Next year sees Gloucestershire-based Plumbstop celebrating its 25th anniversary and since its creation in 1991 the company has overcome several economic downturns to enjoy impressive growth. This success was further underlined when it was recently recognised by the London Stock Exchange Top 1000 companies to Inspire Britain Award 2015.
“We’ve seen a few recessions come and go over the years,” explains Peter Fitzcharles, Founder and Managing Director. “In fact the business was formed right in the middle of one, which everyone says is a good time to start, and so it has proved.”
Having just opened its 16th branch, Plumbstop has achieved the lion-share of its growth within the past four years. “We had just eight branches just four years ago and turnover was around the £8m-mark,” adds Mr Fitzcharles. “At this point we nearly sold the business but instead had something of a light bulb moment and decided to just go for it in terms of taking the company to another level.”
This determination has certainly borne fruit for the business with turnover on course to be around £19.2m this year. What makes the growth all the more noteworthy is that it has occurred when there has continued to be a significant amount of uncertainty surrounding the marketplace.
“There’s been no great secret to the growth, we’ve just been focused on knuckling down and working hard to develop the business. We’re now well established within the south-west with our area of operation stretching from South Wales down as far west as Falmouth and as far east as Bournemouth, where our newest branch has opened in Ferndown, and up to Cheltenham.”
With such significant growth achieved in what has been a relatively short period of time, it is easy to see why Plumbstop attracted the attention of judges putting together the London Stock Exchange Top 1000 companies to Inspire Britain Award 2015. Despite his company’s success, the award still came as something of a surprise to Mr Fitzcharles. “It was completely out of the blue as it’s an award that is done independently. There are numerous award schemes out there that you apply and ultimately pay for but to receive independent third party recognition is absolutely fantastic. It’s proven that our strategy of aggressive expansion throughout the recession has worked. This is supported by the figures with the London Stock Exchange recognising that we outperformed everyone else in our sector over the last four years.
“The award is affirmation of the approach that we’ve take as business but it was also great for our staff. It was a major morale booster for them, as well as for our suppliers and customers. It’s a fantastic achievement.”
Apart from the obligatory hard work, another factor that Mr Fitzcharles believes has been fundamental to the success of the Plumbstop model is the autonomy that each individual branch is afforded and the faith the company has in its managers. “We’re used to letting go and just allowing a branch to develop under the stewardship of its manager. We’ve got a very flat management structure and each of our branch managers can phone up any of the four directors at any time. That level of communication, from the driver up to myself as Managing Director, has really facilitated our growth as it means that everyone is onboard and fully behind what we’re all trying to achieve. This is where we’re particularly strong and with such well-developed communication streams, success breeds success and the staff enjoy being a part of a winning team.
“Even before the award there’s been a real feel good factor within the team and we have a high calibre of staff that work here. They all get excited by the fact that we’re moving forward at a time when other operators within the industry are not doing so well. Our employees are the ones that have ultimately been responsible for our success. We drive it but they make it work.
“Another benefit of having a close-knit team of directors is that we’re able to make almost instantaneous decisions for the good of the business, which in turn gives us a high degree of flexibility. For instance, there have been occasions when we’ve recruited a team of staff, because we always look to have the employees in place before we open any new site, and it’s taken us as little as four or five weeks to fit-out a branch and have it fully operational.
“Recruitment hasn’t been a problem within our sector because so many of the national merchants are having to restructure. It’s fair to say that they’re not having as good a time as the larger independent merchants. As a consequence there are many dissatisfied good staff within the nationals that our door is always open to if they want to come along and join an independent that’s moving forward.”
Even in the face of its rapid expansion in recent years, Plumbstop has proven adept at not losing the elements that made it so successful in the first place.
“If what you are doing is working then keep doing it and we have been very conscious to avoid turning into a big national merchant with endless form filling and reporting. Very early on we decided we didn’t want to go down that route and with each new branch we have strived to retain an independent ethos. This is why we believe it’s been so important that our managers are given the autonomy they need to develop their branch as they deem fit. They’re the ones that know best about the needs and specific requirements of their local customer base after all.”
Along the journey Plumbstop has continued to build on its three-year relationship with PHG, the independent plumbing and heating buying group, which has allowed the company to punch above its weight from a purchasing perspective. “There are 21 merchants within PHG and being able to buy collectively from them at the right rates has been another crucial element behind our success. The arrangement has also enabled us to develop our own brand called Instinct, which has helped give us a clear point of difference.”
As for the latest addition to its portfolio, the Bournemouth branch involved the purchasing of an existing business so was relatively straightforward, although Plumbstop is not averse to developing Greenfield developments either having completed such projects in the past. Moving forward the company is continuing to have an organic approach to expansion rather than having a set number of new openings in mind.
“We’re keen to expand further but we’re in no rush and we’ll only proceed when the right opportunities present themselves,” says Mr Fitzcharles. “We’ve always got irons in the fire and sometimes they come off and sometimes they don’t. The biggest headache is finding the right commercial properties in the first place, despite the fact that we’re pretty flexible about the location and type of site we look for. It can be fairly frustrating but we’ll never stop looking. We’ve certainly got the infrastructure in place to support a larger network of branches if necessary and within the next 12 months I’d like to see us opening another couple of branches at least.”
With the progress it has made in recent years it seems a safe bet that Plumbstop will be adding further branches to its portfolio in 2016 as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.