2022 sees Plastech celebrating 25 years of operation, during which time it has supplied a wide range of specialist products to customers in all sectors of construction and civil engineering, as well as their associated industries. The fact that the company continues to grow, even in the face of challenges stemming from the impact of Covid-19 and the recent global materials shortage, underlines the strength of the business, as Paul Quin, Director, recently outlined to Construction Industry News.
“Despite all the experience we have within the organisation, 2021 still proved to be a very challenging year due to the ongoing pandemic and the difficulty in sourcing many types of materials and products,” explains Mr Quin. “Thankfully the expertise we are able to draw upon, coupled with the excellent relationships we have built with suppliers over the years, means that we remain on track to mark a quarter of a century of operation with our highest turnover yet.”
To better understand the journey that the business has been on and how it has consistently moved forward to reach its present point, it makes sense to turn the clock back to when the Plastech story first began back in February 1997 when it was created in Wigan, Lancashire, by Paul and fellow founding director, Cliff Lloyd. The pair had known and worked with each other on and off for the previous ten years, with both having experience of internal and external sales roles. Over the years they had been in jobs where they felt that their talent and hard work was unappreciated by their employers, a situation that led to a high degree of frustration, particularly as their modest wages did not recognise the difficulties associated with their respective roles. Understandably this led to discussions about one day setting up in business for themselves and, while working at a company in Leeds, they decided they would put their life long dream into action. With this in mind, in mid-January 1997 they began talking to suppliers and customers that they knew well in an attempt to gauge which ones would support them if they were to set up a new company. However, when head office discovered what they were up to they were both sacked on the spot.
As both Paul and Cliff had mortgages and young families to provide for, this wasn’t the best start to the New Year for either of them, but it began a chain of events that would thankfully turn out to have a very positive outcome, despite the early days proving to be fraught with hurdles.
After failing to secure backing from any of the banks they approached for funding, Paul and Cliff set about raising alternative means of capital in order to get the business going. They managed to raise £1,500 each, with Cliff receiving a loan from his elderly mother, which was basically her life savings, while Paul went to the cash machine with his credit card and drew out £1,500 in cash. These were major amounts of money at the time for both of them, which drastically reduced any room at all for error.
Having managed to secure a small yard from one of their business contacts, Paul and Cliff were able to use the little money they had available to hire a small cabin and get the telecoms and electricity connected. They were also able to source a small pick-up truck to send deliveries out.
Proving that who you know is every bit as important as what you know, they were able to call on a couple of good friends to give them credit facilities. This enabled them to start stocking the yard with a minimal amount of products, supplemented by regular collections on an ad hoc basis from whoever was willing to supply to them.
A deal was struck with an invoice factoring company to help with the cashflow but, within a timeframe of around six months, their borrowing limit was reached. Unable to get any uplift in their borrowing facility, something that really impacted on the cashflow at the time, as they were unable to borrow any more money even though they were regularly submitting invoices, the decision was made to change factoring companies. Unfortunately more bad news followed, with the factoring company stating that they required £3,500 in compensation for the early termination of the contract, despite the fact that it had been the one that had refused to support Plastech when it was most in need.
Undeterred, Plastech approached Griffin Factors, which at the time was part of the Midland Bank Group (Now HSBC) and was able to receive the support it needed in terms of an increased borrowing facility with enough headroom to enable short term future growth. HSBC even agreed to pay off the termination charges from the previous factoring company, a huge relief to Paul and Cliff. Needless to say, to this day Plastech is still working with HSBC. “We have always been very pleased with the service levels we have received from them,” says Paul. “They have supported the business brilliantly at every stage of our development.”
With the company’s fortunes beginning to improve, in its first year of operation Plastech managed to make a trading profit of the princely sum of £140 after all the overheads had been paid. Paul and Cliff managed all aspects of the business during these first 12 months and employed a part-time driver to help them out with deliveries on really busy days. Having successfully managed to make ends meet, the company went into its second year with renewed hope.
This confidence proved to be well founded, as 1998 turned out to be a defining year for the business with a tidy profit of £70,000 providing the springboard that was required to elevate the company to where it is today, more than two decades later.
“We showed tremendous perseverance to begin with but the success we have gone onto to have since then has been due to a number of factors,” outlines Paul. “The staff we employ are all very switched on and extremely eager to secure new business. In return we look after them really well. Having such a keen and committed team has helped us build a really good reputation within the marketplace, which has led to a significant volume of referrals and a high proportion of repeat business. This emphasis on customer service has been at the core of everything we’re about as a company.”
Its excellent standing within the industry has allowed Plastech to traverse any market downturns or obstacles and continually develop and grow, with the Wigan depot being supplemented by the opening of additional sites in Doncaster in 2011 and Shrewsbury in 2019.
After over two decades of building the business together, in 2019 Cliff took the decision to retire at the age of 65, with Paul becoming sole director. During the meeting with their accountants in November when the paperwork had been signed and the cheque handed over, the accountants congratulated Paul on the takeover and asked him the question: “So Paul, is there anything you can foresee that could possibly de-rail the business?”
With the company doing well at the time, Paul confidently answered: “No, not really, unless the world stops spinning and everything falls off the edge of a cliff…”
Fast forward two months to the arrival of Covid-19 in January 2020 and in many ways the world did stop spinning and everything did indeed fall off the end of the proverbial cliff! After the initial shock and mass exodus of staff for various Covid-related reasons, the company was left with a skeleton staff of brave souls who remained committed to working rather than going on furlough.
With an expectation that orders would dry up, the company made plans to fulfil all existing orders, which equated to about three days’ work, before furloughing the rest of the staff. That was Paul’s strategy upon leaving work on the Friday night and, like so many, he fully expected that the situation would only last for a month or so… Time would prove that the reality of the situation would be much different!
On his return to the office the following Monday morning, with the sole intention of tidying up some quotes and making sure outstanding deliveries were sent out, Paul soon found that the phone was continually ringing with more and more orders coming in. Not only was the week soon fully booked for deliveries but the following week was too. This meant that rather than having to bring a halt to its operations, Plastech was able to keep on trading, not only with existing customers but also with companies it had never previously conducted business with, all looking to place orders, as they were struggling to get supplies.
It transpired that the majority of the national builders’ merchants had decided to close their doors and cease trading for the foreseeable future, which led to a massive gap in the market with seemingly the world and its wife now calling Plastech looking for materials.
With the help of his workforce, Paul was able to make the most of the opportunity by restructuring the business to have all the furloughed sales staff working from home, picking up incoming sales calls and processing them onto the system for delivery.
Little by little, staff started to return, with the most vulnerable ones continuing to work from home. This not only enabled Plastech to keep going, but actually meant that 2020 became the company’s best ever trading year with a turnover just short of £10m.
“We were very lucky and blessed that the construction industry was allowed to carry on trading throughout the pandemic,” explains Paul. “It forced us to change many of our working practices which have since proven to be very beneficial and cost effective. Every cloud has a silver lining! The situation could have been very different if we’d been forced to close for 12 months or more.”
Having so ably dealt with with the worst that Covid-19 could offer, the future is now looking extremely bright for Plastech. In fact, it is set for another record-breaking year as it’s on course for a further increase in turnover of around £14.5m for 2021. “It’s a remarkable performance and our staff have demonstrated outstanding levels of effort. They have all been unbelievable.
“The industry is still not out of the woods in terms of material shortages but there are encouraging signs that the situation is starting to ease a little. I’m hopeful that things will return to normal sooner rather than later.
“It has been a major headache, not just for ourselves, as everybody has found that ordering furniture for the garden or materials for home improvements has become much more difficult. From our perspective, rather than having a single source for our products, we have between 30 and 40 suppliers on our books for all different materials so we have been able to secure everything we require.”
It has been a wild rollercoaster of a ride over the years with many twists and turns but it’s to the credit of Paul and Cliff, as well as the company’s wider workforce, that Plastech is able to celebrate its 25th anniversary year in 2022. From two staff working from one depot in 1997 with limited resources and little margin for error, today the company is a thriving business of 45 staff operating out of three locations.
“I would like to thank all of its staff, suppliers and business associates who have supported us over the years,” says Paul. “We have been very fortunate to have so many fantastic suppliers that we have been able to rely on for such a long time. I’d like to extend my sincere thanks and gratitude to all those companies who have supported us so fantastically over the years, especially the last 18 months. Plastech is eternally grateful to you all.”
Whilst reaching such a notable landmark as a 25th anniversary is significant in anyone’s book, especially at a time when businesses are facing so many different challenges, Plastech is certainly in no mood to rest on its laurels. “We’ll definitely be celebrating reaching 25 years of operation with all our staff and our suppliers, although the pandemic has made holding such an event much more difficult. We will also be running promotional giveaways of branded pens and insulated coffee cups, as well as other merchandise. We certainly feel it’s important that we mark the occasion as we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved. That said, we are also always looking to the future and our sales people are continually looking to generate more business for the company to take us to the next level.”
One of the key factors behind Plastech’s success, along with its emphasis on service, is the fact that its product range is so extensive. It can provide a wide variety of underground drainage, ducting, plumbing and construction essentials. This diversity means its customer base spans a wide range of different market sectors and includes one-man-band operators through to contractors working in the agriculture, golf and sports sectors, as well as small to medium-sized construction companies, not to mention many large blue chip nationals. The breadth of the markets in which it operates provides the company with a significant amount of scope for further growth on a nationwide basis.
Having always operated nationally, Plastech has the infrastructure to supply all of the country from its three separate locations in Wigan, Doncaster and Shrewsbury; with whichever depot is closest to the client fulfilling the order. This arrangement is supported further by 15 delivery vehicles that are continually serviced to ensure they are operating efficiently and reliably.
“We have an extremely proactive sales team across all of our depots and they’re excellent in driving more business into the company organically. As part of this approach, our range is constantly being added to and, as products get specified, we will ensure that we source them for our customers. It’s all about being able to provide our customers with exactly the right products they require. Thankfully Brexit hasn’t been an issue at all, as we are still able to bring materials into the country, whether it’s from the continent or from China. There’s been slightly more paperwork to carry out but on the whole there’s been no problems and we’ve experienced not a single hold up.”
While sustainability is not something that Plastech has focused on strongly so far, Paul is aware that it is likely to become an increasingly important issue in the months and years ahead. “The rules and regulations are only going to become ever more stringent, both for ourselves and for our suppliers, and we’ll work to them as they come through in order to achieve further growth. Looking ahead, we would like the profit margins to hold up as well, although the materials shortage issue is something that we’ll have to contend with for a bit longer. Regardless of the challenges we face, continued growth and holding up the profit margins will remain our main objectives.
“In terms of adding to our depots, I haven’t got my eye on anything at the moment, as we’re currently concentrating more on achieving further organic growth from our existing infrastructure. We tend to make the most of opportunities as they arise within the marketplace, whether it’s a new piece of business or the addition of a new staff member that has become available. As I’m the sole director we are able to make decisions extremely quickly, so everything we do is almost by accident. When the opportunities come up, we are ready and able to move very quickly to seize upon them. In contrast, the bigger multinational and international groups that we deal with are much more cumbersome organisations. For them everything takes an age to make a decision on. Certainly being small and agile gives us a tremendous advantage when it comes to making the most of the potential we see in the marketplace. While we won’t be adding any new depots to our business for the foreseeable future, we are looking to bolster our staffing levels and are currently recruiting in Doncaster. We will also be adding to the team in Shrewsbury very shortly too.”
This emphasis on adding the right people to the business in order to ensure the customer service levels remain high has just been one factor behind the longevity that has seen Plastech clock up a quarter of a century of operation. The fact that it has not only survived the pandemic, but has actually thrived over the past two years, underlines how robust the business is. The aim now is to keep that momentum going. With the strength it has across all areas of its infrastructure, it looks well set to keep moving forward and overcoming whatever challenges the future might hold.
Over the past 25 years, in addition to growing Plastech, Paul and Cliff also helped create a number of other businesses that are still performing strongly today:
Groundtech (UK) Limited
“We started this company up in 1998 with our former business partner, Mr Steve Burns, and sold our shareholding to him around ten years ago.
Steve had been a friend of mine for many years beforehand and I really admired his professionalism and enthusiasm, as well as his vast knowledge of all things relating to construction materials. I’m pleased and proud to say that Groundtech is still thriving under Steve’s directorship and wish him all the best for the future.”
Plastech Southern Limited
“This business was established in 2006 with our friend and business associate, Paul Fifield. Again we had known Paul for many years in his role as UK Sales Manager for Funke, a German manufacturing company of underground drainage systems. When Funke closed down its UK operation, we seized upon the chance to go into business with Paul and opened up two depots in the south of England, one in Frimley, Surrey, and the other in Colchester, Essex. We sold our shares in Plastech Southern in 2014 and Paul Fifield is now the sole owner and is doing fantastically well. I’d like to wish Paul the best of luck for the future.”
P E Pipeline Specialists Limited
“Established in 2014, with our friend of many years Paul Evans, who had spent several years in the utility supplies sector and had previously worked for the Fusion Group of companies. This meant he was very well experienced in all aspects of sales and depot management.
“We sold our shareholding to Paul in 2020 and, again, the business is doing brilliantly well. I wish him the very best of luck in everything that he does. His attitude to work and his professionalism and knowledge are second to none and he deserves all the success that comes his way.”