Small Business Stories: Steve Hollands

Starting up

30 December 2022

Starting your own business takes hard work and dedication. But it also takes time to make it the success you know it can be.

With 38 years in the trade, Steve’s no rookie, but he’s still working hard to learn new techniques to help him be the best in his field. And when his tools were stolen and his business was threatened, AXA was there to help him get back to what he does best.

Here, Steve tells AXA why the best lesson to learn in his business is still the old classic: measure twice, cut once.

Hi Steve. Can you tell us when you started your business and where you learned your trade?

I worked for a guy for about 10 or 12 years. He was a carpentry contractor and he’s the one who taught me. I left to then go on my own in the early to mid-90s, and then I’ve been working for myself ever since. I do general carpentry, I’ve done a lot of kitchen fitting, which I guess has become a bit of a specialty.

You’re always learning about new materials, new tools that come out, different blades to work on different materials. New techniques that save you time or the new way of doing things. But you always rely on your basics, the skills you learned from day one. Things like ‘measure twice cut once’. It’s a cliché but it’s true. It applies to everything.

How long have you been in the trade and how long do you think it'll be before you think about retiring?

I’ve been doing it since I was about 20, so I’ve been at it for about 38 years. And I want to keep doing it until I can’t do it any more, basically. I still enjoy it, it keeps me moving. So as long as I’m healthy I’m happy to keep going.

Do you think you're better at the job today than you were when you started out at 20?

Oh yeah, massively. There’s a lot of things that younger lads do differently to me, but I prefer to do it the way I know how. It’s the experience I have.

How do you find work, do you advertise?

I’ve never advertised, no. I’ve always relied on word of mouth. It’s worked for me so far. I’m maybe a bit unusual in that I’ve never advertised. People younger than me are probably all over Checkatrade and sites like that, but it’s not something I’ve ever had to do. My work comes from recommendations. A big part of what I do is gaining the trust of the people I work for. If I trust them and they trust me that’s a good relationship and we’ll do a good job together.

How do you build that trust?

Hopefully within a day or two of me working on the job they see that I know what I’m doing. And even before that, when you’re speaking to them ahead of the job they should know that you’re someone who is alright, that you’re going to do that you say you’ll do.

Have you felt any impact from the cost of living crisis? How has that impacted your industry?

It’s something that I’m starting to consider. I might have to look at putting my prices up, but I haven’t yet. The things I’m buying, the materials and the tools are all getting more expensive. I don’t like to overcomplicate the price when I quote a job. I might think ‘that material will probably cost about £50’, and then when I go to get it now it’s £60. If I’m buying a few different things and they’re all 10% or 12% more expensive than they used to be then I’m leaving money on the table, which is never good. It’s something I’m keeping an eye on for sure.

Have you ever had to make a claim with AXA?

It was probably about four or five years ago*. I was on a new build site and I was doing the kitchen of the show house, with my van parked outside the plot.

One of the site managers asked if I would move my van inside the compound because they were going to re-tarmac the driveway I was parked on, which I did. And then about two hours later the manager came to me to say that they’d had a few vans broken into on the compound, and mine was one of them.

I went and had a look and they had gone through the side door. Luckily I actually had a lot of my tools with me on the site I was working on, but they got some big tool I use. Things like a router, a nail gun, a mitre saw… Even just there, those tools are very expensive but unfortunately they’re all easy to pick up and carry off.

I called the police but they couldn’t really do anything. But luckily I was covered with AXA. I had public liability and my van insurance with AXA. I think the total cost of the tools was about £600. They had some special blades in them so they were pretty expensive on their own.

How did you feel when you saw the van broken into for the first time?

It’s like being kicked in the stomach by a horse. Simple as that. Because you immediately know you’re a couple of hundred pounds down, or even thousands. And it’s gut wrenching. You can’t work anymore because you haven’t got the tools to do the job. So you need to replace them, and you’re replacing them with money you can’t earn because you’re not working. Then you need to get the van repaired as well.

I’m permanently worried about it, even now. It makes you feel like you’re never safe. My house has never been broken into but I imagine it’s the same feeling. Not quite the same invasion of privacy, but not far off it. And I’m worried it might happen again.

I probably took about two days off to replace the tools, and then more time off when the van was getting repaired. That’s time lost, hours lost.

It’s a massive concern in this line of work, getting your tools stolen. It’s a massive downside of our game. Your tools are your lifeline. Because they’re so expensive to replace. If I’m working somewhere and I’ve got all my tools with me in the van, you could be talking about £4000 worth of tools that I’ve got on that job.

Does having the insurance in place help alleviate that worry?

The insurance was a nice back up to have when it happened. To be fair, AXA were very good. They asked me for some receipts for the tools, which I had, and it got dealt with quick enough. It wasn’t hard work to get it sorted. No problem. The claims side of it was decent.

We all get things wrong now and again and mistakes happen, everyone suffers setbacks. It’s all about how you deal with it. It’s the same in trades as it is with how AXA dealt with my insurance claim. You dealt with it. And I like to think that if I do something wrong on a job, I deal with it.

What gives you the biggest sense of achievement in your work?

When you do a nice job. That’s why I’m hoping to carry on doing it, because it can be so satisfying. You’re working on something for a while and it all comes to fruition and you can look at it and say ‘that looks alright, that’. And if your customer is happy too, it’s massive.

*Steve’s claim was processed by AXA on 12 September 2018

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