Mark Grant, managing director of Cold Control, is not a quitter.
Perhaps more to the point, his staff believe in him and what he is trying to do. Above all, he is honest with clients and staff and it pays dividends. Paul Braithwaite reports.
MARK Grant, managing director of air conditioning and refrigeration specialist Cold Control, has built up a company through employing the right people, strong training initiatives and focusing on customer service.
Nevertheless, he understands why virtually three out of the five apprentices who join his company don't make it through to the second year. He remembers when he was an apprentice.
'While my friends who worked in a factory were out enjoying themselves I was at home studying for college the next day and anyway I didn't have enough money to go out with them,' he says. 'I nearly gave it up.'
That was probably the last time Mark considered giving up working in the industry.
In 1998, Mark and former partner decided to split the business they had started together.Mark says the split left him with most of the staff and little of the business. Mark refinanced - and started the business again.
But it must have taken a lot of bottle to keep the existing staff when there was little or no work. 'If the people who worked for me had been less committed, I might have considered laying them off.'
Mark adds the belief went both ways.
'They had confidence in my ability to rebuild the business.'
Nevertheless, some 60% of the business was lost while Mark retained 70% of the former staff plus premises and vans.
He adds that with a team so committed, it was not long before the work started to flow in again. 'It took about five months before we could stop using the extended overdraft facility.'
The quick turnaround was also helped by a contract with the Seattle Coffee Company (later to become Starbucks) to refit its shops which then turned into new installation work as Seattle expanded.
'Throughout 1999, we were installing air conditioning in up to 10 shops a week.' Mark adds that it enabled Cold Control to get back on its feet but he was always conscious not to put all his eggs in one basket:
'Since restarting the business, I have always said that no one customer should represent more than 20% of our work.'
Trust is paramount in business relationships. Mark says that any client has got to trust you. For instance, Cold Control works for many nationwide contracts who know they can trust Cold Control. Cold Control engineers will honestly recommend whether to refurb a unit or replace it.
'As with many trades, there is the opportunity to take advantage of a customer's trust.' But, Mark adds, 'there is no mileage in doing this because they will eventually find out and you will be off the job - with your reputation damaged.' In fact Mark would go so far as to say that it doesn't matter how good an engineer you are, it is the trust the client has in you that matters.
He admits: 'When I was on the tools and I could not find the fault I would tell the customer that I would have to telephone the manufacturer and discuss it with them. Then the client knew what was happening - and that you trusted him with the knowledge that you were seeking technical advice'.
He adds: 'Being confident enough to communicate with the customer honestly is better than being the best engineer in the world but unable to talk to the clients,' he adds.
The service manager, Paul Icough has a critical role. Paul has the difficult job of sending the right man to the right job. He would not send an engineer who could not communicate to a client who needed to have a fault explained.
Mark chooses team players when employing staff.
'If a person fits into a team and is happy at work, then he or she will work harder than someone who is just there to earn a wage.'
Mark says he likes to think of the company as a family - 'I am a godfather to several of my staff's children' - and endeavours to talk to all staff at least once a week, whether it be listening to John's (the cleaner) rubbish jokes, calling the accounts person Mum because she is 'slightly older than me' or telephoning the engineers who work from home and having a chat. 'There are people who bathe in the glory of being the managing director of a company but I cannot do my job without the co-operation of every single one of the staff.'
Mark's opinions were formed early on.
'As an apprentice, I thought of changing my name to 'Nipper' because that's what everyone called me. I hated it.' Which is probably why he has sympathy with apprentices who leave early.
'I am a firm believer in the need to train up the next generation. These youngster are our future.' However, Mark says unfortunately youngsters these days 'come with an attitude that we owe them a living', and they 'do not have any communications skills - or confidence'! Nevertheless, Cold Control takes on five apprentices a year but, on average, three leave within the first year. Furthermore,
Mark has issues with college training.
'The youngsters we take on are not necessarily academic. They are the skilled practical ones. Yet they have to pass a number of written exams, even those who struggle to read and write well.
'But isn't this lack of reading and writing skills one of the reasons they do not go on to further education?'
He suggests there has to be a better way to teach what is, in fact, a
Mark practices what he preaches. He has put in place a young management team to take over when he retires which is, he suggests, not too far away now.
Mark's son, Lee, is one of the management team along with Rebecca Vincent who is sales manager. Another management member is Paul Icough who manages the small works project team.
Colin Harris has the enviable task of general manager liasing with all department managers.
Mark says he is not naive enough to think the air conditioning installer can stand still. Hence, Cold Control has employed a PR company to raise its profile and to modernise the logo (and hence the image). Cold Control also exhibited at the recent Homebuilder and Renovating show to explain about domestic air conditioning and refrigeration to the public.
Part of the problem for the building services industry as a whole is that it is not 'sexy'. It is not top-of-mind for young people who want a career as opposed to 'just a job'. 'But who else can work in the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace or Clarence House, or for Norman Read, the local butcher?'
What has Norman Read got to do with it?
'The butcher is just down the road and we have recently installed air conditioning, all the new refrigeration equipment in his shop as well as the new cold rooms in the prep area,' laughs Mark.
Cold Control does not just specialise in the commercial industry, the domestic market is set to expand, he insists. 'People come out of air conditioned offices and get into air conditioned cars, so why not air conditioned homes?'
This year, the company has nearly tipped into double figure net profits for the first time. 'This is down to a lean management team and committed staff.' The strategy was to move forward and work only for the clients they wanted.
A couple of years ago, a big construction company went bust and, although a sub-sub contractor, Cold Control didn't get any of the £132,000 it was owed. In the same year another builder went bust and the company lost another £54,000. This meant another loan for Mark but once it had been paid off, Cold Control still had to pay for the equipment already delivered to site, staff time and the associated materials.
Today, the company turned over £5million in its last financial year - 'all but £3' - says Mark. ('If I had known earlier, I would have put the £3 in out of my own pocket,' says Mark).
And he would like turnover to expand at about 10% every year -with profits rising to match.
Obviously, the £3 shortfall rankled.
Turnover and profit have increased year on year and Mark intends this to continue.
Repeat business represents at least 60% of our business.
But no one company is valued more than another as far as Cold Control is concerned - and that includes the local butcher.
'Every customer is important and every customer deserves equal respect.'