Leicester-based FMB member Kevin Ellis of Ellis & Hughes won the prestigious Master Builder of the Year 2008 award, for the renovation and extension of a 1960s house to create a contemporary five-bedroom family home.
Nicky Rogers of Master Builder magazine contacted Kevin and his clients, Patrick and Elaine Mulvihill, to find out exactly how this partnership worked so well and produced such a staggering result. In this first part of a two-part feature, Kevin gives us his side of the story.
Kevin Ellis set his heart on becoming an architect, until he realised he’d have to commit himself to seven years of training. His qualifications in maths, physics and art stood him in good stead though and he trained as a PE and science teacher instead. His final teaching practice during his training was at New Parks Boys School in Leicester, an inner city school, with a reputation for being particularly demanding. He took up a permanent teaching position here and it was at this school that he met various future employees of Ellis & Hughes.
Kevin felt he still needed more to occupy him. One summer holiday he and a group of friends renovated two cottages, giving him his first real experience of property development.
After three years, Kevin moved into special education where he taught art, woodwork, metalwork and pottery as well as science and PE. Being so successful, that he was paid to go back to university for a year to get a second degree, which encouraged him to apply for headships as the degree course neared its end. This is where the real career swerve began.
Teaching's loss is building's gain
On the night before an interview for a headship, John Hughes, a friend of Kevin’s who was also a teacher called round. He too had just completed a similar building project and was not happy with his teaching career. After a glass or two of wine, Kevin rashly suggested that if he didn’t get the head teachers job he was being interviewed for the next morning, why didn’t they both try the building industry? And the more wine they drank the more inviting the idea became.
Kevin didn’t get the job. And being a man of his word he resigned from a promising teaching career and stepped out into the scary real world. His business partner John Hughes excelled at the technical side of the business - they rewired houses, fitted central heating as well as carrying out general building work, but after five years John moved to Herefordshire.
These days Ellis & Hughes concentrates mainly on the design and build of contemporary spaces, frequently addressing the issue of the link between the garden and the living space. Kevin explained: “We build the occasional new house and are recognized as NHBC grade A1 house builders. We do projects for Health Trusts, where the logistics and time frame of the project require some of the particular skills we have.
“Maybe because we spend our entire time problem solving in our day-to-day bespoke work these Health Trust projects are second nature to us.”
Ellis & Hughes entered the Master Builder of the Year for the first time in 2006, and won the Midlands Region award for projects up to £50,000. But when he saw pictures of the other regional finalists at the awards ceremony in London, he felt that he could win outright if he entered one of his really strong projects.
At this time, Kevin wasn’t a member of the FMB and had initially thought that as a non-member he wouldn’t stand much chance of winning an award, but he quickly recognised that the judging was carried out purely on the merit of each individual project, and he wanted therefore to join what seemed to be an incredibly genuine and well motivated organisation.
He had been a member of other trade associations in the past but said: “I found them to be either glorified insurance companies or non-discriminatory organisations that were not interested in standards or issues, but only the yearly subscription.”
Kevin gets a lot from his FMB membership, he says: “The benefits of membership are demonstrated by an increased number of enquiries, and membership indicates an element of respectability to clients who have not contacted us as a result of recommendation from a previous client. It’s important to remember too that membership provides a source of help and advice if we need it.
“It feels good to be part of something that genuinely fights the corner of the average builder. The Master Builder of the Year competition is first class and open to all, raising the profile of the industry in a positive and active way. I can’t fault it but then I would say that wouldn’t I!
“I think that in the current climate the building industry could do with speaking out with one voice, so all good builders should apply to join.”
The winning project
Kevin explained that the Parish Council had initially been reluctant to approve the first set of plans for the renovation of Elaine and Patrick’s house. He said: “The property is in a particularly attractive village and overlooks a deer park. So we worked closely with the local planning department and we made a couple of changes to the original design, before re-submitting the plans, including the application of cedar cladding on the front elevation to blend with the park across the road.
“We had worked for Patrick and Elaine before - they are exceptional clients. We went out of our way to make the project a success and they went out of their way to support our entry in every way they could.”
What makes a winning client?
Kevin wishes he could get it right every time – he said: “In 27 years we have been badly hit three times. One of those was £12,000 as a result of a client not standing by a verbal order.
“Another was a business man who I (wrongly) thought I could manage, and the last and most recent was a couple who over stretched themselves and took their subsequent marriage difficulties out on us. All these could have been avoided if I had gone with my first instincts and not allowed myself to be seduced by the project or the belief that we can handle even the most difficult clients. We have to concede that we can’t. We are good at the relationship bit, but there will always be the cowboy client!
“We build with a real passion, we live the jobs and stand back and judge them with pride. An unhappy client is so rare we are horrified if it happens. It is good for everybody on the workforce to have recognition for the extraordinary efforts that they go to make sure that for our clients, having building work done is a pleasure!”
Stresses and strains
Nicky asked Kevin what (if anything) kept him awake at night, he said: “Very little keeps me awake these days, those bad debts might have done but I had to work so hard to stay in business then that I was too tired to worry about it.
“Nobody at the time realised the gravity of the situation and some people certainly couldn’t see why I didn’t just give in if it was so bad. It’s taken a long time to build up the team I have now. If I was in danger of losing them, that would certainly keep me awake.”
Kevin is one of life’s lucky people in that for the most part he loves his job, he said: “If we do a good job it can change people’s lives. We are a proud bunch and we are lucky to have good clients that allow us to do our best for them. I hate conflict, so work hard to avoid it, when it does happen (which is very rare) it does upset me, knowing we could have done better perhaps.”
It’s impossible for anyone, however successful they are, to ignore the credit crunch so Nicky asked Kevin to explain how he was going to maintain his thriving business during these difficult times, Kevin said: “We have been planning for the recession for years really. We had a one and a half year waiting list before we won the Master Builder of the Year award, and have already added another eight months to that since.
“Generally, trust, communication, pride and respect, coupled with a very highly skilled workforce has seen a gradual increase in demand for our work. That doesn’t happen overnight and hopefully will enable us to weather the difficult times ahead.
“We have built up a reputation for not charging for unforeseen extras. The price we quote is the price the client pays, unless we are asked to do more work. We also guarantee our work for 10 years. These will be some of the reasons we are busy in a recession. It does mean that on occasions we lose money and our profit margins are not always what they should be but it is a way of removing some of the mistrust that can be a barrier to a) keeping busy and b) establishing a sound relationship with clients.”
With success, comes extra demand on valuable time and Kevin has been pleased to see that he has earned lots of local publicity - local radio interviews, regional television, local papers and magazines bringing extra enquiries.
FMB Midland Regional Director, John Watson said: “Kevin has a genuine and unique style when dealing with his customers. His ability to put down on paper the thoughts and ideas of his clients in a visual form creates confidence that he can deliver a very special project, and the that the experience of working together will be enjoyable and rewarding.”
As Master Builder of the Year Kevin won a Nissan LCV worth up to £20,000. He has chosen the Nissan Navara, which means he can stop using his car as a van!
Next month, read the other side of the story – Patrick and Elaine Mulvihill explain why they chose Kevin and ended up with a home for life.