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Industry interview: Wolsey Tiling

Antony Alexander owner of Wolsey Tiling, took a rather unorthodox route into the industry, beginning his career with a series of corporate office jobs after leaving school and skipping university.

Eighteen months after starting his own business however, it’s those early experiences that have helped him establish a highly successful niche on the UK’s East coast, where Wolsey Tiling operates. This month, TSJ spoke with Alexander about that journey from the office to the tools, as well as a few of the lessons he’s learned on the way.

According to Alexander, he wasn’t particularly interested in school, leaving education instead with a strong desire to – as he says – “really do my own thing”. Initially, this meant a series of corporate roles with international manufacturers, serving various markets including arborists and lawn care. During this time, Alexander worked his way up through technical customer roles, to product management, eventually to a lead marketing role at his previous company.

In that final position, he was responsible for managing the brand and ensuring the product on offer suited its customer base. This entailed a lot of market research, as well as a lot of direct interaction with those customers. “I’ve always been very keen on understanding the needs of the market I’m serving,” he says.

Ultimately though, as interesting and enjoyable as some of these roles had been, Alexander still wasn’t quite doing his own thing. He recalls a recent conversation with his mum, who reminded him that “even as a boy” he had a strong desire to set up a business. His progression through the corporate world had reached about as far as he was interested in going. “It was either: carry on with that and end up in a directorship role or something like that, or leave and do my own thing.” Of course, this was also the era of lockdowns during the pandemic, which forced its own reflections.

Working from home throughout the period, spending more time with his son, Alexander was able to reassess what it was he wanted from his career – and it was time for a change. Fortunately, he was able to leave that role with the financial freedom to take some time out and start something new.

Something new
Having left his marketing role, it was time for Alexander to make a decision. He knew he wanted to enter a trade, but which? He describes himself as “very hands on,” having worked on cars since he was six and rebuilt engines from the age of nine. More recently, a few home refurbishment projects had given him some grounding in various trade skills. “That was kind of ground up,” he says. “So we were back to brick. You know, floors up, ceilings down – it was a full refurb on each of the properties.”

Throughout those projects, he realised, tiling was the element he’d enjoyed the most, and so after a period of retraining, Alexander started Wolsey Tiling on the second of January, 2021, “with no work booked in!” Fortunately, he was able to secure a few jobs quickly through local contacts, and with that small initial boost, he began to market aggressively. “With the marketing background, I really relied on that to promote the business through Facebook and Instagram, while also just being very hungry,” he explains. With that mentality, he would trawl for work, and rarely turn even small jobs down. “Some of my first jobs were just replacing one or two tiles where they’d drilled through and cracked them.. Little things like that, started to build momentum.”

From there, he made sure to continue seeking out work proactively, attending networking events and talking with other members of the trade. By the middle of January 2021, Alexander had work booked for the following three months – and he hasn’t had less since. In fact, the work has gotten busy enough to warrant an expansion, with Alexander taking on a trainee in December 2022. “He works very, very well, and is getting his skill level up to a standard where he’ll be able to run jobs by himself as a tile fitter.” Beyond this, Wolsey Tiling subcontracts two other guys for some of the preparation before Alexander and his trainee take over for the tile fitting – “and that works quite well for us”.

Hometown heroes
As he continued to grow Wolsey Tiling, Alexander found a particular niche in high-end residential jobs. Early on, the company was hired a few times by a local contractor who specialises in second home refurbishments, primarily in affluent areas along the coast such as Southwold and Walberswick.

Since then, thanks to the quality and consistency of the company’s work, that contractor has exclusively used Wolsey Tiling for all its tile installation. These refurbishments (which often include extensions) tend to take up to 12 months to complete. “Locally they’re very much known as high-end places,” Alexander explains. “Million pound upward homes that we’re working on.”

Alexander says Wolsey Tiling is underpinned by two main principles. The first is simply doing good work, with good materials and good prep beforehand, but the second (and perhaps more easily overlooked) is his contact and flexibility with customers. “We will work with the customer to deliver the finish they want. That might be a contractor that’s working on a two, three, four million pound home, and we’re doing all the tiling in that home, or it might be all architect-driven, where I’ve got drawings and layouts and I don’t even have to look at the property beforehand!”

No matter how unusual the job though, Alexander sees it as his responsibility to provide consultation and help to achieve the best result possible. On a recent occasion, for example, he was asked to quote at a Tudor hunting lodge, where even the clients weren’t exactly sure what they wanted. “So we spent a lot of time looking at different tile suppliers, different materials. We put in the underfloor heating for them, we worked on their bathrooms and ended up with a finish beyond their expectations.”

In fact, not only does he view it as a responsibility, for Alexander, being able to consult on a job is practically a requirement. “We specifically do not do sitework,” he says. “We’re not going to work for large housing developers, it’s just not what we’re into.” Even with work where an architect or an interior designer has laid out a tiling specification, he will review the drawings and feed back if he spots a part of the design that won’t work. Where the company does need to query a specification, Alexander strictly adheres to the best practice according to British Standards. “We will go back and do the research to make sure everything that goes into a project is correct.”

Detail oriented
Whether it was drilled in throughout his corporate career or perhaps just an innate quality, Alexander is intently focused on the fine details. For Wolsey Tiling, it’s clearly important to anticipate as many of the potential challenges that could arise on site, and to mitigate them through careful planning. “We’re very good at problem solving,” Alexander says. “We will take time to set our workstations out effectively, we spend a lot of time on layout before we lay anything. I like to know where every cut is going to be before we even lay the first tile. We will spend time doing that, so when we’re on site, the only challenge is logistics.”

Sometimes, those challenges arise because of the environments Wolsey Tiling works in. Unlike a building site or a housing development, the residences Alexander’s team is hired to tile are often occupied by real people with real lives. Minimising the impact and disruption their work brings to these people is one of the company’s key directives. For example, a recent job saw the contractor tiling two bathroom floors in a home with a two year-old child. “Obviously he was very interested in what was going on, so it was important to remember things like: closing stairgates, 4
making sure they were safe, that they’re not going to come in and go headfirst into a bucket of adhesives!”

Another example saw the company installing a wetroom for an elderly lady, and again, it was key to account for the human impact of their work on the home. In that instance, this meant liaising with the client’s daughter to ensure she had somewhere else to go and shower while hers was inaccessible. Alexander reflects that: “Often people may not think beyond ‘OK I want to get my shower room done,’ and that’s great, but you may then be two weeks without a shower. How do we deal with that?”

Whenever Wolsey finishes up at a residence for the day, the team makes sure to leave the site as close as possible to how it was before they arrived. “It’s just about making sure that everything’s left tidy so they can still use the bath at the end of the day. We’d cover everything and make sure the floor is safe and clean. We’d put down carpet protector because, as you know, accidents and spills do happen, but we make sure all of that is looked after.” It may be easy to overlook these details, especially when they’re external to the installation itself, but for Alexander, showing consideration to his clients is a key part of being not simply a good tiler, but a decent human being. “For instance, whenever I go into someone’s home for a consultation, I take my shoes off, just in case I might have something on my shoes or boots. To me I see that as just being respectful.”

Looking ahead
Of course, no amount of planning can account for everything, particularly on the macro scale. It’s an unavoidable fact that between the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, amidst a broader global economic downturn, individual confidence and spending has taken a hit. Indeed, although Wolsey Tiling began operating after the stricter lockdowns were lifted, the company has absolutely felt some of the economic ramifications more recently. “I’ve definitely seen less enquiries,” Alexander admits, “but the enquiries now do tend to be for larger more complex projects”.

Particularly as a smaller contractor, one of the most pressing issues Wolsey Tiling faces is the ever-increasing cost of materials. “Inflation right now is horrendous. I’m quoting jobs out for next year, and I’m having to make people very aware of the fact that materials are increasing and are likely to continue doing so. I manage this by discussing the projects in detail and provide an estimate or quote, but I make them aware that those are estimates, based on what we know today with the inevitable expectation that the cost of materials will increase.”

Fortunately for Wolsey Tiling, its clientele is at least somewhat insulated from the worst effects of a sluggish economy, with many individuals treating home renovations and refurbishments as a safer investment than leaving their money in the bank. “They’re seeing that the value of their money is decreasing,” Alexander explains, “so they’re choosing to invest it now rather than wait two or three years for the cost of that job to increase.”

Whether it’s pushing the word out through targeted social media ad campaigns, or trawling through suppliers’ websites to track costs and predict where prices might rise in the months to come, Alexander does his best to anticipate where the business is likely to experience challenges and deal with them proactively. “The product management background for me has been massively helpful with that, to be able to do that forecasting,” he says. It’s impossible to say just what’s on the horizon, but speaking to Alexander makes it clear that come what may, Wolsey Tiling will be ready and waiting.
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