Jonathan Hey is Managing Director of Westbury Garden Rooms, an established company that designs and creates bespoke garden rooms for consumers and businesses. In this interview Jonathan tells us about his company and gives us the low down on how established firms can remain innovative and become more sustainable.

Q: You’ve been established now for 25 years. How important is it for established companies to remain innovative?

A: If you lead by design, others will follow and inevitably copy your formula for success. By continually innovating you can always keep ahead of your competitors and improve service and product.

Westbury innovate by embracing modern technologies. We are continually researching new materials and implement those that improve longevity of our timber garden rooms and orangeries. For example, we use a product called ‘Flag’, which is a synthetic roof membrane that offers exceptional waterproofing properties in comparison to traditional lead. Also our timber is engineered which is far more durable and stable than a hardwood, plus it is much greener!

For our wooden windows business it is essential to continually innovate in order to keep ahead of the latest building regulations and thermal insulation requirements.

There’s no such thing as standing still in business. You simply have to innovate and businesses that don’t learn that lesson quickly will become stagnant and the rot will set in. It isn’t always immediately obvious but by not being a forward thinking business, you won’t be able to recruit the best people, which in turn will lead to a poorer service and then over time, clients will start to drift away.

Q: You’ve obviously invested significant amounts of money in sustainability. Can you give the reasons for this?

A: I believe it is our future as well as everyone else’s, so we must take a positive stance regarding sustainability, both for our own benefit and that of our clients. Our suppliers are well positioned to help, due to the pressure we and others make upon them through the desires of us as manufacturers to be greener. This of course is both a positive and popular green message we can present to clients looking for proactivity regarding their carbon footprint.

Q: To what extent can a business be both sustainable and profitable?

A: They can go hand in hand. It is a misconception that being green costs more. For example we use all our wood waste to heat the offices, factory and spray shop via a Bio-Mass burner system installed during our recent invest programme. We have no need for Gas - in fact we have been disconnected.

This investment gave us the opportunity to become only the second company in the UK to be registered to the new Government incentive scheme, Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). This is the world’s first financial incentive scheme for renewable heat generation designed to help the UK reduce carbon emissions and hit its EU renewable energy targets. In the first three months of operation we have recovered 47596kWh of energy through the use of the BioMass boiler solution. As part of the RHI scheme we have received payments in excess of two thousand pounds from the Government, this alongside the overall saving on heating bills. Worth looking into!

Q: It seems that for businesses to become more sustainable without affecting cashflow they must ensure all investment in sustainability is integrated effectively with existing business processes and infrastructures. Do you agree, and if so, what tips would you give to SMEs to ensure the success of this process?

A: Yes I do agree. With our recent investment, it has been absolutely essential to integrate new technologies with traditional craftsmanship. We came across some challenges along the way, with some staff needing more encouragement to embrace the changes, but they soon understood the goal.

As with many things in business, senior management need to be seen to be 100 percent behind any changes, then even if employees are slightly reluctant they will see it is non-negotiable. If a separate ‘green’ team manages the process without much input from above, then it will a much harder process to manage.’

Q: You work in an industry that is often plagued with negative perceptions. How can a business in your sector successfully confront and manage these issues?

A: We must except that there are a few negative images of window and conservatory manufacturers out there. The “uPVC boys” as we refer to them are always spinning their BOGOF deals and amazing offers. This is not us! Our marketing direction reflects what we do, manufacturing a high quality product using timber, that is design for architectural beauty and technical precision.

A negative perception that can be more damaging is that uPVC will outlast a wooden window. This simply isn’t true. Yes, wooden windows take a little more care and will require painting, but you can repaint uPVC, and it will discolour and become brittle over time. We use a micro-pourus paint that we guarantee for 10 years on most of our products. We work very hard to get this message across. However the understanding by consumers that wooden windows looks FAR better than plastic, is NOT an issue!

It’s about having pride in what we do and effectively looking for opportunities to separate ourselves from the uPVC companies. I’ll give you some examples:

  • We have chosen to employ everyone and not use sub contractors which means we are far superior in every aspect of our work and everyone represents the Westbury brand which engenders pride and a level of customer service which wouldn’t be possible otherwise
  • The same goes for the office staff, our designers, architects, planners etc - they are all experts in their respective fields. You can’t just pay lip service to trying to change perceptions of an industry - it has to be woven in to every fibre of your business from sales, marketing, customer service, product development. Consumers are extremely savvy and they can smell a rat - you have to live and breathe being different to be convincing
  • In the workshop, we train people up from apprentices, thus ensuring they learn how to do things our way, not necessarily the fastest or the easiest route but it does mean that our craftsmanship is superior to our competitors
  • Personally, I’m a really hands on MD as I guess you’d expect when the business is my baby. I’m very rarely found behind my desk - always in the workshop or at clients seeing their reactions to every stage of the build. I don’t just pop in at the end and shake their hand - I want to know we clean up at the end of the day, that we leave a property in a sensible state for the client.
Q:  Homeowners often get very attached to their garden rooms, both pre- and post-construction. How do you ensure you manage the emotional connection and ensure customer expectations are met along the way?

A: Communication is the real key here.

Firstly, do not make promises you cannot keep. It is tough enough meeting a client’s expectations without setting the bar higher than you can achieve. Therefore we keep them very well informed, helping them understand that when work slows we are not slacking off or ignoring them, but that there are reasons, such as the ‘drying out’ process required for floor covers.

Secondly, we don’t use sales promotion techniques to get people to sign up before a certain deadline. Pushing people into making decisions too quickly will only lead to disappointment at a later date. By working alongside the client during the planning phase, our clients are wholly involved and expectations are managed from day one.

It’s also about pre-empting any potential issues before they arise. We’ve built enough timber extensions now to know where most of our clients have concerns and we can use that knowledge to prevent future situations arising. Forewarned is forearmed and most people are reasonable if they are kept well informed.

Finally, customer service is key. If you pay for a premium product, you expect a high level of customer service. Embedding high levels of customer service in to the company is also crucial when you are a small business like us and not attempting to fob the client off with an artificial customer services department who doesn’t really understand the minutiae of the task in hand.

Q: You employ all your own workers and stay away from contractors. What are the reasons for this? What challenges does this create?

A: By employing all our own builders for example, this actually presents fewer challenges than using subcontractors, as we have total control of what they are doing. This is one of the things that sets us apart from a crowded marketplace. Mercedes wouldn’t have any mechanic build their cars, they have Mercedes trained mechanics. The same goes for a Westbury Orangery. Timber can be difficult to work with, therefore each must be carefully constructed by experienced people.

Also, by having all our own employees we can include them in our Investors in People training programme, for which we have achieved Bronze status and are currently working towards Silver for Summer 2012.

If there are any challenges then it is the usual problems any employer face, such as; salaries, timekeeping and moral. The benefits to us and the client however are substantial.

Q: You started Westbury when the economy was unstable. Many entrepreneurs have undoubtedly been put off starting a business in the recent recession. Can you allay their concerns and offer any tips or advice?

A: The best advice is to find something that you love doing and are talented at, and develop that into a business. It makes getting through the tough times marginally easier. I personally had a genuine passion for architectural design and through building Orangeries and Garden Rooms, I found an excellent way to express myself.

It’s common sense but if you can build a business up during tough economic times, then you are really well positioned for things to fly when the recession loosens its grip. Lots of people only look to start a business when there is a more positive economy but then they don’t have the experience or learnings to grow quickly afterwards.

When the economy was unstable back in the late 90s, I learnt how to run a tight ship and it can be easy to lose sight of that when you become more profitable. My top tip is to always evaluate your outgoings and only spend on what really matters or what will make a difference to your business.

Q:  Some of your work focuses on the B2B market. To what extent does the experience of working for businesses differ from consumers and how can other businesses become more effective at providing the right service to each group?

A: They both require the same thing at the end of the project, perfection, as well as efficiency and communication.

A home owner will take a more personal stance on any decisions, while an architect or property developer will know precisely what they want to achieve.

On the B2B side of things, decisions are often made by committee and while it is good to get to know lots of people on the client side, we try not to keep in mind exactly who we report in to. Too many cooks do spoil the broth and so it makes sense for us to be really focused on a few select people who are the real decision makers.

Q:  You’ve been going a long time and must have employed lots of people. What tips would you give to an SME trying to build a competent and talented workforce?

A: I have found that by first finding trustworthy experienced people, you can build a team of people that will grow and develop with the company. Support them with relevant training and targeting improvement and introducing standardisation with schemes such as Investors in People. Trust them to follow direction, and they will become an asset.

However you will inevitably go through a lot of people before getting the right mix!

I also believe in strong leadership. Without this a team can lose focus.