This year marks the 190th anniversary of W.B. Simpson & Sons as a leading London-based tiling contractor.
To mark this significant event in the history of the company and of tile contracting in London and the South East, managing director Billy Valler contributes the first of what will be a series of special columns running in TSJ throughout the year, in which he reflects on the ever-changing tiling industry and current trends.
Considering the state of trade right now, to start with the positive, we are fortunate that the London market tends to be buoyant, no matter what. We are seeing a very high level of enquiry at the moment in the commercial sector, which is where we exclusively operate. This is especially true for very large projects, where the tiling element is in excess of £1m.
Because the commercial construction sector largely carried on during the pandemic, 2020 was actually a good year for us. The impact was felt more last year, because of less new work being specified during the previous year – and since tiling is of course a finishing trade, we will feel the effects of that.
In terms of growth opportunities, the hotel sector is particularly buoyant just now. There are a lot of them going up in the London area and residential is charging ahead as usual. While commercial office space has dropped a bit, I’m actually surprised that it has remained reasonably buoyant. So there is plenty going on, which is good obviously.
However, what we are finding is that more and more tiling contractors are moving into the space now, so there is definitely more competition than there used to be, and I think that’s been growing steadily over the last decade or two. Twenty years ago, there were relatively few companies capable of taking on the largest projects. Now there are many more people who can do that. That is partly because of contractors who were originally operating solely in the domestic sector now getting into the commercial market, and also because companies who have in the past done other floor finishes or who have been doing screeding or soft flooring, are now diversifying into tiling and stonework.
So the overall picture is there is a lot of work around, but there is a lot more competition for it.
As a company which started off as a manufacturer of hand-painted tile panels and stained glass, craftsmanship has been at the heart of what we do since the early days, and still is in today’s competitive market. We do find, unfortunately, that price often wins out. The commercial market is especially money-driven, even though it’s clear that going with the cheapest quote does not necessarily give the client the best result. Craftsmanship does suffer to some extent because of this.
Another issue, which I know is not unique to tiling, is that of trying to attract or train skilled people to work in our industry. To give a current example, we have a couple of major projects on the go with a large London contractor, and as part of their requirements, we’ve been asked to take on an apprentice, which we are quite happy to do and indeed have been working on this quite hard for the last few months. Disappointingly, we are struggling to find just one person to take on as an apprentice. You would imagine we’d have a choice of ten, but we are struggling to find just one.
I think this kind of experience shows us that there is going to be a problem in the future, as the workforce gets older. It may be less of an issue in other parts of the country, but in London it’s becoming a real concern. This is a topic I would like to come back to and explore in more detail next time. We will also be looking in more detail at design and style trends, the challenges posed by alternative “easier” materials – and where have all the colours gone?