Reach for the sky

Reach for the sky

Lessons learned during his time as a national bodybuilding champion have helped Chris Hopkins in his mission to improve the image of the roofing industry, says Peter Baber.

Once you have stood in front of 1,000 strangers wearing nothing but a skimpy Lycra brief you’re probably on for anything in business. Ask Chris Hopkins if you don’t believe me. He is currently managing director of the Brighouse-based roofing contractor, training provider and now franchise operation Ploughcroft.

But in a former life he was a UK bodybuilding champion in a tournament run by the Natural Body Building Federation of the UK. Bodybuilding often promotes a snigger among people, and talk of how you only get to be a champion through the use of various illicit substances.

So since you ask, the tournaments Hopkins took part in were totally steroid free. They had to be – inspectors can turn up at any time unannounced and demand a urine sample from any federation member. Cheats just wouldn’t get through.

Hopkins can also illustrate just how many correlations can be made between being a successful bodybuilder and running a successful business. For a start, it’s not just about having massive muscles (or, to draw an analogy, making unsustainable profits).

Every top bodybuilder knows that success at a competition is just as much about having great stamina (or great turnover, perhaps) and perfect poise (you could call that proper corporate governance).

Then there is the huge preparation involved in making sure everything comes out well on the day – preparation that would be familiar to anyone who has ever had to present a business to investors or potential business partners, as Hopkins has been doing up and down the country in the past two years.

“You probably only get 15 minutes to show what you are worth,” he says, “but behind that 15 minutes can be anything up to five years of preparation.

I thought if you can apply that dedication to business it’s bound to be a recipe for success.” There are, of course, the presentational benefits too. Hopkins says he has no hesitation in telling audiences everywhere and people he meets the Ploughcroft story.

It’s certainly a good one, about a boy who left school with only four O-levels just in time to see his father’s business go bust, and who only took up bodybuilding because he was a skinny teenager who was always being picked on.

He’s since gone on to found a company that now runs nationally recognised training courses for more than 120 companies around the country, while both he and the company have won numerous awards.

These include winning a training achievement award from the National Home Improvement Council, Hopkins being named Halifax Evening Courier Young Business Person of the Year in 2008, and in the same year the company winning the specialist category in the Best Places to Work in Construction awards run by trade magazine Contract Journal.

Hopkins is most proud of this last award, because it was based on independently obtained comments from his own employees. It’s probably such an awareness that first got him thinking about wanting to start his own business too.

He had been looking at the way his father and other roofing contractors ran their roofing and contracting businesses even before he left school, and he freely admits he wasn’t impressed.

There seemed to be little in the way of formal training, other than what you learned on the job, he says, and as for recruiting, most of that seemed to be done by going down to the pub and offering a job to anyone you happened to share a pint with.

As someone who was already training to be a bodybuilder and so needed to take care of his diet, drinking copious amounts of alcohol was the last thing young Hopkins was interested in – or is interested in, even now.

“There seemed to be an old school pub network in how you were appointed,” he says. Even after his father’s business went under, and he spent a couple of years working for another builder, the story was much the same.

“I am not saying there weren’t any good, skilled people,” he says. “There were. It was just that they had nothing to care about except the job. The state of the van didn’t bother them. The clothes they wore didn’t either.

And needless to say safety and building standards weren’t always uppermost in their minds either. Then the company itself had no idea of brand, and when you got your wages they were still handed out as cash in little brown envelopes.

Everyone drove around in anonymous white vans. I rapidly got disgruntled with the whole building industry. I really felt even then that I wanted to take on board what I had learned and try and do things better.” But before that came about there was nearly ten years spent working in various customer facing operations.

First for what was then still the Halifax Building Society, where he became a team leader in the share dealing operation, then at Direct Line Insurance, and finally at a contact centre for Yorkshire Water.

Such experience certainly taught him a lot about selling, he says, and about dealing with customers, particularly in the case of Yorkshire Water where often irate customers would want to know exactly when their water supply might be reconnected.

But he missed the face-to-face contact. “I came from a building background,” he says, “where we were used to facing the customer in person.

There, everything was on the phone.” It wasn’t, however, until he started building an extension to the house where he was living in the late 1990s and people started asking him if he could do some work for them that he finally felt confident about returning to roofing.

“The house was on a steep cobbled street leading up to a dry ski slope outside Halifax,” he says.

“So people had to drive slowly as they went past. They would stop and say, ‘can I have your card?’ and I didn’t have one. I thought the time had come.” And so Ploughcroft, named after the village where this house was, was born. But just as he had promised himself, Hopkins was determined to set up and grow a building business in a different way from the norm.

“I am known for not following what others are doing,” he says. Uniform was one thing. All Ploughcroft staff wear one, which makes much use of what has become a company colour: pillar box red. All Ploughcroft vans are painted this colour, not the insipid white that is so common in the building industry.

Hopkins says just this little detail has made a great difference, because people notice the red vans more. “It’s all about perception,” he says.

“People think you are bigger than you actually are.” He himself even took to wearing a red shirt to business meetings wherever possible. “I was known as the man in red,” he says. Another way Ploughcroft differed from many of its competitors was the kind of work it went after in the early days.

“All the other players were only after big contracts,” says Hopkins. “That’s all very well, and you tend to get a good profit from them, but how often do they come along, and how much time do you waste preparing bids for jobs that never come off? We tended instead to go for the little jobs that first the council and then other major organisations would give us. You could do 10, 20 or even 30 of these a week, which meant your cashflow was good, and the profit was still perfectly decent. Also you got to know possibly 30 different customers, as each job was different. If you did a good job for them they soon remembered the man in the red shirt and so your name would be spread around much more quickly.” It wasn’t until 2001, however, when the business was growing so quickly that Hopkins had felt that he needed to train up someone to act as his assistant director, that he really did something that many in the business, including his father, thought he was mad to do.

It happened because the first person he trained up to be his assistant promptly left the company and set up on his own, and within a few months was serious competition.

“I was determined to look on the positive side of such an experience,” he says. “I worked out that if he was doing so well then there must be something good about the way I had trained him and taught him everything I know about the business.

So why don’t I set up a training centre as part of my business, and train not just my own staff but competitors too?” His father, who Hopkins had brought back into the business to help him along when he first started, said that such a scheme was impossible to pull off, and the two of them subsequently parted ways commercially (although Hopkins says his dad is nowproud of his achievements), but Hopkins knew that the idea was a good one, and was determined to succeed.

Once again, like any good bodybuilder going about his preparation, he knew that such a training centre would only take off if it had all the proper accreditations.

So NVQ accreditation was applied for and won in 2004, then all the necessary ISO certificates, as well as Investors in People. Such investment has clearly worked.

“We are the only privately owned roofing contractor in the country offering courses for anyone in the industry,” says Hopkins.

More than 120 different organisations have made use of the training facilities in Brighouse, and apart from the extra income this has brought, it has also paid dividends in the current downturn.

“Local authorities have had to cut back on sub-contracting,” says Hopkins, “and that means some of their own staff have had to start taking the odd refresher course too, which we can provide.” The training also got the company noticed. In 2006 Hopkins was asked to join the national committee of the National Federation of Roofing Contractors (NFRC), the industry body.

And there he spotted another opportunity: although his company was already fielding many calls from people wanting solar panels fitted to their roofs, there wasn’t any national training being offered to the roofing industry in how to install them.

“I only go on committees to make a difference,” he says. “So I asked them why they didn’t have such a training programme. At first they hummed and hahed. They said there was no money in it, and the colleges said there was no call for it.

But if there was a willing donkey out there, they might try it. I was more than willing to be that willing donkey.” More than willing, because Hopkins could see the logic in providing something he believes will very soon be in much stronger demand.

“More and more people are looking to solar power,” he says. “Just look at what has happened in Germany and Denmark, whose governments have been pushing this more than ours in the past.

Germany has 6 million sq ft of roof space taken up with solar panelling, yet in the UK we only have 200,000 sq ft of panels. Yet Germany has a similar climate to us.” And even if the UK Government has been slow off the mark, that could be about to change.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change has announced new feed-in tariffs due to come into force in April 2010 which aim to create an income stream for people who produce energy from their own solar panels and want to feed any surplus they may have into the National Grid.

Hopkins believes such people could be compensated by a ratio of three to one. “They could end up being paid 36p per unit of electricity that would normally cost them 11p to take from the National Grid,” he says.

So in preparation for this, Ploughcroft has developed a special training programme for roofers wanting to fit solar panels in conjunction with the NFRC. The company has already started providing training for some of the largest names in energy provision.

And as a useful little quid pro quo, its training centre has also been used by some of the country’s major solar panel producers to test out their latest equipment, giving Ploughcroft a useful little headstart in finding out about new developments in technology. Hopkins has also been on a roadshow around the country, presenting the course and the training to over 100 businesses. It has, he says, been a useful exercise in finding out who is really interested in what could be a windfall for roofers.

“With the kind of increase in demand I can see coming from these new feed-in tariffs there is no reason I can’t see why we couldn’t go from being a £1.5m company with a £200,000 profit to something perhaps ten times that size.” But in the meantime, the main business is not being forgotten.

Ploughcroft’s enhanced visibility within the world of roofing has led Hopkins to feel confident enough to launch a franchise operation called Rooferman aimed at the smaller end of the market.

For a fee of around £10,000, franchisees will be fully trained the Ploughcroft way to offer small jobs to customers with a set price list, and have all their admin and marketing done for them.

After a relatively low-profile launch, six franchisees have so far been appointed, although Hopkins wants to grow this up to 100 within four years.

“But I am vetting everyone,” he says. “I interview them, so that if, for example, they are in it just for pure profit, they won’t get appointed.” And finally after all these years he might even get back to bodybuilding.

“I am 38 this year,” he says, “and I want to enter the senior competitions when I reach 40. So I have to start training soon.” If he does, he’s bound to find the same old rules about training, preparation and presentation apply. In business, as much as in bodybuilding.n