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    W Stephens & Sons: when business runs in the family

    With more and more young people following their parents into business, we look at one business who has kept it in the family.

    15 June 2017
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  • For Chris Stephens, business is a family affair.

    After leaving school and studying, Chris decided to follow his father and grandfather in the family business, W Stephens & Sons, in 2002.

    And he’s not the only one following in dad’s footsteps. According to ONS data1, 26% of people working in the trades sector say they learnt their trade from their dad, and one in five trace their trade back to their grandfather’s generation.

    The building trades have also seen the sharpest acceleration in father-to-son businesses over the past generation, as almost half (45%) of tradesmen aged 18-35 took over their dad’s trade.

    So ahead of Father’s Day, we caught up with Chris to find out about his biggest inspiration, his hopes for the future and what it’s like being part of a truly generational business.

    Can you tell us a little about the history of the business?

    My granddad Walter started the business when he came back from the war in 1945. My Uncle Dave joined in 1967 and my Dad Ray in 1973, and I was the latest to join in 2002. My own son is due to be born in the next two weeks and I’d definitely like to see him as the next recruit to the firm!

    Walter worked as a miner before he was called up to Word War Two, but after years away at the front, he faced starting his life and work from scratch. He bought a pushbike and that’s how he did his first jobs: he had his tools on the back of the bike and looked for work.

    Who is your biggest inspiration?

    Many people in our area today remember my grandad Walter. He was such a bubbly character, really larger than life, and he was a genuine entrepreneur. That’s a word that’s used a lot these days, but few deserve it like he did!

    People are always amazed at how long our firm has been running, we’ve survived 70 years and had a lot thrown at us: but it all goes back to my grandad. Honesty and a strong work ethic were instilled in my dad and uncle growing up, and that’s the way I was brought up too.

    That’s why we have customers who’ve been with the firm since the 1960s – we’ve worked on their first homes, second homes, third homes, and seen their lives and families change over the years too. When your lives are so closely bound up together, you’re not just plumber and client, you become friends too.

    What’s been the hardest part of running a small business?

    There have been low points over the years. I’ve been working in the business for 15 years and over that time we’ve seen out two recessions. There were a couple of months during the financial crisis when we saw work start to dry up and new customers weren’t appearing, but we’ve always pulled through. Having such a large client base has helped us: ultimately people always need plumbing work doing, and they’ll return time and again to people they trust.

    It’s a tough job at times, but I can honestly say that 99 per cent of the time I wake up happy and I look forward to going to work. There’s enormous satisfaction in seeing people happy, knowing how much they appreciate your hard work, skill and advice.

    What would you say to young people thinking of following in your footsteps?

    We started taking on apprentices for the first time a few years ago, and I always tell them that the plumbing business is the best choice for a young person today. It’s a career for life: starting salaries for young people are very respectable, and once they’re trained they have a career for life and a fast route into well-paid self-employment.

    I’ve never wanted to do anything else: I went away to study after leaving school, but I always wanted to come back to the family firm. I’ll never stop working: my dad’s still working in his late sixties and still loves the variety, different people and being at the heart of his family’s business.

    What advice would you give to a fellow small business?

    There is plenty of work around if you’re prepared to work hard. Our trade is pretty much future proof. Of course, materials and technologies change – my granddad wouldn’t recognise the job if he were around to day, things have moved on that fast. But our history has shown, if you’re adaptable and treat your customers well, you’ll be able to build a business that survives the test of time.

    We’ve also never really advertised in the traditional way, but always relied on word of mouth and the strength of our family name. I’d say about seventy per cent of our work comes from repeat customers. It means you really can’t ever leave a customer disappointed, or do anything less than a perfect job.

    And what’s next for W Stephens & Sons?

    This Father’s Day will be the first one with my own son, and we’ll have my Dad Ray, Uncle Dave and the rest of the family round to celebrate. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve built up, and I fully intend to be still working in the firm in 2045 when it’s our centenary – and I hope my son will be working beside me then too!

     

    1 Office for National Statistics, Employment by occupation dataset, August 2016, https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/datasets/employmentbyoccupationemp04



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