Bathrooms at Source in south-west London is in its 26th year and is run by three siblings. Chris Frankland talks to Terry and Sarah Jones to find out more about this family business
People love a family business. It engenders a trust and loyalty that bigger, more corporate business esoften struggle to achieve. So when kbbreview learnt that a bathroom showroom in London was celebrating its 26th year in business and was run by three siblings, I went along to find out the secret of their success.
Bathrooms at Source may have a long heritage but, as I found out when I sat down to talk to co-owner and founder Terry Jones and his sister and co-owner Sarah Jones, they are far from complacent, have already implemented changes in the business and have big plans for the future.
First though, let’s look at how it all started. Terry Jones launched the business back in 1998 having worked previously in bathroom sales. His sister Sarah joined him in 2001 and bought a 50% share in the company, having worked in corporate management. Sister Rachel joined them in 2004 and had no experience in bathrooms but is now working in sales.
Terry tells me that customers like dealing with a family business. “People do buy from people and when you’re a family business, you do care,” he explains. “When I walk people over to the tile studio, I introduce them to my other sister, and I am very proud of it. I think it reassures people when you have been here for 26 years and it is a family business.”
But as we all know, working with family can have its ups and downs. How has it worked for Bathrooms at Source? “It has worked beautifully,” says Terry. “It has had its politics, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. The work environment involves sacrifices in your personal life. We spend a lot of time at work and it’s very intense.”
Sarah adds: “When we were in our twenties, there were times when it was heated, but as we have matured it has become more harmonious. I don’t think we would have been as much of a success without each other.”
The showroom itself is on Wandsworth’s busy Garratt Lane with lots of passing footfall and traffic and sits on the corner with a side road, which means it gives easy access to their warehouse.
The showroom extends back a long way and as you wander through it, other rooms open up revealing more displays. At the back, is a large area with displays of freestanding baths and a working showerhead display, with the sales desks and design stations at its furthest point.
But it doesn’t end there. On the opposite side of the road is the separate Tiles at Source showroom, which they opened in 2018.
Sarah explains that they sell not only bathroom tiles, but tiles for kitchens and hallways, outdoor paving and Victorian flooring. They decided to separate it off so that they would be able to display more options, styles, colours and finishes.
And as Terry points out, “there are so many choice these days, you need a dedicated area, the knowledge and the time to do it properly”.
Sarah adds: “We had already partnered with Ca’ Pietra and as time went on we found that we needed brands that could supply outdoor paving and Victorian flooring. Now we have nine tile brands. Large format tiles are selling more and we are trying to get away from some of the brands you see in every showroom. One reason we didn’t do tiles before was that people would just buy them online. Now they are moving away from online and want to deal with people.”
But Tiles at Source is just one of the changes they have made to the business. At the time of my visit, an area is being prepared for Plumbing at Source, which will be a plumbing trade counter. One bay has been cleared for it next to the showroom’s side entrance, with a door through to the warehouse, where an area has been allocated to house the stock.
Terry explains: “It is a natural progression. We are never going to retire on selling plumbers fittings, but it gives us another thing under the At Source umbrella that will drive people in. It also means our own fitters can buy from us.”
Sarah sees another advantage: “It is embarrassing when someone comes into a bathroom shop for just a set of taps, and you have to send them to a plumbers merchant, because a bathroom shop does not stock sets of taps. Or maybe a washer. And it may bring different people through the door.”
Sarah tells me that they are also having a rethink on brands. “We are moving some of the brands across to the plumbing counter and the plumbingatsource.com website. The brands that want to partner with us and protect us will be in the showroom. It will involve a complete showroom refurb over the next 18 months.”
Sarah adds: “We have never been brand collectors. We want to partner with more niche businesses that aren’t everywhere. Terry has always called us brand builders. The IPG Bathroom Collection Protected is something that we will be pushing massively. We were the first bathroom showroom to go into the IPG [buying group].”
I ask about the philosophy behind the business. Terry sums it up: “I believe we have a unique proposition. Many bathroom businesses these days have a high turnover of staff. We have this little bubble. Sarah has done it for 22 years. My other sister has done it for 19 years. I have done it for 40 years. Leigh Irvine, our warehouse manager, has been doing it for 25 years. There is continuity, there is experience. It is not about selling. It is about what customers need. We always ask about dimensions, what boiler they have, etc. It’s got to be right. It’s got to be service-driven.”
Sarah sums it up with the words: “integrity, trust, honesty and loyalty”.
So who are their customers? Sarah says they are mainly young professionals in the Wandsworth, Earlsfield and Putney area, although they have supplied bathrooms for customers’ second homes in Kent and Norfolk.
But Terry adds an important caveat: “We plough our own field. If someone walks in here with a quote and a design from another showroom asking us to better it, we won’t do it.”
They are also now working more with interior designers and architects, more so since they have started to stock more exclusive ranges. They also design and supply bathrooms for a few property developers.
Their average sale for a typical London 2m square bathroom with tiles and installation is £20,000 to £25,000. But interestingly, she says that the majority, around 65%, of the bathrooms they sell are traditional, with lots of brass, copper and special finishes. They complete around six to eight installations a month, overseen by a dedicated installations manager. They have fitters they recommend to clients and have eight teams at their disposal – but they admit that good installers are getting harder to find.
“We look for a particular breed of fitter,” says Terry. “They have to multitask. They are not plumbers that can do a bit of tiling – these guys can screed a floor, they can tile, they can decorate.” They must also be “punctual, polite and tidy”.
He says they lost of a lot of fitters due to Covid and Sarah adds that she has contacted South Thames College three times about apprenticeships, but without success.
Terry adds: “Because of the extra demand, all of the bad fitters have come to the forefront. The good guys that are left know what they are worth and there aren’t many of them.” He also hopes that once the trade counter is up and running, that will provide a new source of good fitters.
Looking ahead, Sarah confides that their main website needs some work. “The website at the moment is just awful to use. We didn’t want to lose control of it, so we have had another go at managing it ourselves. We are using a web developer but we will manage all of the data.
“We now have three websites – tilesatsource.com, plumbingatsource.com, which is an IPG website that is online through the buying group, then bathroomsatsource.com. We will also have our showroom exclusive area for exclusive products.”
I ask about any other plans and it seems a move into kitchens is on the cards. “It doesn’t intimidate me,” says Terry, “and it does give us another string to our bow. But it is all about the showroom. I have two or three teams that would fit kitchens, but people expect you to have proper displays. If you look at Tiles at Source as a shop in its own right, that’s what kitchens could be, rather than trying to shoehorn a few kitchen displays in here. So yes, we will do kitchens.”
Bathrooms at Source is also doing its best to educate its customers about buying sustainable products. “We always ask if people are on a water meter,” says Terry. “And if they are, we ask why they want a massive drench showerhead.”
Sarah adds: “We care about the environment and renewable energy and we are looking at selling heat pumps through the plumbers merchant. That is the future, although some people don’t want to admit it. Sustainable products are something we have to focus on in the future.”
But Terry admits people still love a luxurious bathroom experience and a massive drench shower head: “Unfortunately, as much as we may not want it to be, for our clientele, it is design over function. But it is important to put the options in front of people.”
Turnover last year for Bathrooms at Source was around £3.4 million. Sales increased by 20% during Covid and have been growing steadily. But, as Terry adds: “It has to be gradual. It is easy to take the money, but you have to give the customer service.”
And after all these years, Terry concludes: “I still get a buzz out of getting recommendations.”