Secrets Of Success: Entrepreneur of Year, Colin Stevens, CEO, Better Bathrooms

When Colin Stevens washed away the competition at last year’s National Business Awards, Business Matters Managing Editor and NBA judge Richard Alvin commented that here was a true entrepreneurial success story. Here Stevens’ tells us some of the secrets to that success.

What is your start-up story?

At the age of 17 I began pursuing my professional golfing dream, selling golf equipment on eBay to help fund this aspiring career. After four years of hard work it finally dawned that I wasn’t going to beat the likes of Nick Faldo, so turned my attention to making money.

After dabbling successfully in online sales, it was my mum who suggested selling bathroom equipment online. She was working in the bathroom industry at the time and realised the potential of the web, recognising that if people bought golf equipment then why not bathroom fittings?

After laughing this off initially, with bathroom retailers relying on store footfall at the time, I decided to take the plunge and list my first set of taps on eBay. Within 24 hours they had sold, which lead to investing in more bathroom fixtures and fittings.

What is your turnover, employee numbers etc compared to previous years?

We’ve such an impressive financial record over the past 12 years, with phenomenal business growth year on year; something which helped us achieve the 33rd spot on The Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 2012, with a near 93 per cent increase in financial growth between 2007-12. Our last recorded turnover was £32M in March 2012, with us on track to surpass this figure even further.

I started back in 2001 as the sole employee, with just a small pot of cash I’d built up from selling golf equipment. Trading out of my bedroom in Wigan seems a distant memory compared to our current staff levels which are now close to reaching 200. The past three years have seen the largest growth increase, with 54 employees in 2010, 104 in ’11 and 182 at ’12.

What products or services do you provide?

As the UK’s largest independent retailer of bathrooms and tiles we strive to be a one stop shop, offering a variety of fixtures and fittings from bathroom suites to tiles, grout to taps.

Despite our stores being based solely in the North West, our online store reaches a nationwide audience with delivery throughout the UK and Ireland.

What problem does your company solve?

We pride ourselves in delivering exactly what our company motto states, ‘Better Service, Better Prices, Better Bathrooms’. With customer satisfaction placed at the heart of our company means our entire business model is built to achieve a top class service, with the best quality products and the best value prices.

We also invest heavily in our customer service, training our staff in a customer focused approach rather than pushy sales, to ensure customers find the bathroom they need without the pressured selling.

In buying direct and in bulk from the manufacturer helps to eliminate the middle man and keep prices at their most competitive, meaning any homeowner can afford a touch of luxury.

What is your USP?

Taking market share from competitor failings helps up to continue growing and evolving as a business. Analysing the industry helps us to identify improvement areas, with many retailers previously offering 30 days delivery as standard. From here we increased stock holding, which now rests at £15M, enabling us to offer next day delivery on the majority of our range. Pricing and service is still our USP, ensuring we remain the best value within our industry.

We also take inspiration from outside our industry, which helps to look outside the box and see potential growth areas. Taking successful ideas from retail giants like ASDA and Tesco, both of which operate 24 hour openings, we decided to extend our own opening times.

Despite not seeing the logic in our stores being open 24 hours, simply changing our closing time from the traditional 6pm to 10pm on weekdays gives customers more freedom to shop and contact the team around their schedule, something which many of our competitors have since followed suit.

Any thoughts on the future of your company?

We want to continue driving growth and innovation within the business. Our online store, offers a nationwide customer reach; however our physical showrooms are solely based within the North West, in Manchester, Warrington and Wigan.

To help match our wide reach and success online we’ve an aggressive growth plan in place to branch out stores nationwide and give customers throughout the UK and Ireland both in store and online shopping experiences.

On the back of this, we’ll in turn increase our turnover and also our current staffing levels. We also aim to continue personalising the online shopping experience, by giving customers exactly what they need.

What have you done to make sure you get the right people with the right skills in place?

Bar our Manchester Store, we’re predominately based outside the major cities therefore we strive to invest in local talent from the surrounding areas. We have a large budget set aside each year for staff development, which is available for all employees at various levels.

This training takes place around the globe, as I believe that to be the best you must learn from the best, even if this means flying the team around the world. With Walt Disney one of my inspirational entrepreneurs, we recently flew in leadership guru, Lee Cockerell, former Vice President of Operation at Walt Disney World Resort. His two day seminar inspired the Better Bathrooms team and taught essential skills in creating a world class leadership team.

Do you have any tips for managing suppliers and customers effectively?

Make sure you set out on the right foot with suppliers and the terms are agreed up front, this way everyone knows where they stand. Also ensure that the partnership agreement is in black and white to ensure there are no issues down the line.

When it comes to customers, for us it’s all about reviews. We ask every customer to review their experience with us and from this feedback we can continue improving the business. The only way you can manage customers is to ensure that we adhere to their expectations. Many individuals want a no fuss purchase, and simple resolving of issues if they are to arise, therefore providing an efficient and quality service is crucial.

Any finance and cash-flow tips?

I definitely advise paying someone else to manage the cash flow, that way you can concentrate on the business. I try not to worry too much about the cash as it’s simply a numbers game, therefore I’m lucky to have the information provided to me by others.

If you’re involved in a retail business like ours then you are lucky to have payments made up front, making the cash flow easier, therefore the better your business is, the quicker you can generate cash to grow. Be sure to agree on extended credit terms up front with suppliers e.g. 30, 60 and 90 days to prevent any problems.

Any advice for the Government?

I’d like to ask why they aren’t generating more government funded projects like an advertising scheme where the profits made are used to pay off the deficit. Then at a later date, this could be sold to a private company going from nationalisation to privatisation, very similar to the Rail for example which was a huge success.

The selling of the company only helped generate more profit to reduce deficit and in turn increased the levels of service in which a business then began making huge revenue.

What is your attitude towards your competitors?

I don’t tend to worry about them too much, yet you can’t ignore them as they’ll always be there. They do what they do like Wirral Bathrooms and I do what I do. However I will say that I do keep an eye on them every once in a while, as we try to move faster and act quicker than the competition, as I strongly believe in being their fast, launching fast and fixing quickly.