Rob Wicker is Operations Director of London-based property maintenance service Swiftflow, which was founded in 2002 by entrepreneurs and long-standing friends Rob and Graham Williams (Technical Director). Swiftflow’s team of engineers service residential, commercial and industrial properties. The company works in a number of areas including carpentry, plumbing, locksmith and drainage services.

Q: Can you give us a brief background on your entrepreneurial history and the history of Swiftflow?

A: My entrepreneurial history is Swiftflow. For the last nine and a half years it has been central to my life. Before starting the company, Graham was employed as a plumber and drainage engineer, by another company, and I was working in the media. We both desperately wanted a change. After a long discussion and some market research we found there was a gap for a branded, quality property maintenance company that would do what it said it would do – turn up on time, work hard, and focus on customer service. From there we’ve grown to where we are today: a customer-focused, honest company.

Q: Why is challenging negative perceptions of your industry so important to your success?

A: The negative perceptions that people have of the construction and property maintenance industries are regularly reported in the media, highlighting bad service and extortionate prices. We want to emphasize that there are good engineers and businesses within our industry, who work hard and provide great value-for-money. We are true to our policy of honesty and efficiency, which our customers value and which leads to repeat contracts.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake you made when starting Swiftflow?

A: To try and grow too big, too quickly and branding everything too early. As much as that was always the long–term strategy, we should have held off for some time to ensure we were stable. We’re now in a much better position to shout about where we are and what we’re doing.

Q: To what extent are your customers attracted by your green credentials?

Our customers aren’t directly attracted by them at this stage. We decided to highlight our green credentials just as the market turned sour. Corporate social responsibility and green awareness suddenly dropped off the radar of many of our commercial clients. We’re true to our integrity and pleased with our direction, and we know that when the market recovers, and CSR increases in importance for our clients, that they’ll value our core principles. At this stage, it doesn’t differentiate us to them; we do that through our service. We continue to highlight our core beliefs, though.

Q: For Swiftflow, sustainability seems to be as equally important as success?

A: We believe we need both in equal measure. Yes, it is more expensive to run the business sustainably but not excessively, and if we can gain additional clients from it then it’s worth it. It’ll never become a burden for us. We’ve pioneered it in our sector and we’re proud of that. In 2012, government legislation for disposal of waste is changing. Everything must be either recycled or reused, which we’ve been doing for a long time, but many of our competitors have to catch up.

Q: What do you think is your biggest USP?

A: Ultimately, we passionately care about our customers. We will go the extra mile – or two – to totally satisfy them. We do everything possible to make sure they are happy with the service, end-to-end. The green angle doesn’t sell the business but it is core for us.

Q: What advice would you give to a company just starting up in your sector? And what are the biggest challenges faced by firms in your industry?

A: The truth is that it’s a really hard sector to work in. Because many people hold negative perceptions of those in our industry, you have to prove your innocence because you’re guilty before you’ve done anything, which is really difficult. People usually ring us when they’re stressed and urgently need something fixing, so it’s down to us to work quickly and attentively to resolve their problems.

That said, I love our industry. It can be really fun, as every day is completely different. If you are prepared for the hard work and want to provide a good service there is a financial gain and it is a great industry to work in. It can be a costly business to run so controlling finances is essential. There’s always going to be work around – people are always going to need water, electricity and heat.

We keep customers informed, so they are aware of what, when and how the service will happen. Customers appreciate this.
Q: What strategies do you employ to ensure customer retention?

A: We ensure our customers are happy: we do what we’ve promised. We keep customers informed, so they are aware of what, when and how the service will happen. Customers appreciate this.

Q: Competitive pricing is important. How do you decide on the most appropriate hourly rates?

A: You look at your competitors and work out where you want to position yourself. If you feel you have a synergy with the dearest people in the market, price yourself appropriately. We think our service is similar to those at the top of the market but we’re priced in the middle, so we’re value-for-money and competitive. Your clients need to be aware of pricing from the start so they know what to expect.

Q: What’s the most important thing to look for when recruiting staff?

A: We’ve got a great spectrum of employees. We look for things we can’t teach: integrity and honesty, partly confirmed through CRB checks. We want staff who care and want to be part of the team. Yes, we do look at our tradesmen’s qualifications but experience and the right attitudes counts too. Obviously, gas engineers must have appropriate qualifications. However, looking outside the box and seeing how our employees can add to the team is just as important, and we have a lot of apprentices working with us, so they can learn firsthand from the more skilled engineers.

Q: What steps do you take to stay ahead of your competitors?

A: We are concentrating on refining our internal systems to improve our service, which we think keeps us competitive, and differentiates us. We do look at our competitors’ and keep an eye on the market but it’s not the most important thing. It’s good to be aware of how your competition operate within the market place but we don’t follow suit in their promotions or service offerings unless we deem it absolutely necessary. It is vital to be sure you are working efficiently first. If you’re not running your own business properly, there’s absolutely no point looking at your competitors.

Q: What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

A: Recently, I’ve been told to stop working in the business, and start working on it, because of the size we are and the stage we’re at. I need to focus on managing the business overall; not directly on the day-to-day running. Having said that, don’t do that too early on. Our business has prospered due to the relationships we have with our clients – many of which are based on personal interaction with them so managing client relations is vital.

Q: What is the most important thing you can do to be successful in business?

A: Work hard! There is so much to do. Putting in the hours can’t be beaten. Your life is going to be on hold, and if you’re not happy with this, don’t do it. You are constantly on the go. If an engineer phones in sick, jobs still have to be completed and it’s going to be you that has to solve it. As the director, you’ve got to get up every day, regardless of how you’re feeling. When things aren’t going your way, you’ve got to resolve the problem, not ignore it, because as you grow and change, your problems change. You’ve got to be strong-willed and if you’re the kind of person who gives up easily, don’t start a business.