Inside an award-winning installation company
Many may have been surprised when Worthing KBB retailer Alexander won our Installation Company of the Year award. But while Alexander is the retail face of the business, separate company Masterfit does all of its fitting. Chris Frankland talks to Alexander MD Phil Beechinor (right) and Masterfit installation manager Warwick Hockley.
‘Chuffed to bits’ was how Alexander managing director Phil Beechinor described his feelings on winning the title of Installation Company of the Year at the kbbreview Retail & Design Awards 2022.
“For me personally, that is what I set out in life to do – to set up an installation company,” he explains. “I set out originally in 1985 to be a kitchen fitter and worked for Paula Rosa, then set up Masterfit. So finally to get recognition for what I set out to do, I was chuffed to bits. I was really proud. And my thanks go to Warwick [Hockley], who runs it. He has been the man at the top of Masterfit for the past 20 years.”
As he says above, Beechinor had always wanted to be a kitchen fitter and after a spell doing fits for Paula Rosa he set up his own business primarily installing kitchens for various local retailers and later bathrooms, when Alexander started doing bathrooms around five years ago.
As his fitting business evolved and grew, and he was doing more and more work for Alexander, he decided to set up the Masterfit installation company in partnership with Alexander founder Terry Linkhorn.
Beechinor recalls: “In the old days, retailers would pay fitters direct and no one was making any money on installations. But they still had to deal with all the problems.
“And no one ever wanted to go back for a remedial as it should have been right in the first place and by that time the subcontractors would be off to another job.”
As business grew for Alexander and Masterfit, Beechinor found himself getting more involved with Alexander and by 2000 Linkhorn, then aged 70, was becoming less involved with Alexander on a day-to-day basis, and so Beechinor stepped in as MD, and appointed Warwick Hockley to fill his shoes at Masterfit.
Beechinor remembers: “Warwick [Hockley] was already an integral part of the business, looking after the warehousing and delivery.
“He had done some sales and took over Masterfit at quite a young age for such as senior position, bearing in mind he was dealing with older, experienced fitters.”
Hockley takes up the story: “I have been part of Masterfit and Alexander now for around 29 years. In 1994, I started to work for Terry at Alexander. At 15, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and my first role at Alexander was in the accounts office, while also studying for my NVQ qualifications. I then did some work in the warehouse, on deliveries and in the showroom. Then Phil set up Masterfit, which was originally going to do installations for several companies in the area. But as Alexander grew and grew, it was decided that Masterfit would be an exclusive installer for Alexander.
“So when Phil needed to fill Terry’s shoes, I had to step into Phil’s.
“Masterfit is Alexander’s sister company, run completely financially separately, but so far as the customer is concerned, it is all one business. Masterfit only fits kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms for Alexander.”
Masterfit is of course a key part of the Alexander business, but so far as the customer is concerned, it operates seamlessly as one entity. Masterfit takes care of all aspects of customer care. If there is any warranty work or problems with appliances, Masterfit handles that too.
Hockley explains: “We have always believed that customer service is important – as much after as during the sale. As the business grew, we needed to create full-time customer service roles for times when people couldn’t get hold of me or Phil because we were on-site or doing a survey.”
Beechinor adds: “Now customers get a call three, six and nine months after the installation. A lot of the time people don’t want to be bothered, but, on the nine-month call especially, they may say, ‘can you just pop round and look at this and that’.”
And Beechinor points out that sometimes customers may ignore a loose handle, but then friends who are looking at it will notice that, which may reflect poorly on Alexander.
“Now, when we phone them, we can pick that up sooner and put it right. Because that kitchen is an advert for us, for future business. And our workload and sales figures show that it has paid off.”
Indeed Masterfit is now doing six installations a week on the retail side and another three kitchens a week on the contracts side and has a total of 23 employees. And they employ all trades – kitchen fitters, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and plasterers. Some jobs may take just a week, plus templating and fitting worktops, whereas others will take six to eight weeks because they may have to take a wall down.
And 50% of Alexander’s business is from referrals and recommendations and so people already have the confidence in them before they walk through the door, says Beechinor. Worthing does attract the grey pound while Horsham has a lot of business professionals. “All of them either want the security or they are time-poor and they do not want that hassle.”
And having a reliable installation business is attractive to customers who have already experienced diffi-culty in finding tradesmen.
“That has become evident by our lead times,” says Beechinor. “Kitchens aren’t quite so bad, because people will find a kitchen fitter or electrician, but when you need a plumber, then a tiler and plasterer and an electrician, and they need them to work in unison, the whole thing can collapse because of one element, especially with Covid. Then schedules go to pieces. And customers recognise that. It is normally those that have had a bad experience who realise that they want to go with the Alexander experience.”
We all appreciate there is a nation-wide skills and installer shortage, so finding good tradespeople is very important to delivering the standards Alexander and Masterfit aspire to. Masterfit employs 80% of its installers and they will undertake any building work a project may require, short of actually building a full extension.
But Beechinor highlights a growing problem: “Experienced fitters are becoming a bit of a dying breed. But we embrace the task of finding new blood and there has never been a year that we haven’t had someone that’s linked to a college. The downside is, potentially, that you train them up and they leave. It is a massive investment.”
And Hockley adds that the right aptitude is key: “You have to be a certain way to be on the tools. You need to be organised – and it’s simply not for everyone.”
He mentions a local bus driver they recently took on who had signed up at the local college to become a plumber. “He knocked on our door saying we were the sort of company he would love to learn from. He saw the value of working alongside our guys who have worked for us for 20 years and maybe on their own for 10 years prior. And there is only so much you can learn at college. Work experience is key.”
So would they say it is getting easier to find the right people?
Beechinor feels it became tougher because of the first Covid lockdown.
Hockley explains: “One of my fitters was coming close to retirement. During that short period of furlough, and not knowing we could carry on doing business at that time, there was an element of downtime for everybody and he got a taste for it. He was a keen skier and always went on three skiing holidays a year and he didn’t know how many years of skiing he had left.”
I ask Hockley if they are winning the battle. He replies: “If you had asked me that six or seven months ago, I would have said no. But today, with what we have done in recruitment over the past few months, I would say yes.”
Beechinor also feels the uncertainty created by the lockdowns helped convince many tradespeople to opt for the security of full-time employment.
Hockley adds: “They are very good skilled trades but the organisation, planning and having to do all of the things they don’t have to do here is a massive, massive benefit. We save them the stress and hassle of working evenings and weekends and worrying about if they are going to get paid.”
Alexander has been in business for more than 40 years now. It moved to its current premises in Sompting Road, Worthing, after outgrowing
its original showroom. The new location on a major roundabout previously a local B&Q – gave Alexander more space.
It opened its Horsham showroom five years ago with 11 full-size kitchen displays and before long, having already added bathrooms to the mix in Worthing, added them to the Horsham offering. Turnover now is around £1.5 million for Masterfit, £2.5m for Alexander and £1m on contracts, which it moved into six years ago.
Beechinor recalls how he got a lot of helpful advice from Nobilia and to do the contracts fitting he headhunted someone he knew from Paula Rosa who had done a lot of developments on the south coast. And he brought his own staff and fitters with him.
Alexander is also a KBSA member. “It is a badge of honour, rather like Checkatrade,” explains Beechinor. “We have a good reputation in Worthing and when we opened in Horsham, I thought our reputation would travel, but it didn’t. So we felt that being in the KBSA would be good for Horsham, as it takes time to build a reputation locally. It also provided us with a vehicle for offering finance.”
While its retail kitchen offering comprises Nobilia, Mereway, Bauformat and English Revival – with bedrooms from Daval – for contracts Alexander just works with Nobilia. Appliances are mainly Neff, Bosch, Siemens and Bora, with worktops from Silestone and Caesarstone.
Its main bathroom brands are Imex, Saneux, Crosswater, Deuco, Montrose, Vado, Aqualisa and Roman.
As for the future, Masterfit /Alexander plans to keep up its investment in new colleagues, fitters and tradesmen across all areas of the business as it continues to expand.