Many may have been surprised when retailer Worthing KBB Alexander won our installation company of the year award. But while Alexander is the business face of the business, separate company Masterfit handles all of its assembly. Chris Frankland talks to Alexander MD Phil Beechinor (right) and Masterfit Installation Manager Warwick Hockley.
Phil Beechinor, Managing Director of Alexander, described his feelings after winning Installation Company of the Year at the 2022 kbbreview Retail & Design Awards.
“For me personally, that’s what I decided to do for a living – start an installation business,” he explains. “I started in 1985 to become a kitchen designer and I worked for Paula Rosa, then I created Masterfit. So, ultimately, to get recognition for what I set out to do, I was blown away. I was really proud. And my thanks go to Warwick [Hockley], who directs it. He’s been the top man at Masterfit for 20 years.
As he says above, Beechinor always wanted to be a kitchen fitter and after a spell for Paula Rosa he started his own business mainly installing kitchens for various local retailers and later bathrooms, when Alexander started making bathrooms about five years ago.
As his fitting business evolved and grew, and he worked more and more for Alexander, he decided to start the installation company Masterfit in partnership with Alexander founder Terry Linkhorn.
Beechinor recalls, “Previously, retailers paid installers directly and no one made any money from the installations. But they still had to deal with all the problems.
“And no one ever wanted to go back for a fix because it should have been okay in the first place and by then the contractors would be off to another job.”
As business grew for Alexander and Masterfit, Beechinor found himself becoming more involved with Alexander and by 2000 Linkhorn, then 70, was becoming less involved with Alexander on a day-to-day basis, and so Beechinor stepped in as a doctor and appointed Warwick Hockley to fill his shoes at Masterfit.
Beechinor recalls: “Warwick [Hockley] was already an integral part of the business, handling warehousing and delivery.
“He had made a few sales and had taken over Masterfit at a fairly young age for a management position, bearing in mind that he was dealing with older, more experienced fitters.
Hockley picks up the story: “I’ve been with Masterfit and Alexander for about 29 years. In 1994, I started working for Terry at Alexander. At 15 I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and my first job at Alexander was in the accounting office, while studying for my NVQ qualifications. I then worked in the warehouse, on deliveries and in the showroom. Then Phil started Masterfit, which was originally to do installations for several businesses in the area. But as Alexander grew, it was decided that Masterfit would be an exclusive installer for Alexander.
“So when Phil needed to fill Terry’s shoes, I had to step into Phil’s.
“Masterfit is Alexander’s sister company, financially managed completely independently, but as far as the customer is concerned, it is one company. Masterfit only fits kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms for Alexander.
Masterfit is of course a key part of Alexander’s business, but as far as the customer is concerned it operates seamlessly as one entity. Masterfit takes care of all aspects of customer service. If there are any warranty work or issues with the devices, Masterfit takes care of that too.
Hockley explains, “We have always believed that customer service was important, both after and during the sale. As the business grew, we needed to create full-time customer service positions for those times when people couldn’t reach me or Phil because we were on site or doing a survey.
Beechinor adds: “Now customers get a call three, six and nine months after installation. Most of the time, people don’t want to be bothered, but, on the nine month call in particular, they may say, “Can you just walk around and watch this and that.”
And Beechinor points out that sometimes customers may overlook a loose handle, but friends watching it will notice, which can make Alexander look bad.
“Now when we phone them, we can get it back sooner and fix it. Because this kitchen is an advertisement for us, for future business. And our workload and our sales figures show that it paid off.
Indeed, Masterfit now does six installs a week on the retail side and another three kitchens a week on the contract side and has a total of 23 employees. And they employ all trades: kitchen designers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and plasterers. Some jobs may only take a week, plus modeling and adjusting countertops, while others will take six to eight weeks as they may have to knock down a wall.
And 50% of Alexander’s business comes from referrals and recommendations, so people already trust them before they walk through the door, says Beechinor. Worthing attracts gray pound while Horsham has plenty of professionals. “All want security or they’re running out of time and they don’t want that hassle.”
And having a reliable installation company is appealing to customers who have previously struggled to find tradespeople.
“It became evident by our timelines,” says Beechinor. “Kitchens aren’t that bad, because people will find a kitchen fitter or an electrician, but when you need a plumber, then a tiler, a plasterer and an electrician, and “they need them to work in unison, everything can fall apart because of one element, especially with Covid. So schedules go to pieces. And customers recognize that. They’re normally the ones who’ve had a bad experience who realize they want to have the Alexander experience.
We are all aware that there is a shortage of skills and installers nationwide, so it is very important to find good tradesmen to meet the standards to which Alexander and Masterfit aspire. Masterfit employs 80% of its installers and they will undertake any building work a project may require unless building a full extension.
But Beechinor highlights a growing problem: “Experienced installers are becoming an endangered species. But we accept the task of finding new blood and there has never been a year without someone being tied to a university. The downside is, potentially, you train them and they leave. It’s a massive investment. »
And Hockley adds that the right aptitude is essential: “You have to be a certain way to be on the tools. You need to be organized – and that’s just not for everyone.
He mentions a local bus driver they recently hired who had enrolled in the local college to become a plumber. “He knocked on our door saying we were the kind of company he would like to learn from. He saw the value of working alongside our guys who have worked for us for 20 years and maybe alone for 10 years before. And there’s not a lot you can learn in college. Work experience is essential.
Would they say it’s getting easier and easier to find the right people?
Beechinor feels it has become more difficult due to the first Covid lockdown.
Hockley explains, “One of my fitters was nearing retirement. During this short time off, and not knowing that we could continue to do business at this time, there was an element of downtime for everyone and he took a liking to it. He was an avid skier and always went on three ski holidays a year and he didn’t know how many years of skiing he had left.
I ask Hockley if they are winning the battle. He replies: “If you had asked me that six or seven months ago, I would have said no. But today, with what we have done in recruitment in recent months, I would say yes.
Beechinor also believes the uncertainty created by the shutdowns has helped convince many traders to opt for the security of a full-time job.
Hockley adds, “These are really good skilled trades, but the organization, the planning and having to do all the stuff that they don’t have to do here is a huge plus. We spare them the stress and hassle of working evenings and weekends and wondering if they’re going to get paid. »
Alexander has been in business for over 40 years now. It moved to its current premises in Sompting Road, Worthing after growing up
its original showroom. The new location on a large roundabout, previously a local B&Q, gave Alexander more space.
It opened its Horsham showroom five years ago with 11 full-size kitchen displays and soon after, having already added bathrooms to the mix in Worthing, added them to the Horsham offering. Turnover is now around £1.5m for Masterfit, £2.5m for Alexander and £1m on contracts, which he moved into six years ago.
Beechinor recalls how he received many useful tips from Nobilia and to make the right contracts he looked for someone he knew from Paula Rosa who had done a lot of development on the south coast. And he brought his staff and installers with him.
Alexander is also a member of the KBSA. “It’s a badge of honor, much like Checkatrade,” says Beechinor. “We have a good reputation in Worthing and when we opened our doors in Horsham I thought our reputation would travel, but it’s not. So we thought being part of the KBSA would be good for Horsham as it takes time to build a reputation locally. It also gave us a vehicle to offer funding.
While its retail kitchen offering includes Nobilia, Mereway, Bauformat and English Revival – with rooms from Daval – for contracts, Alexander only works with Nobilia. Appliances are mainly Neff, Bosch, Siemens and Bora, with countertops from Silestone and Caesarstone.
Its main bathroom brands are Imex, Saneux, Crosswater, Deuco, Montrose, Vado, Aqualisa and Roman.
Looking to the future, Masterfit/Alexander plans to maintain its investment in new colleagues, fitters and artisans in all areas of the business as it continues to grow.