It used to be a fountain pen and a Jag, now tattoos and a Harley are part of the new business branding – as Mike Hughes found out when he talked to Dean Towers, MD of BCS Electrics on the outskirts of Leeds.
Getting to the BCS Electrics offices on Charlton Grove in East End Park is like finding Harry Potter’s Platform 9¾. I was basically banging my head against a brick wall the first few attempts before it was revealed. The Google Maps pin took me to a piece of grassland, and the local shop and the local ‘guy doing some painting’ had never heard of it.
Then the magic happened and it was suddenly in front of me and, to be honest, it didn’t look too promising. It could....err.... certainly do with a coat of paint and ....err....four or five tons of Polyfilla.
But then this is a place of wiring and plugs, not architectural awards and flags, and it all changes in the reception area. Sledge-hammered render is replaced with newly-painted midnight blue walls, an expensive-looking sofa and coffee table and gleaming bespoke lighting made from steel pipework – a recent addition to the BCS catalogue of skills.
This is the Towers effect. From apprentice to MD at 36, Dean has been influencing BCS since he arrived more than 20 years ago. The outside doesn’t matter – it is when you get inside to do the business that you know you are in the right place.
His company goes back a long way, to the day when local heroes Edwin Billington, Walter Carroll and John Skidmore returned home from the battlefield and founded BCS Electrics on 19 March 1946. They took on their old mate Harry Furness, who regularly cycled from Leeds to Manchester to deliver wages, and the BCS ethos was established.
“The Furness family have been friends of my family for years now,” Dean tells me in the small boardroom, large-screen TV in the background running the newly designed company website. “It just sort of landed nicely that I started here with an apprenticeship when I was 16. My dad’s advice was always that when you leave school you get a trade, then do whatever you want because you have the trade to fall back on. I wanted to be a mechanic, but got talked out of it and followed in my granddad’s footsteps as an electrician.
“I think when you are a young lad it is all about what is cool – and for me that was messing about with cars. But I sat and considered it and looked at how well the construction industry was doing and thought I would be better off linked with that, because my granddad had brought my mam and her sisters up and had a happy life and was doing quite nicely.
“When I started it I found it really interesting and knew it was something I could stick to.”
The value of talking to someone like Dean is that he is a good guide to how to build an entrepreneur and get him into the boardroom. He has all the parts already included, with the screws, nails and bolts to help put it together: Supportive family (tick), drive to succeed (tick), following his instincts (tick), business sense (tick), workforce backing him all the way (tick), good reputation (tick) and still under 40 (tick). His story is the set of instructions you need when you open the box and spread everything out on the workbench.
“One thing I didn’t have at school was a very academic mind,” he admits. “It was a struggle for me and I found the work hard, but then I didn’t put 100% into it – I was just waiting for Fridays. I still see now that it is very rare to find someone who is good academically and also good at manual labour. I could do the job, but couldn’t tell you the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of the job.
“So the first two or three years at Leeds College of Technology was difficult, but then it just clicked that I had to knuckle down, stop being a ‘lad’ and think about the future. I’ve kept in touch with some of the lecturers even now, people like Phil Cunningham who told me I would never make owt of myself!”
So the ‘build-your-own-entrepreneur’ kit was starting to be assembled, with a rebellious phase and the feeling that ‘normal’ work wasn’t going to be enough. But then along with that comes the realism that it can’t all be fun and games - there has to be work as well.
“I don’t know where that comes from, it just takes over and you know that you have to grow up in a very short space of time and look to the future. I knew that if I messed about for the next four years it would affect the next fifty years of my working life,” Dean says. “So I started as an apprentice, fetching and carrying, and then started to do a little more and it was a different generation back then so when you came to the third year of a four-year apprenticeship they would say ’right, there’s a van, you’ve got your tools, here’s all these maintenance jobs I want doing – go and do them’.
“It’s all different now with insurance and health & safety, but that’s what I loved back then.”
Soon after college was finished and relationships – an absolute core of how BCS operates – started to build with his colleagues and the Towers character became fully formed. Ahead of more qualified staff, he found himself being asked to run bigger jobs, even though he was still struggling with the admin side of it all.
Then fate intervened in a very painful way and Dean (brace yourself...) ripped apart the “gristle” that holds his leg to his pelvis, trying to drag a large section of cable into his van. Backache was the first sign that something was wrong and then his whole body started to arch backwards....
“It was just a bit of lad’s bravado trying to help someone with the loading, but I was out for six weeks,” says Dean. “I was told my body would never be the same again because I had put too much strain on the pelvis. So I went in to talk to my general manager and said I would rather do a project that I could get my teeth into, and could I run a health & safety programme at the company.”
That unexpected twist (literally, in the case of his pelvis...) brought out the grown-up side of Dean once again and he forced himself back to academia, training up on H&S rules and regulations through various IOSH courses. He describes it as “nothing too severe”, but qualifications followed and after a rethink of company roles he was asked to also take on labour co-ordination as well so BCS could keep track of who was doing what, and where.
The parts were slowly being assembled. “It all took off after that, as people moved about and generations came and went, I progressed upwards until about four years ago when BCS hit a really bad time. Myself as office manager and my business partner Tony Barnett were in a meeting in the insolvency practitioner’s office and they were going to wind it up on the Friday.
“There was a lightbulb moment and I just said ‘I’m not doing it – we need to find out what we can do. The MD said he would relinquish all control to us, but I didn’t want to do that just yet, as we were putting a lot on the line, so I said ‘give us 12 months’.
“Anything we did during that time couldn’t have a cost attached because the company was £98,000 into a £100,000 overdraft, and we had customers and suppliers screaming at us.”
It would be enough to put off many hardened Yorkshire sparks, but the Towers entrepreneur kit was now almost complete and those vital relationship skills were tested to the limits, firstly by anxious colleagues back at Charlton Grove and then to calm the cries of customers and suppliers. There were, as the saying goes, full and frank conversations across Yorkshire about limitations, goals and paying only what was urgently needed. And it worked.
“We have had long relationships with many of the suppliers and all of them got on board with us and said they would give us a chance and got us to tell them on what days we could pay them certain amounts. We played our part by never missing any of those payments.
“With the workforce there was some uncertainty about us, but that was a short-term thing and we sat them down and made a point of being completely open with them about what we were doing and making sure nothing was hidden from them – and we expected and got the same from them. That enabled us to really start the business again from scratch.
“But it is important to us that we were still BCS and everything it stood for. Tony and I bought the company last year and we were asked if we would change the name and get our own initials up there, but I have grown up at this place, it has had credibility since 1946 and it represents everything the staff have worked for – why would I change that now?”
So the name stayed, but other things did have to change, and Dean’s own take on the world was one of them. From ‘bit of a lad’ apprentice he now had two families who looked to him for support and income – the lads and lasses at BCS and his wife Claire and son Mason at home. However many lightbulbs went on – mentally and literally – it all came down to everyone having enough secure income.
“I always thought when I was younger that I was carefree and things were always someone else’s problem,” he told me. “But then you grow up and mature and I realised I had to look after these guys at East End Park. You become more susceptible to what is going on in their personal lives and helping out where you can. I won’t throw money at people because they won’t learn the lesson, but I’m quite happy to give them some help if they need it. I’m the boss, but they know they can come to me because that relationship is right.
“It does change you – dramatically for me over the last two years – with things like spreadsheets and win ratios which I never used to bother with. But no matter what changes, I have always enjoyed coming to work and that has been a big advantage for me because I have more time for people.
Social media has also changed to give a more up to date view of the company as has the people they work with, including heavyweight business advisers Armstrong Watson - all to keep pace with the growing workload of BCS itself and make the most out of its potential, with 28 staff and a steady flow of apprentices coming through its doors to build the next layer of Deans and Tonys.
The family side of MDs like Dean will always be a vital part of the kit, with 15-year-old Mason considering going into the Army with the REME and then working on vehicles like his dad once dreamt of, maybe also continuing that Towers entrepreneurial spirit and running his own garage looking after the BCS fleet.
The mechanical DNA comes straight from his dad, who has a deep love of bikes and drives a Harley whenever possible. That started when he met his wife Claire, whose dad and brothers were already fans and will soon lead him to building his own custom bike to add to the three he already has.
With the tattoos and the full beard he was very much at home during the recent Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride - an international charity event for classic and vintage styled motorcycles that raises awareness and funds for men’s health programmes. That’s why the building is a good metaphor, with its traditional ‘no frills’ exterior and innovative interior. Number 40 Charlton Grove has changed just as much as the company and its boss have.
“Personality-wise I am no different to what I was back then. I am still not the most academic person in the world, but I have managed to get by and take over the company because I know I don’t need to know everything, just a little about everything, because I can get people to help me.”
A phrase that keeps cropping up in our conversation is ‘watch this space’. Dean uses it as an illustration that he is only just getting started with his vision for BCS.
It was a job that paid the bills first, then one that he put his reputation and money on the line for when it was on the brink of crashing and now it is his to run and you can almost hear the Harley revving, ready for the open road and the next opportunity.