You get plain speaking at Williams & Co. And that’s what its plumber and heating engineer customers like. That, and the best products, at the best prices, backed by the best service, managing director Ray Stafford explains to Tim Wickham.
Independent and proud to be different is how the company describes itself and that comes through loud and clear from Ray Stafford. The company was founded by Mick Williams in 1972. His father, Harry, was a local plumbing contractor and following a car accident in 1971 was unable to drive. Mick Williams left his job to help his dad out by collecting materials from merchants. The experience convinced him that he could do a better job of supplying materials than other merchants.
The company gradually built up a network of outlets across the region. It has averaged 20% annual compound growth every year since 2000, except during the recession in 2009. It grew from 215 staff and £64.3m annual turnover in November 2016 to over 250 staff and £73.1 million turnover in the year to November 2017.
In 2015, Stafford and Mick William’s daughter Rachel Moore, director of business improvement, led a management buy out. “Mick didn’t want to sell to an outsider who might change the company ethos or reduce headcount – many of our staff are long servers,” said Stafford.
Williams & Co: No 49
Other than its directors, around half the employees own 15% of the company. “Staff remortgaged their houses, cashed in endowment policies and used their savings. They are linking their financial futures to the business. That’s why we’re proud to be independently owned and will try very hard never to become too corporate,” said Stafford, who arrived at the company in 1986 after Mick Williams replied to his advert in a local newspaper ‘situations vacant’ column.
“In the advert I said I was young and hard working. At the time, Mick was looking for another pair of hands to help him out. I worked in the office and warehouse in Fareham and drove the van. In 1990, I helped open our third branch in Petersfield.”
Stafford’s job titles have taken him from general manager, branch manager, and commercial director to managing director. Further outlets were opened, until the company reached the point where it couldn’t be operated mainly by family members and friends. In 2000, with staff of around 40, Mick Williams, Moore and Stafford sat down and decided whether to just keep going doing the same thing, or take a more ambitious step to scale up.
“We decided it wasn’t possible to configure the business to profitably serve both trade and retail. So we became trade only,” said Stafford.
That meant overnight losing 18% of the company’s £3m annual turnover. But rather than the anticipated couple of years to regain lost revenue it took just 10 weeks. “We underestimated the power of the ‘trade only’ sign and the loyalty of the customers we kept,” Stafford explained.
Williams & Co also dropped many of its larger, higher maintenance, low-margin trade customers. “They usually demand 90-day payment terms and don’t show much loyalty,” said Stafford. “We also removed all tiers of discounts to have a single price list for all customers. It cuts out the need for lots of salespeople
and administrators trying to negotiate deals, manage prices, then sort out the inevitable invoicing and discount queries.”
On the wall of Stafford’s office is a map of Great Britain with 33 pins clustered around the south showing its outlets. The company targets towns with populations over 100,000, high owner occupation, and not within a 20-minute rush-hour drive of each other. There are also white pins in Manchester and Milton Keynes. “These are our next geographic targets. We’ll open an initial outlet and expand as we establish the brand’s reputation – like waves created by a pebble in a pond,” said Stafford.