Paul Wilkins has a busy summer ahead. The Managing Director of Heat Norfolk Ltd. is seeing a surge in bookings unlike anything he’s seen before: “This summer has been exceptionally busy – normally we’d have a three to four week lead time, but we’re booking large jobs well into September. It’s great, of course, but quite a challenge to juggle it all!”
Heat Norfolk Ltd. was established in 2004, but Paul has been working in the industry since 1992, “I set up in 1992 under my own name as, Paul Wilkins, Plumbing and Heating Ltd, which is a bit of a mouthful. After a couple of years the team was growing and I realised we needed to change the name so people didn’t just expect me to turn up every time, so we went for something more generic.”
Based in Norwich, the company provides plumbing and heating services for domestic and commercial clients throughout East Anglia. As renewable heating has become more popular, the company diversified, investing in training so they could get ahead of the curve and offer these green systems too. “The renewables market is a big, broad reaching market. It was a massive learning curve for us but now a lot of our work is taken up with these systems. They’re actually the jobs I enjoy working on the most.”
Despite being the MD, you’re more likely to find Paul on the road than stuck behind a desk. “I’m out virtually all day, every day,” he explains, “I like to go and meet the new customers, find out what they’re after and do the survey, which I then send back to the office to be estimated. If there’s a large project on the go, I’ll need to visit that quite regularly to update the client and make sure they’re happy with everything. We have three full-time staff in the office – who do a brilliant job of running everything – plus my wife, Claire, who is the Finance Director. We also usually employ seven or eight engineers, although we’d have more if we could get them. There’s a huge shortage of tradespeople across the whole construction industry right now which is making things challenging.”
We also usually employ seven or eight engineers, although we’d have more if we could get them.
This issue is causing a lot of frustration for Paul – what does he believe is causing such a shortfall? He thinks for a moment, “From my experience, it comes down to a few things; firstly, it’s not the most attractive trade to go into – there’s not a huge amount of school leavers who want to go into plumbing and heating, they want to do something much more glamorous! Secondly, there aren’t incentives for employers any more. There used to be government funded schemes which paid the college fees and wages of young trainees, but you can’t get these now. The other thing with working in the domestic sector, if you’re training someone in somebody’s home, you’re constantly worried that your trainee could make a mistake. If they caused a leak that went through the ceiling for example – I’d never put those costs onto the client, so it’s quite a high risk thing to do. The other issue we find is that we invest time and resources into training new engineers, for them to then want to leave and set up on their own. It’s a difficult industry, for sure.”
An essential service
It is, of course, impossible to talk to anyone about the past year without bringing up the Covid-19 pandemic. With plumbing and heating services classed as “essential” by the government, and therefore able to continue, how did this impact on the business? “Most of our work carried on, except for servicing work, as that particular aspect wasn’t deemed essential. It slowed down a lot though,” Paul says. “A couple of the larger building sites shut down completely, which was difficult because we were forced to make some hard decisions about the engineers who were working on those jobs. We used the Rradar service a lot during that time.
“When Boris dropped his first lockdown speech that Monday evening, I had engineers messaging me into the night asking if they needed to come to work the next day. Then, when the furlough announcement was made there were loads more questions. I’ve never been involved in things like employment law or the HR side of things, so in that initial period I absolutely used and abused the Rradar service. I was on the phone to them all the time with questions. It was just fantastic to be able to call someone up and even if they didn’t know the answer right then, they always found out and got back to us, rather than fob us off. They were exceptionally professional and gave us great advice. It was invaluable, really.”
I absolutely used and abused the Rradar service. I was on the phone to them all the time with questions.
The Rradar service Paul mentions is included as part of the management liability insurance policy Heat Norfolk Ltd. has. The insurance needs of the business have grown as the business has, as Paul explains: “When you run a business you find that the insurance you need when employing one or two people is completely different to when you’ve three or four in the team, and that changes again as you grow. Our policies were with different providers, very fragmented and spread out and we were keen to pull everything together.
“Alan Boswell Group is a name we’d known for a while. I’d heard it bandied about at different networking events so I thought we’d give you a try. Carly [Buckenham, Account Executive at Alan Boswell Group] was our first point of contact, and she was like a breath of fresh air. Whatever we asked for from day one she said ‘Okay, I can do that.’ When I get a new van, or take on new engineers, or have a question about something, I know I can rely on Carly to sort it out. It’s one less thing for me to worry about.”
A reputation for quality work
Conversation turns towards the future and Paul reveals what he’s looking forward to next, “A holiday would be nice!” He laughs. “Business wise, it would be nice to grow a little bit more. I don’t want to rule out a big expansion, but I think it would have to be under the right circumstances because we’ve built up a reputation for quality work. I’m proud of that because our engineers genuinely care about doing a good job.
“With every client we get, I treat their property as if it was my own home. I’ve never advised anybody on something that I didn’t think was the best for them, even if it means we lose out on work. That’s so important to me, and I’d hate to lose that personal touch if the business grew too much.”