Dave Stone, who’s reached giddy heights of achievement without getting dizzy, tells Suzy Jackson how he wins work on the likes of Windsor Castle, St Paul’s Cathedral.
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Asking a steeplejack-turned-entrepreneur if he’s afraid of heights is akin to asking the winner of the Wimbledon Men’s final if he’s happy, I know. But morbidly fearful of heights myself – the mere thought of going more than two steps up a ladder turns me green – curiosity got the better of me when I met Dave Stone.
“People don’t often believe me, but I do have a story to tell,” Dave explains as we chat in his glass fronted office on the first floor of his Darlington building – and it’s immediately clear to me that he’s probably not short of a story or two on most subjects. Nor is he a wallflower.
He takes me back to leaving school in 1979, the son of hardworking middle class parents, needing to get himself a job. His mother sent him to Borough Road to knock on the doors of businesses there, and see what he could find. At 16, without qualifications, he ended up at the office of Harrison Brothers Steeplejacks. Their owner, Barry Newton, looked at him sceptically and asked: “Do you know your national insurance number?” And he did. He trotted it out without a second thought. He was fit and healthy, strong, and capable of hard work, but he was savvy too, and Barry spotted it. “Come back tomorrow. We’ll find you something to do.”
That was the start of an 18 year career with Harrisons that saw him rise from apprentice steeplejack – a craftsman who can inspect and repair chimney stacks, church spires, high-rise buildings and other tall structures – through to foreman supervisor, working with teams of men around the world.
He got his brother Grahame a job there too; Grahame was involved on the industrial side, whereas Dave developed an interest in architecture and masonry, becoming what they termed a ‘Hollywood Steeplejack’.
It wasn’t until 1998 he started to wonder what might come next. Knowing there wasn’t room to advance where he was, and too ambitious to stick with his job, he handed in his notice, and used most of his available cash to buy himself a van and go it alone.
In the gym sauna he frequented, he got chatting to Mike Challands, who ran a printing business in Darlington. Dave wanted some leaflets printed, promoting his services. He’d paid for pictures to be taken of him harnessed off the side of the Humber Bridge, and he wanted them displayed, on a leaflet. Mike helped, and told him to pay for them when he got some work. In return, Dave used Mike and his company, MT Print, till the day Mike retired. You’ll see a pattern emerge here.
With his available money looking thin, Dave took to his van, driving around asking security guards at places like Wilton to write down the names of engineering managers, so he could send them his brochures. Work trickled in. Though hugely experienced, Dave was used to working with people who managed the jobs, not the people who commissioned the work. He lacked the right contacts. So he set about learning. Pouring over paperwork, learning about procurement, creating policies, doing what he could to get work.
Subcontracted to a business that went bust, he seized the opportunity and picked up their contract at Guys Hospital, and another contractor, and a second van… and things started to happen. Still working from the back bedroom of his own home (‘Steeplejack House’), on a second hand word processor, he started to worry that he’d upset neighbours keeping his vans on the street. So he found an office, easy-in, easy-out, and signed up.
Stone Technical Services was now a team, able to pick up new labourers as needed, getting on top of health and safety requirements, training and learning and extending their services. He then started getting helpers. He asked Eileen Callaghan to do wages and VAT.
Today, they have ‘swanky accountants’, but Eileen still does wages, and their VAT. “That’s her livelihood, she’s been doing that for us for years, and she’s always looked after me. So I’ll look after her.”
There it is again - the sign of the family businessman shining through. Dave has a particular set of values and standards; he lives and works by them, and they’re non-negotiable. I doubt anyone will ever have accused him of being workshy; any kind of shy, even. He’s thrown himself into every challenge and every opportunity thrown his way with vigour, passion and determination. When he saw how much work was coming from local councils in the early 2000s, he got himself on to all the contractor lists possible, learning, asking for advice and pushing his abilities as far as he could.
“I’ll tell you something, Suzy, and you might not know this, but… I’m sometimes a little bit ‘seat of your pants’!”
Dave admits he’s scared of failure; terrified, in fact. For a man of his character, that translates as refusal to fail if there’s any other option. “We lost a contract last year, on the Isle of Man, because they thought we were too risky. We weren’t big enough. So that’s our goal… we’re pushing on, and we’ll be big enough next time.”
Dave recognises the change of mindset needed to achieve that kind of growth, bringing in a business development manager Richard Pavlou. They make a formidable double act.
It’s been a constant battle for Dave to make people understand the word ‘Stone’ is, in fact, his name, not a limitation of the services Stone Technical Services Group provides. He won’t change that; now Dave’s name remains because the business exists in his shadow and is conducted by everyone as he would conduct it himself. The business in 2016 offers a combination of services, skills and experience, calling themselves ‘the building and structure experts.’ Currently a £3m business, it is to become £5m in two years, and £10m in five, Dave asserts.
He still gets his hands dirty and he likes delivering the final sign-off manuals to clients, shaking their hands and getting their opinion on the work. He can and does still get involved when need arises, or when he just wants to remind the team he’s still eminently capable, and not asking them to do anything he won’t do himself.
His team, now totals 40-plus across multiple offices around the UK, and most have been with him many years. All nine of his foremen were employed much earlier in their careers and moulded ‘Stone standard’ into their current jobs.
Unsurprisingly, health and safety is paramount - “the thick end of the wedge,” he says. “I want to know my men are safe so I can sleep at night too.” Safety forms part of his service offering too; they have a team working on the Forth Road Bridge who are providing safety systems for the maintenance workers bringing the bridge back to its former glory.
That forms part of Stone Technical Services’ commitment to training, to upskilling, to ensuring their team is as good as possible. Dave has noticed the decline in young people looking for jobs in his trade. “They all want to work in IT! They don’t realise there’s money to be made in trades like this,” he points out. Stone Technical Services pays staff training costs 100% from day one. While I was there they offered a young man a job, impressed he’d saved enough to pay for his own training. But they’ll pick up the tab. Each year Dave writes out the training cheque with pride; a few weeks before my visit, that cheque was written for £98,000.
Driven, as you’d expect of a successful entrepreneur, but with traditional values at the heart of his business. Dave is not driven by profit. He’s interested in running a business giving value. “We don’t scrimp,” he states, matter-of-factly. “If there’s good reason for us to buy a more expensive piece of equipment that someone can tell me makes sense, we buy it.”
On pricing strategy, he’s not interested in being cheapest. “If I can’t win business because of how I’m going to have it done, the quality of the workmanship, the experience, our references… if they still want cheap, I’m not the man for the job.”
As he regales me with tales of travels he has to look forward to, jobs they hope to get on their books, I have to ask Dave: “What if, all those years ago, when you’d started at Harrisons… what if you’d been scared of heights?” It feels the most obvious question but Dave does me the honour of not treating it that way.
But he does shrug. “Well, I’d have to not be scared of heights, wouldn’t I?” There it is. He doesn’t see barriers. He worries about things afterwards, if at all. He describes, in the days before health and safety, being one man astride an industrial chimney stack, repainting the top, repositioning his own ladder as he climbs up and down and up again. My stomach turns, but he roars with laughter, and I’m not sure he’s ever really been scared of anything before. And I can’t lie; it’s an impressive trait.
Dave Stone. Definitely not just another brick in the wall.