ANDREW Skelton relishes a challenge – and the bigger the better.
The co-owner of Honley-based Holmebuild Supplies Ltd has set out to compete against some of the biggest store chains in the DIY sector and has achieved a large measure of success.
Now the business has battled through the recession to become an established independent employing 21 people, operating three sites and turning over £3m a year.
“The industry is dominated by national multiples,” says Andrew. “We set out to offer an alternative based on customer service, quality and product knowledge. We have grown the business by providing a local service.”
Andrew, who lives at Skelmanthorpe, and co-owner Jon Russell, of Thongsbridge, have been in business for 15 years – firstly setting up distribution company Procell Building Supplies to supply builders’ merchants all over the country.
“We were based at Albion Mills in Thongsbridge and grew the business over time,” says Andrew. “Local builders found us and wanted to buy bits and pieces from us. We decided to put in a little trade counter and called it Holmebuild.”
When bigger and more suitable premises at Queen’s Mill Square at Huddersfield Road, Honley, came on the market, Andrew and Jon jumped at the chance – and saw the opportunity to develop the trade counter to a fully-fledged DIY business.
They transferred to the Huddersfield Road site in June, 2006. Now Procell and Holmebuild operate side by side.
“The location is fantastic,” says Andrew. “We realised there was the opportunity to ‘pick up’ the DIY traffic that was going out of the Holme Valley. On Saturdays, there would be 100 people heading into Huddersfield. We realised we could save them a journey and – hopefully – do things better and more cheaply than the national chains.”
He admits: “There was a big learning curve. We had never run a builders’ merchant’s and we were being asked for things we did not have. Now we try to be a one-stop shop, covering areas such as electricals, plumbing and timber.
“Historically, builders’ merchants have been quite intimidating places to go into if you don’t know what you are talking about. We have the staff to make the experience a more pleasant one. Not everyone is going to come in and know exactly what they are after.”
Andrew says Holmebuild got off to a flying start. “It was 2006 and the economy was booming,” he recalls. “But we saw the recession coming and in 2008 as the credit crunch struck, we decided to go on the attack and open our second depot at Saddleworth. We knew the area through our distribution business and we saw a similar gap in the market.
“Things have become harder over the past two or three years, but in December of last year another opportunity arose when a customer of ours in Elland went bust and we decided to make a move to open our third branch to cover the other side of Huddersfield.
“We had to move really quickly and we spent last Christmas negotiating with the liquidators. The Elland branch is going in the right direction and has established itself. Both Elland and Saddleworth are paying for themselves.”
Some businesses might balk at the idea of expanding while the country is in the depths of recession. But Andrew says: “The timing allowed us to sort out any teething troubles while business was relatively slack. When things pick up again, we will be in a position to rocket ahead.”
Andrew and Jon first worked together at Naylor Clayware at Cawthorne, near Barnsley. Andrew was working in the sales department while Jon was assistant sales director.
Says Andrew: “We went our own separate ways, but both ended up at another company some years later. We were staying in Dunblane on a sales trip on the very day of the Dunblane massacre. It affected us deeply. There was also a background of politicking going on at the office and that evening while we were sitting in the restaurant we began talking about what else we could do for ourselves.
“We decided to set up the distribution company selling to people we already knew. To begin with, we worked out of Jon’s triple-garage and an office at the back of his house and grew the business from there before finding premises at Albion Mills.”
Barnsley-born Andrew admits: “We flew by the seat of our pants! The learning never stopped. We were dealing with other aspects of running a business, not just the sales side of it. You get involved in transport and logistics, health and safety, accounts We knew nothing, but we had to learn quickly.
“Before the recession, there were a lot of companies ‘surviving despite themselves’ because things were busy. But because they had faults in parts of the business, when the recession came it found out all of those weaknesses.
“A lot of businesses have gone by the wayside because they didn’t have good practices or because the structure was wrong. That’s where good leadership is essential.”
Andrew lists his essential leadership skills as “delegation, man-management and spotting opportunities and making things happen”.
“Once your business has more than 10 employees it becomes impossible to handle everything on your own,” he insists. “We have built up the business to £3m turnover a year from zero in 15 years. I am proud of that, but it has only come about through damned hard work.
“Now we have 350 account customers over the three sites, which generates a lot of work. We have 70 active suppliers. If you don’t keep on top of all that, the whole fabric of the business falls apart.”
While Andrew devotes many hours to the business – it operates six days a week and the depots open at 6.30am on weekdays – he has found time to revisit some favourite hobbies.
“Golf is gradually taking over,” he jokes. “I played as a kid but had to stop because of work and family. The children are 16 and 15 and more independent now so that has freed up more time. I joined Woodsome this year and I try to get on the golf course twice a week. A lot of my friends are golfers and we organise weekend trips and they are always fun.”
Andrew also coaches junior cricket at Clayton West Cricket Club. “I umpire as well as organising games,” he says. “Being on the cricket field is great for taking you away from the day-to-day cares.”
Andrew has been a keen skier for the past 25 years and the family have enjoyed ski-ing holidays to France and Switzerland. Andrew, wife Julie and children Jack and Isabel – not forgetting black labrador Monty – also enjoy family holidays in the UK, with Devon a firm favourite.
Nearer home, Andrew attends meetings of the Holme Valley Business Forum and the Yorkshire region of the Builders’ Merchant Federation, which provide opportunities for networking.
Procell and Holmebuild are also in the running for a national award – having been shortlisted in the Builders’ Merchant Website of the Year competition. The winner will be announced at the end of November at a ceremony at the Lancaster Hotel in London.
Updating the website is just the latest development for the business and underlines Andrew’s determination to take on “the big boys”.
Says Andrew: “It’s a matter of looking at what you have got and trying to improve it. If you try to stay still in the current climate you will go backwards. You cannot sit back and just hope to pull through.”