There aren’t many companies in this industry that can claim a history stretching back nearly two centuries. W.B. Simpson & Sons Ltd is almost certainly the oldest continuously-trading tiling company in the country, in fact quite possibly the oldest in the world. This gives managing director, Billy Valler, a unique perspective when discussing the key issues which affect today’s tiling industry.
This year W.B. Simpson & Sons celebrates 190 years as a London and Midlands-based tiling contractor. With a heritage in the manufacturing of hand-painted tile panels and stained glass, craftsmanship has been at the heart of what W.B. Simpson & Sons have done since the company’s founding by William Butler Simpson in 1833.
The importance of our heritage as a business is not just that we can look back with pride at what the company achieved 50, 100 or 150 years ago – although that is important too. But the main thing is the way in which it is a living heritage which still informs the way that the company works today. Our aim, as it always has been, is to translate our customers’ aspirations as accurately as possible into what they see in the finished tiled project, whether it is a large area of plain tiles in a railway station or a detailed artwork in a traditional London public house.
Reassuringly, tiling is one sector of the building trade in which that element of craftsmanship continues to be important, despite today’s competitive market. On many jobs there is plenty of scope for the tile fixer to have their imprint on the style and quality of work carried out. Having said that, one of the characteristics of today’s market is that price often wins out. The commercial market especially is money-driven, even though it’s clear that going with the cheapest quote does not necessarily give the client the best value. This is a message that we continually try to reinforce, as craftsmanship tends to suffer as a result of price pressures.
Over the 40 years that I have been in tiling there has been an enormous change in the industry. The one that I think is going to cause us the most problems in the future is the continuing move away from vocational training, which in the past has been an important route for young people to get into our trade.
Although it can be a difficult thing to do when margins are tight, it is critical that the industry puts resources into training up the next generation. The success of our company over 190 years has been entirely down to the people who work in it, as well as our historic commitment to training and staff development. If this begins to fall by the wayside, I must say I have considerable concerns about how well our industry will develop in the future.
I’m not just talking about the need for investment from the industry itself, although that is important, but also the ongong need for Government support. When we hear about colleges who run construction courses, including tiling, struggling for money, or about Government funding being cut for students who are on apprenticeships, this is very concerning for the future. There is a risk this could lead to a kind of downgrading of skills which can only make our trade seem less appealing to new entrants. I’m sure we are not the only business which has been keen to take on apprentices, but which has struggled to find young people looking for apprenticeships.
As readers of TSJ, we all know that you can make a good career in tiling. Communicating that message and ensuring the industry is as attractive as possible to new entrants is a key challenge for all of us going forward.
If I look back now at the 190 years of history that lies behind W.B. Simpson & Sons Ltd today, I am enormously proud of what we have achieved and what those who came before us achieved. I am referring to our contribution to the built environment, the opportunities that we have given to our staff over many generations and our promotion of tiling as a result of the excellence of our work as a contractor.
But – and it may be a cliché to say so – I think we are at a crossroads for the sector just now. The training issues that I have been talking about, the constant price pressures on tile contractors, the proliferation of new alternative materials and a range of other factors are all going to combine to ensure that we continue to live in “interesting times”.