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A whole new ball game

While controversy rages about the skills crisis in the flooring industry, some manufacturers are quietly doing their best to ensure the next generation of floorlayers is upskilled.

ON a sunny early November day, I drive up to Staffordshire at the invitation of F Ball and Co, to get more insight into exactly how the manufacturer is upskilling floorlayers. As it happens, nine people from as far afield as Cornwall and Carlisle are taking part in a two-day course at F Ball’s centre of excellence in Cheddleton; this particular course is specialising in using adhesives with luxury vinyl tiles (LVT), although courses on many other facets of flooring are also offered.

The biggest surprise in terms of the number of attendees is that flooring companies which say they’ve never been busier can afford to send their floorlayers away from site for a few days. Perhaps the credit ought to be laid, as sales director Darren Kenyon points out in our interview (see following article), with the company’s marketing and technical teams.

As I walk through the doors of the centre, I’m faced with nine F Ball ‘goodie bags’ lined up against a wall. It looks as though Christmas has come early – the only thing missing is the tinsel and Christmas tree. Each bag contains a digital hygrometer (which from a local distributor would cost about £120); a mixing bucket to mix smoothing underlayments; a measuring bucket; a rucksack; a tube of Stycco Flex, a rapid-curing flexible adhesive with gap-filling properties; and a sample of F Ball’s new Stopgap Micro Rapid floor finishing compound.

The value of the goodie bag is about £200, and the course includes a factory tour so participants can see how F Ball products are manufactured.

Also present at the course I attended was the affable Lee Crofts, F Ball’s technical representative for South Wales and the West and his colleagues from
F Ball’s technical service department, Steve Boulton and Jason Tatton.

Lee often accompanies his customers when they visit the F Ball Centre of Excellence for training. Steve Boulton who’s been with the company for 40-odd years, and members of the technical service team run the training courses, imparting their knowledge and experience.
Course participants benefit from a mix of practical work and presentations during the courses. ‘We run through the systems and the products we manufacture and demonstrate their use and we give them an opportunity to get stuck in and have-a-go themselves.’

Lee has worked for F Ball for 13 years – time’s flown, he says – and he finds every day to be different. He was previously a technical rep for Polyflor but when the opportunity at F Ball came up, he decided he’d accept it as he wanted to be more ‘technically involved onsite’.
At the time of our interview, Lee had already travelled to Cheddleton three times in the previous month.

‘During the lockdowns, we have taken the opportunity to make huge improvements to our training facility,’ says Lee. ‘We’ve placed the seating area in the actual facility whereas previously we’d have to go from the hands-on demo area to the lecture theatre. We wanted to improve the experience because not many fitters enjoy sitting down and taking copious notes. It’s a fantastic facility. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback. The floorlayers get to play with products they may not necessarily use on a daily basis and that’ll help them on future projects.’

HAVE an opportunity during the course – at lunch and tea-breaks – to speak to most of the men in question including Adam Jay and Richard Morgan, both of whom work for themselves; Fraser Simpson, representing Carpet Waste Carlisle; Paul Richmond and Greg Gavan from Floor Depot in Chesterfield; and Paul Gray and James Hepples from Bodmin Flooring in Cornwall.

Adam Jay is on the course as he’s looking to expand his LVT knowledge after dealing with tile and stone floors for many years. Like many in flooring, Adam didn’t start off in the sector.

‘I used to be involved in horseracing where I did base riding (involving long, steady rides intended to build aerobic fitness and provide the foundation on which to build form through the rest of the season) and exercised the horses. Going from that to tiling was obviously a big change which was triggered when I bought my own house and started doing the tiling.
‘I then worked for a couple of builders doing tiling but was drawn into LVT by my brother’s kitchen company which is why I’m expanding my experience in that area.’

Adam says he’s found the course ‘very good, welcoming and a joy to be on’. ‘I’m also looking at the retail sector as I have a shop and sell Karndean products; I want to supply materials and train up my own fitters. I’m a little way off that yet but that’s the game plan.’
Richard Morgan has opted to do the course to expand his knowledge of LVT ‘which is a wide market’. Working for himself in the Peterborough-Fenland area, he did his apprenticeship in the ‘80s, working mostly with carpet, later vinyl and occasionally LVT. ‘I took part in the Karndean course several years ago but I didn’t end up doing much with it. Now I’m 55, I thought it would be a good time to zone in on one company’s products.’

Richard says the advantage of sticking to one company – in this case F Ball – is that you can work out which product in a range works best for you ‘as long as you’re using the adhesive the way it’s been recommended. F Ball is the pioneer I’ve stuck with. It gives me extra cover and, of course, I use the Recommended Adhesives Guide (RAG)’.

The RAG is described by F Ball as the industry-acclaimed guide listing the compatibility of the company’s adhesives with more than 6,000 branded floorcoverings from over 200 international manufacturers. In addition to an A5 printed book, a constantly updated version of the guide is available on the F Ball website, and as a mobile app, which is free to download from the Apple App store or Google Play.

No classroom is complete without its card, and in this case it’s Fraser Simpson, the subcontractor from Carlisle. When I ask him what his business is called, he says: ‘Floor King. Why? Because I’m not just good – I’m Floor King good!’

Fair enough. Nobody’s ever accused floorlayers of lacking a sense of humour.

Fraser has been laying floors for more than a decade; he was working for a carpet fitter who decided to call it a day, leading to Fraser taking over the contract with Carpet Waste Carlisle. He works on laminate and click LVT installations but says he hasn’t ‘dabbled in glue-down LVTs yet’.

‘I really enjoy working with laminates which many floorlayers don’t,’ he says. ‘You get guys who won’t even touch it, then you get joiners who think they can fit it but end up botching it.’ Fraser’s proclivity for laminate leads to him being ‘inundated with work with Carpet Waste’.

‘At the Carlisle shop there are five or six self-employed fitters, most of whom do the carpets and vinyl. A couple of lads do the stick-down LVTs and the screeds, which is why my manager sent me on this course. I’ve been going on jobs with uneven floors which means I have to wait for these lads to come along and level it for me. Now, after this course, I can go back and price an installation myself, dealing directly with the customer, and tie things up there and then.’

Fraser awards the course 10/10. ‘There’s a lot to take in especially when you consider how many products F Ball do. But it’s been great – they’ve given us a chart which we can take away as reference. That will be a big time-saver as I’d probably have been constantly forced back onto the website until I got up to speed.’

Overall, Fraser says he’s very happy with what he’s learned. ‘The skills I’ve picked up will take me to the next level and I’m obviously going to earn more money on the basis of this course.’

AUL Richmond, contract manager at Floor Depot in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, and three colleagues have attended the course ‘to see what was available on the market. It’s been very interesting. The F Ball guys are knowledgeable, the atmosphere is relaxed rather than strict and I’ve found it helpful. Phil Nightingale, our F Ball rep, told us about this course which is why we came down to pick up any info we can’.

Paul, who’s spent 13 years in the industry, 10 of them as a floorlayer, says he’s particularly worried about the lack of apprentices in the industry. ‘What we’re finding is that people from other backgrounds are moving into the trade. For example, I was an electrician and moved into it so that’s how I’ve ended up here.’

And why did he choose flooring over electrical work? ‘Because nobody walks into a room and says, ‘Wow, that socket looks stunning!’. But if you do a good job on an LVT floor…’
Floor Depot started 13 years ago by Tim Sedgwick as a small, family business, selling roll-ends of vinyl and carpet, and is now the leading independent retailer in Chesterfield. Its main source of work is Moduleo and Karndean LVTs.

‘We worked during the pandemic doing the sort of jobs we were allowed to do,’ says Paul. ‘But obviously nobody went away and spent money and instead wanted to spend it on upgrading their properties. The result is that we’re ridiculously busy.’

Paul’s colleague Greg Gavan says: ‘I’ve been on a similar course, but what I like about this one is that it’s a mixture of hands-on and theory, so it’s a good balance.’

Having left home on the Sunday before the course, the final pair of floorlayers – Paul Gray and James Hepples of Bodmin Flooring – have driven 283 miles to get to Cheddleton from Bodmin, Cornwall.

Bodmin Flooring, which describes itself as Cornwall’s premier flooring company, was established by Colin Woolley in 1985. Throughout its three decades of trading it’s evolved and now employs more than 20 people, including Colin’s son, Dave.

‘We can proudly boast 10 teams of fully qualified, experienced fitters who hold CSCS cards and have been CRB checked, along with a friendly knowledgeable sales team second to none,’ the company says on its website. ‘We provide a complete service offering a vast selection of flooring with products to suit every price range, from carpets, vinyl, LVT (Amtico and Karndean), engineered woods, laminates and natural floorcoverings.

Says James: ‘I believe F Ball contacted our company’s admin lady and we were offered the opportunity to go on the course. We said yes, absolutely – and it was a good call because it’s been well worth it. There are definitely things we’ll be reporting back to our boss as we use different products. If this course has shown me anything it’s that using F Ball products, particularly the Fast Track range, would be beneficial.’

Stopgap Fast-Track 30 is described by F Ball as a rapid-setting, rapid-drying, self-levelling smoothing underlayment that incorporates the latest advances in cement technology providing ‘a truly fast track solution’. The company says it’s suitable for use in light to heavy-duty applications for preparing sound absorbent and non-absorbent subfloors prior to the installation of new floorcoverings.

James finds this especially useful because ‘we often fit upstairs bathrooms which we could do with getting into quickly, having a screed done and dried off and fitted in one day. Or it could be helpful in a hallway to avoid a situation where, for instance, an old-age pensioner may be unable to move from her bedroom to her kitchen while the screed dries’.

‘We never knew about many of these
F Ball products before the course so it’s helpful,’ adds Paul, who joined Bodmin Flooring nearly five years ago when he was 24. Like many others in flooring, Paul has a family member in the industry – his uncle who was a floorlayer until his knees gave him some trouble and he turned to estimating at Bodmin Flooring.

‘On the whole,’ says Paul, ‘the course has given me a lot of extra knowledge.’

Paul fits LVT tiles ‘so I’m more on the hard flooring spectrum while James specialises in carpet and LVT’. For his part, James was in the army for four years before joining Bodmin Flooring because one of the fitters was leaving, creating a vacancy. Like Paul, James has a familial connection to flooring – his brother also works for the company. ‘We’re a close-knit group and a nice company to work for.’

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