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Will Ryles

Where there’s a will there’s a way

Monday 3 January 2011 9:00

Will Ryles and his tiny team make bathrooms look different. He tells Brian Nicholls how one family’s life in the bush inspired the launch of a bold venture in home improvement here.

Will Ryles, though still only 23, lacks no inspiration as he drives his impressive business towards the end of its first financial year. His dad is a creator, his late grandfather was a resourceful administrator. And Will, as he explains intentions behind his impressive start-up Dovcor, shows both imagination and ingenuity of his own. His Sunderland firm designing and supplying bathroom suites and furniture promises, through him and two apprentices, to fill showrooms with elegantly styled and cleverly crafted products all competitively priced. As the pristine launch brochure puts it succinctly: “Bathe in luxury, without the luxury price tag.” Ryles is coping with challenges you’d associate with any young business.

But he’ll hardly be caught in situations like his grandfather and father were. Grandfather Ernie was head of postal service in Tanganyika (now, with Zanzibar, called Tanzaniya). Born in 1910 at the main police station building in South Shields, where his father eventually retired a sergeant, Ernie passed exams and got to grammar school.

Because his parents couldn’t afford ongoing education from there, Ernie at 16 joined the post office round the corner from the police station and worked as a telegram delivery boy prior to promotion. Then In 1936, supported by the head postmaster of South Shields, Ernie replied to an advertisement for junior postal controllers in East Africa.

Out of 500 applicants, Ernie was one of five in the country to go. He was 26 and had to learn Swahili in six months or lose the job. He learned the language and in time had 2,000 people working for him. Inevitably, personnel issues could require unorthodox responses. After a lion ate one of Ernie’s messengers for dinner, the runners – used where no roads existed – were issued with rifles and a pack of bullets. But when they repeatedly came back with no bullets Ernie had them followed and discovered they were shooting game to distribute in their villages. So he issued them with only two bullets which they had to sign out and sign in. An employee asked: “What happens if I come up against a lion?” Ernie replied: “You shoot it.” He asked: “What happens if I come up against a second lion?” Ernie replied: “You shoot it.” The employee said: “What if I come up against a third lion?” Ernie said: “Well, you run.” There were calls beyond duty too.

Ernie and Will’s father Howard, who was then nine, were asked by the district commissioner for Mehengi district to help him dispose of a rogue elephant that was trampling villages and had killed a young African. The commissioner placed Ernie and Howard where the elephant emerging from the bush would see them. It duly appeared and charged. The commissioner fired his elephant gun but the elephant kept coming. With militant African nationalist movement Mau Mau then active, Howard had been taught how to shoot at the age of eight but tells BQ today: “I did a quick run to the right, fearing the worst, my pistol still out of sight.” Ernie fired, however, and the elephant stumbled and crashed in a dust cloud 20 feet from the party.

Though in public service, Ernie had entrepreneurial instincts too. As there were no fresh eggs there then, he had 150, day-old chicks flown in from South Africa. Eggs became plentiful. One night in the pen there was massive commotion and flying feathers. Ernie and Howard ran out in their pyjamas with pistols, hurricane lamps and a panga knife. Calm was restored when Ernie chopped the head off an eight-inch diameter python.

Ernie’s hospitality was recognised at the highest level. One day the district commissioner drove up to Ernie’s home with four witches manacled to the rear of his vehicle, and evidence to hand that babies had been boiled for their fat. Ernie’s servants fled for a week on seeing the witches. But the district commissioner, unperturbed, stopped for a glass of beer before leading the witches on towards jail and a murder trial. Bathrooms such as Will provides in the North East now would probably have been beyond the imaginations of the expats in Dar-es-Salaam. They’re all English design, and Will explains the advantage of that over mainland European products.

“Most big companies from the continent come over here and impose their own furniture design on the UK,” he says. “But the UK’s post-1950 housing stock has small bathrooms. So we design furniture suited to the UK and modular so it can be fitted together in a variety of ways within whatever space is available. Only a few places will build the kind of furniture we want, with curves and quality finish. So we go to factories in Italy for our manufacturing.

“We make a big thing about our products being made in Italy because a lot of bathroom furniture these days comes from China and the Far East and isn’t always as good in quality. So between design and manufacture we offer a high quality European product.” There’s another attraction. Whereas furniture from abroad may cost £800 to about £1,200, Will says his furniture starts at about £500 rising to £700. It has a painstaking quality too. “We’ve a key theme in our design and relate it to the entire product,” he says. “Some of our furniture is already into a third version as we improve and improve.” Howard, a distinguished designer now living near Preston, owns half the company but contracts for it. ”I deal with everything,” Will explains. “I commission his designs. I take a drawing to my dad and say: ‘Can you design this and make it look nice?’. He’s amazingly gifted. He probably changed the face of English furniture but others took the credit.

So he went freelance 20 years ago and freelances for a number of clients today.” Ernie had been the life and soul of Dar-es- Salaam parties, a renowned singer of Geordie songs on Tanganyika Radio, and taking a leading Gilbert and Sullivan role with Dar-es-Salaam Players.

But as expats sometimes find, his return home wasn’t quite so rollicking. He’d applied for an even higher job in Dar-es-Salaam but it went to someone through rank and privilege. He warned the powers beforehand their decision was flawed since he was best for the job – but the decision stood. Ernie retired and the family packed their goods and chattels. Six months later the individual preferred shot himself. Ernie declined to take the job second time round, returned to the North East and worked again at the South Shields post office. It was now hardly what he’d been used to, so he bought Haltwhistle post office and moved there. Thus Will’s father, born near Lake Victoria in 1945, was 12 when he came to England with the family in 1957. He soon found Africa’s education levels had been below those of boarding school here, so he had to recover a lot of ground, except in Swahili, which Will thinks he probably wrote in and spoke better than English then.

Progress was made, though, and Howard later commuted to college in Newcastle to study design. He won awards and became design director for a number of companies including G Plan. Another age, another generation... At their home, a 1700s converted barn at Haighton near Preston, Will had helped his dad sort out his bills since he was 12. Will reckons, despite that, he himself was the laziest, most laid-back pupil at school.

But he got to Newcastle University where, despite failing maths which he hates, he resat and got 97%. He graduated in economics and business management, then considered the future. “My dad’s always been in furniture and I never wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps because I’m a very independent kind of person,” he says. “I wanted to start my own business, though. I thought: What can I go into? I’d watched my dad every day for 18 years, the best designer I’ve ever seen. “So I thought: ‘Why not utilise him and I’ll go into kitchens?’ Then I realised kitchens might be expensive to go into so I thought of something smaller – bathrooms.” He registered the company which operates from De Vere House, Riverside Drive in Sunderland, then spent two years planning. The recession hit at take-off.

But Will had learned from his dissertation on Chinese marketing theory in the 15th century. Credit had dried up then too after years and years of people ripping each other off. They in the end had gone back to a more honourable time when a handshake meant something.

“Basically,” Will warns, “it was about how contracts were not enforceable. People could do you over for a thousand pounds. There’s a massive link between then and now.” So far about £330,000 is invested in Will’s business at a time when many banks, he finds, aren’t prepared to back a 23-year-old entrepreneur. While a lot of cash has already come from the business itself, he acknowledges his parents’ help, and an inheritance from his adventurous grandfather who inspired his sense of independence. He’s convinced if his business tried to sell through national chains its profit margins would be driven down massively.

“They’d also tie us to contracts where they could pull out leaving us with a lot of unsold items,” he says. Preferring smaller trade customers, he inclines towards plumbers’ merchants which, like his company, are North East rooted. He also plans to have a sales team to promote Dovcor in similar outlets nationally.

There’s no direct selling online – “that would go behind our trade customers’ backs” – but people can get information and find a local stockist there. If they phone they’ll probably talk to Will. He deals directly with sales, importing, warehousing, product design, brochures and website because, as he says: “I’m absolutely passionate about this business. I love my job and wouldn’t change it for the world.” He’ll be getting a lot of correspondence to answer as well. But perhaps nothing quite like the telegram his grandfather Ernie received. Referring to one of his upcountry mail runners, it read: “Sorry to report runner taken by crocodile on lake shore.

Pleased to say mail OK and new runner in place.”