Entrepreneurs Forum

Have brush, will travel

Thursday 10 May 2012 2:00

Brian Nicholls

Hayley Lumby has crossed the divide between bankers who counsel small businesses and small businesses that struggle to get along with bankers.

Let those who see no room in business for sentiment see Hayley Lumby.

She was a bank executive when she heard in the local golf club that a local company might be folding after 40 years, its founder caught up in a family illness.

It was an interior decorating business and Hayley, who knew its work and those who did it, thought it a terrible shame.

She told her husband Gary as much because it was a “fantastic company and the lads were great”, their quality of work was unmatched in her experience. She slept on it. Then at five o’clock one morning she woke Gary.

“I think I’ll buy that,” she said.

It was 2009, clouds were closing in on the economy, and logic suggested that after 26 years with Barclays and in a key position of commercial director, she might be financially rash to plunge into small business.

But she was resolved. “When I had previously bought houses, refurbished and sold them in personal capacity, the company had done my decorating work,” she says. “I knew the men and their standards of decorating. They weren’t only competent but polite towards customers. I thought: ‘I don’t want them to lose their jobs.’”

Three were involved, and a part-time administrative assistant. Hayley in her bank chair was more used to assessing the workings of companies with maybe £25m turnover. But negotiations went ahead.

The deal was signed. And while the business has in no way been run as a social enterprise, Hayley has ensured that beyond the bottom line jobs have actually increased too. Today’s workforce can be up to 20 depending on the job in hand.

Besides an additional two to the full-timers, Hayley has a reliable list of similarly proficient painters who come in on a sub-contract basis.

Most names on the customer list now represent new business, and that business can vary from Grade II Listed houses, universities, colleges, hotels, schools, factories, public sector buildings and shops to white lines on badminton courts and car parks.

“We can do very intricate work but also large factory ceilings and anything besides,” she says.

“Our men cover a wide range. We’ve strength and depth.” So much so, that tenders are being won not only on home ground Teesside, but also in the like of Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Hull.

And those convinced a website is almighty in attracting new business might be surprised that even a lot of Hayley’s distant work is coming through longstanding contacts, both hers and her husband’s.

She also works closely with another firm, Learning Space and Design. The company’s main revenue streams are in the education sector and hotels just now.

Hotels especially value the firm’s ability to redecorate by closing only one room a night, and Hayley’s particularly proud of the work done on The Cleveland Tontine at Staddlebridge, Northallerton.

“I loved that – a fantastic job,” she recalls. “Tom and Eugene McCoy there had been my clients at Barclays. We picked wallpapers and furnishings together, and we all had a say. The hotel has always been renowned for its quirkiness, and I think we’ve maintained that.”

Pride hasn’t clouded her business sense either. The company is still run as SE Decorators, the name given by the previous owner.

“I could think of many other names to give it,” she admits. “But SE Decorators after four decades carries a brand value not to be dismissed lightly. If you have a good brand, it’s worth keeping.”

Hayley doesn’t physically paint, but does all the pricing, invoicing, estimating, and goes on site all the way through to check the quality.

“I also interact with the client on colour and appearances and do a little design work.” Even three years ago, when she first went out to win work, she found herself considered to be doing man’s work.

“I had a variety of reactions,” she recalls.

“On one job the project manager said: ‘I’ve decided to employ you to keep the men happy, a little bit like Marilyn Monroe in the trenches,’” she adds. But she says: “The bank then had been very male dominated at my level - so no huge change. I don’t mind going in with steelcapped boots on. I don’t mind climbing up ladders to inspect the work in a warehouse with my hard hat and reflective jacket on. My knees might quake a little bit coming down. But I won’t be beaten.”

There’s self-fulfilment in controlling a job from start to finish. ”I like delivering customer service, making sure clients get what they want at the end of the day,” she says. “I also think having a woman’s eye on decorating brings attention to detail that a woman has and a man may not have.

“Our work standards have been excellent all along – don’t get me wrong. But I go on site every other day and I’ll walk around finished rooms and say what I’m not happy with and ask for a check-over.

“Our quality’s excellent. That’s the greatest pleasure I get out of the business.

“A lot of tradesmen go into people’s houses and aren’t polite, maybe don’t sweep the floors or vacuum afterwards. We walk into a house, paint it, come back out and the house, we hope, is as clean if not cleaner than when we went in. We’re conscientious like that about commercial and public buildings too.”

A customer in York recently emailed, saying: “I didn’t realise contractors like you still existed – unbelievable.” Unsurprisingly that letter’s going onto the updated website. Her steepest learning curve was in pricing to gain pole position.

Here she’s been greatly helped by Dave Livesey, the foreman, who’s been with the company since a teenager.

“He’s been fantastic,” she says. “He’d come out with me and say: ‘Come on, what do you think this should be?’ Then he’d talk me through...guide me through the process to get the price right. If I got the price wrong, even by £1 a square metre, I could really catch a cold.”

Today, of course, colds can be caught in other ways, especially from the knockout effect of one firm collapsing and bringing down others.

SE Interiors got the sniffles when a building firm it had worked with for 30 years went bust, owing SE about £12,000.

Hayley has spread risks now by expanding the customer base and its sectors covered.

Much more work is done now for hotels and government departments such as probation and passport offices.

Her banking instincts still intact, she manages prudently – not from a business park but from a room at the family home in Wynyard, Sedgefield, where she and Gary were among the first residents 16 years ago.

She had taken no salary for the first 12 months after they invested in the business.

“This gave us a chance to buy more vans and other equipment. We’ve four vans now and can go anywhere.” She has no regrets about the career change and loves working for herself, even though she has to work far beyond normal working hours, ensuring compliance with all the health and safety, employment and other regulations and paper work.

“We can’t afford to take on someone who’ll take over that side of it. I understand the reasons for it all but it is hard work. We comply. It’s the right thing to do.

“When you work for a big organisation you‘ve a help desk and if anything goes wrong you just ring and someone else can fix it for you. Now I’ve had to teach myself a lot of skills I didn’t have before. I went from having many conveniences to having to solve even the computer problems.”

And far from offloading admin, Hayley’s preparing to shoulder more. She’s taken to serial entrepreneurship, modestly but ambitiously. She’s opening a five-station hairdressers and a beauty treatment business, Tilli Catelli and Omkara Beauty respectively, in Thornaby.

This has meant buying the former James and Baker solicitors building that’s lain empty for three years at Thornaby, after Andrew James retired and sold out to Blackett Hart & Pratt.

Besides the business premises there are two two-bedroom flats and five rooms, and in five months Hayley has organised a full conversion, discovering also that getting gas and electricity put in is nowhere as easy as it used to be.

While she owns the businesses, she’s bringing in Sam Mulgrew to run Tilli Catelli and daughter Emily, 19, a qualified beauty therapist, for Omkara.

So son Adam, 21, is now the only Lumby not directly involved in family business. He works in sales for Lookers Teesside Volkswagen at Middlesbrough. And Hayley in fact will be doing consultancy and administration for Gary’s new company that she has a stake in too: Focus on Success Gary, who was awarded an MBE in 2008 for services to the finance industry, also worked at Barclays, heading the small business unit, before becoming North East regional business manager at Yorkshire at Yorkshire Bank.

He was joint head of business banking for five years before heading the company’s retail banking, overseeing more than 230 branches and 2,500 staff.

He eventually became UK director of small business at Yorkshire and Clydesdale Banks, managing a team of 350.

He’s on the board of several organisations including the Leeds, York and North York Chamber of Commerce, and has recently been appointed non-executive director at Guisborough based Active Financial Services.

It looks as if a lot of admin at Focus on Success, working from Wynyard, will fall on Hayley’s shoulders. But she’s up for it.

“I always worked very long hours at Barclays,” she says. “I love a rather busy life.”

READ MORE: BQ recently went behind the scenes of a new scheme aimed at supporting SMEs and start-ups which, like Hayley's, have much potential. Read the full report here.