HomeFeatured ArticlesThe UK’s Top Tiling Contractors JH Lidstone

The UK’s Top Tiling Contractors JH Lidstone

Established 60 years ago in Plymouth, JH Lidstone began life as a plastering, screeding and tiling company – and is “still very much the same to be honest” – company director Damian Lidstone tells TSJ.

As astute readers may have guessed already, JH Lidstone is a family business. First launched by Damian’s grandfather, the company was passed down to his father, and finally to Damian and his brother, who have run it for the last 25 years. “And my son has also joined the business now as a tiler,” Damian tells TSJ. “He’s done his apprenticeship as a tiler, so we’re into our fourth generation now.”

While JH Lidstone still operates in the same markets it did back in the ‘60s, its focus has gradually shifted more and more towards the tiling division over the years. At present, Damian estimates tiling and stone work account for 40-45% of the company’s overall turnover, while it largely avoids general plastering work. Explaining why exactly this shift occurred, Damian tells us: “There’s more risk involved in tiling and there’s more expense involved in tiling, so it’s harder for one-man-bands to set up and operate in the commercial field like we do.” Plastering, on the other hand, “is what it is,” Damian says, requiring less upfront investment in materials and equipment, and therefore leaving more space for one-man-band operations to compete.

Responding to this landscape, JH Lidstone has pushed into the commercial space, abandoning residential tiling entirely. “We just found that our guys were more suited to a building site, rather than people’s houses,” Damian says. “Leisure centres in particular are where we’ve really pushed forward. One of the big selling points with leisure centres is that they’re very high-risk work – in fact, some commercial tiling companies won’t even touch swimming pools and leisure centres.” Thanks to its multidisciplinary expertise, however, the Plymouth-based contractor is able to undertake these jobs from start to finish. “Because we employ plasterers and screeders and still do things in an old-fashioned way,” Damian explains, “we’ll do the backgrounds (I.e. the screeds and the renders) as well as the tiling. Therefore, if there are any failures, particularly in the pool tank, there’s only one place to come.” And the company has specialised in this area, completing 43 competition standard swimming pools over the last 25 years.

Most recently, the company has completed a job at the UK’s first Passivhaus-compliant leisure centre, St Sidwell’s Point in Exeter. Passivhaus energy usage standards are reportedly much more stringent than UK Building Regulations, and are achieved through thermal insulation and airtightness. JH Lidstone carried out the screeding and ceramic tiling in the pool tanks and the spa changing rooms. “It was big job, right through Covid,” Damian says. “And one we came out the other side of. It’s a job we’re very, very proud of.”

Considering the pressures involved in the project, his pride in the final result is more than understandable. “There was a high level of risk involved and that meant it needed a high level of supervision, from the contracts manager to the supervisor down to the guys on-site. There was no floating labour, it was just our main guys on site. Every other subcontractor that went before us, the block layers, the plumbers and the electricians, they were suffering in exactly the same way, for lack of men.”

On the other hand, this slowdown led to an unexpected (but welcome) side-effect, Damian explains. With the typical pressure to turn around as quickly as possible relieved, each trade was able to take that little bit of extra time and care in its work, and as a result, the job was produced to an “unbelievable” standard across the board. “Everybody was able to do the job properly. I know that sounds a little bit old-fashioned and a little bit twee, but it’s a fact.”

In addition to the quality of the work, though, the high quality of the materials used was assured thanks to the “fiercely protective” architects, Damian says. Council-owned leisure centres typically start life with incredibly high-value specifications, he explains, before quickly running into budgetary constraints – “and the tile spec is one of the first ones to get attacked”. Fortunately, in this case, the architects refused to compromise on the tiles. To its credit, the council managed to find some extra funds for the project and the tile specification was ultimately preserved. The results speak for themselves.

This project, particularly in its focus on energy efficiency and sustainability above nearly everything else, is part of a growing trend, Damian says. “We’ve aligned ourselves with the major players in our market, people like BAM construction, Kier Construction, Wilmott Dixon. If you want to be on their tier one subcontractor list now, you’ve got to sign up to their sustainability school.” For JH Lidstone, this means attending regular events on sustainability as well as helping main contractors develop more sustainable specifications. “Unfortunately, especially at the moment, most things get driven by money, but they certainly do encourage using more sustainable products where possible.”

Part of maintaining its good reputation in not just the industry but the local area is JH Lidstone’s ongoing commitment to taking on and training younger tilers. Here, the company maintains what Damian calls an “old school” approach, going above and beyond the basic requirements. “We don’t just give them a basic NVQ and call them a tiler. After that, we have them do an NVQ level 3, and then our own internal improver program, meaning they stay as a learner for another couple of years.” Not every trainee lasts: “Some people come into the building industry and don’t realise what a tough game it is, and they leave fairly rapidly.”

Making matters more difficult still, government support “really doesn’t scratch the surface,” Damian says. “Youngsters nowadays have got so many other options in their career paths, sat in warm offices rather than being out on a cold, damp building site.” Despite this, JH Lidstone knows it’s “very, very important” to keep the pipeline of skilled labour topped up, as challenging as it is. The construction sector is suffering a major shortage across all trades, particularly in the South West, Damian points out. “There’s a lack of good quality trained tilers, so that’s why we’ve focused on that for the last few years and brought through three or four of our own tilers who are still with us.” At the moment, JH Lidstone generally takes on one new apprentice a year, meaning they’re at different stages of development on a rolling basis.

Of course, tiling is a tough, physically demanding trade to learn, but as Damian points out, those efforts are absolutely rewarded in time. “For those that see it through, at the moment in particular, there’s a fantastic living to be made out of the construction industry, and the wet trades generally.”
The St Sidwell’s Point job helped JH Lidstone navigate its way through the pinch point of the pandemic, but that’s certainly not to say the last few years have been easy. “It’s very much a moving target at the moment,” Damian explains. The company had to adapt very quickly, buying materials further in advance and becoming much more defensive in its pricing strategy. Fortunately, owing to a legacy of lean business and low overheads, the company was seen as a “safe pair of hands” by main contractors, enabling it to win jobs where it may not have been the cheapest option.

Of course, with the energy crisis and likely recession looming in the near distance, Damian is well aware the company can’t rest on its laurels. “I think we’re in for a very tough ride for the next twelve months, but I’m confident. We’ve been around for a very long time and we’ve got a very diverse customer base. We don’t just work for one or two companies, there are very few of the main contractors in this region we don’t work for.”

The key word to the company’s success throughout the last 60 years is “continuity,” Damian tells TSJ. Working within a family environment has its pros and cons, he says, but the level of trust it’s fostered – with many of the company’s employees working with Damian’s father before him – is one of JH Lidstone’s key assets. Damian sums it up with quiet confidence: “We’ve been doing very much the same thing for a long time, and you’d hope we’ve worked out how to do it to a decent standard!”
www.jhlidstone.com

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