on big projects, can be extraordinarily complex. If anyone tries to get one over on A Cumberlidge, Tim adds, they’ll come unstuck with Matthew.

As the heir apparent establishes his grip on A Cumberlidge and the flooring industry, he may be a force to be reckoned with. That suits Tim perfectly. As he says with a smile, ‘I’ll be able to ride off into the sunset, knowing the company has been left in the best possible hands.’

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