Installer Kitchens & Bathrooms’ Andy Bishop recently had a long-distance chat with Mark Conacher of Liberty Fitting, the man who manages to run a business in Dundee, remotely from the comfort of his front room in Vancouver.
Tell us a story, Mark – how did you get started in the KBB business?
At my age it’s quite a long way back but here’s a brief summary. Are you sitting comfortably?
I left school as soon as I could, maybe 15 or 16 years old and started a YTS scheme building timber kit homes in Dundee. This was very (very) hard graft outdoors in hostile Scottish winters, but I suppose I learned some key skills and life lessons, gruelling though it was. After a while I found a building company that was looking for an apprentice with the promise of better work – extensions and loft conversions, and my first experience of kitchen and bathroom installations.
After eight years with these guys, I became self employed and, through a pal in the trade, began working as a specialist kitchen installer. We had contracts with some of the larger companies including MFI, which was great until it wasn’t. MFI went spectacularly out of business leaving many customers with unfulfilled orders and unfinished kitchens. I and a bunch of other installers did what we could to help out the customers who had become stranded. We didn’t get paid, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
After a while licking my wounds, I found new contract work for Wickes and others, again as a specialist kitchen and bathroom installer. Around this time, maybe 2003, I met Damian Walters from Bikbbi. He visited Dundee and held a meeting with a group of installers who had all struggled with the demise of MFI. Whist the general mood of the meeting was a little sceptical, I liked what I heard, and this was the beginning of a long and beneficial association and friendship.
2003 was probably the beginning of Liberty Fitting as we know it today. We took on more contract work including installations for Ikea, Magnet and Wren, we had a great network of sub-contractors and a growing list of private work. Good times!
In 2009, away from work, my wife and I realised a dream and made the decision to move to Canada. I was born in Toronto, so it seemed like the obvious choice of location to start something new for our family. Thomas McCauley joined me at Liberty as a co-director to run the operations in Dundee while I attempted to run the business side of things from the other side of the world. Business at this point was a little crazy but in hindsight we had probably grown too quickly, with too many contractors, and things got a little out of hand for a while. After some serious thinking we re-invested, relaunched, and rebranded Liberty Fitting.
I started to think more about our profile in the industry and how to raise it. I’d seen coverage of the Bikbbi awards and set a goal to get more involved in these kinds of things. We entered the Scottish Home Improvement Awards and bloody well won!
This turned out to be an incredible marketing opportunity so from here we entered the following year’s Bikbbi awards and again, we won! From here I really started to concentrate on the marketing side of Liberty Fitting. We started working more with Bikbbi, networking with more industry people and really started to raise our presence in the trade media and on social media. I learned that the more we could do to stand out, the better the projects, the higher the contract values and business snowballed. I joined Damian in Las Vegas for the KBIS Exhibition and learned even more about standing out – the marketing in the U.S. is on another level.
How do you think the industry has changed over the years?
I think in general there is more professionalism, and there is a lot more information and training available for tradespeople but there will always be pushback on regulation and certification. There is also a reluctance from fitters and installers to take on apprentices due to the way the system works – kids are free to become the next generation of installers with minimal experience and end up competing with the guys that trained them. Maybe better pay and conditions would create more loyalty? The large retailers also have a part to play – they will always take on new installers, they like to have as many as possible on their books and this in turn compounds the problem.
As an installer, you must have quite an influence on the customer?
The influence is huge as customers know roughly what they want and what they want to spend, but nine times out of 10 they are open to our advice – we’re the specialists and generally they will take our recommendations to find the best solution for them. The installer is paid for the work, not a markup on the products and most people understand this. There is certainly a level of trust between customer and installer and when so much business comes from referrals, it pays to look after them.
How do you see the future of the industry?
I think over the years things have got much better but there is always room for improvement; training and education is always needed. Maybe manufacturers need to offer more training specifically for installers. As I’ve said before, Bikbbi does an incredible job of pulling the industry together, I can’t stress enough its importance in this – everyone should be involved. The information available, the networking, the recognition, it all helps to bring the industry together and raise standards.
Finally, it’s great to see so much buzz around installers. In these days of Instagram and Pinterest, younger customers know what they want and are challenging the installer to realise their dreams. I think the installer is more important than they’ve ever been before – I mean, we even have a dedicated event that’s named after us and now InstallerSHOW is adding kitchens and bathrooms, I can’t think of a good reason why any installer would miss it.
Installer Kitchens & Bathrooms, NEC Birmingham, June 25th – 27th, 2024 https://www.installershow.com
To find out more about Installer Kitchens & Bathrooms, contact David Ventris-Field on: email@example.com