Escaping the city: Early-stage business tips from a former broker

Robert James left the city behind and bought a company selling shutters. Here, he shares his early-stage business journey.

Previously a Lloyds broker, I escaped the city and bought Plantation Shutters. From small beginnings cutting shutter panels down to size on a saw bench in my drawing room and fitting them himself, my passion for shutters has helped the company to grow and grow. I now own a showroom in Battersea, from where the business has developed and evolved to become a prominent player in the field.

I chose to start my own business as I never enjoyed wearing a suit and catching the District line into the city on a daily basis; I was always looking to do something different with my life. I half-heartedly tried several other ideas, which I did part time and as a result, they never really took off but in 1993 I was lucky to find a small shutter company whose owner wanted to sell, and once I was committed to buying, the process was immediate.

When travelling to the US I was exposed to the stylish simplicity of wooden shutters and in turn their sheer practicality. I soon realised the huge potential of expanding the sparse UK market and started to help develop the use of shutters as an interesting and aesthetically pleasing alternative to curtains.

I think the formula for putting my business on the map is a simple one – spontaneity and hard work. The small business I purchased was useful as it gave me a brochure, a supplier and a bit of good will, but the secret really was to keep the overheads to a minimum, work very hard and engage with clients, in other words, to be human.

If I were to give any tips to burgeoning business owners starting and running their own business they would be as follows; don’t try to grow too quickly, don’t ever think you are important or get too complacent, treat your staff as you would want to be treated, communicate with clients and above all else, be honest.

From a personal challenge point of view, I haven’t experienced too many demands. I think you are either destined to run a business or you are not. I am built so the cogs in my head are constantly turning whether I like it or not. So then if there was a personal challenge, it would be to turn off the cogs sometimes.

Any business is going to experience mistakes from time to time which you can ultimately learn from to constantly strive for improvement. In my business over the years I haven’t made too many mistakes, but I am still cross that in my first year of trading, I brought a van for £400 pounds from a rogue trader. A hundred yards up the road the brakes had seized up. It cost me another £400 to put it right when I could ill afford £10 let alone £400, that was a mistake!

The business has grown over the 30 years and we now have 14 employees. There are three running the office with sales, marketing and logistics. There are two measurers who visit people in their homes and design their shutters and then we have a dedicated in-house fitting team of four.

The main marketing strategy we have adopted for our business is in the realm of online with SEO and social media and keeping or website fresh. We don’t advertise much in print and really, we do very well out of recommendations and word of mouth, taking the attitude that we are only as good as our last job.

There are obvious ethical concerns involved in any industry and we are no exception. We recycle all of the cardboard packaging in-house and we purchase wood from renewable resources and Forestry Stewardship Council approved forests.

The culture of the business is very much ‘work hard, play hard’; I don’t like my employees working weekends as I feel that life is a balance.

What does the future hold for shutters then? There is a growing market. I believe shutters are the quickest growing window dressing treatment in the UK. We were the first UK company to retail shutters and remain the largest independent one. I would like to hold my position within the market and maintain market share of a growing trend and shall endeavour to do so.

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