Harvey Fremlin is the managing director of the National Self Build & Renovation Centre, based in Swindon. He became MD in 2014 after the NSBRC hit a crisis that threatened the brand’s very existence. He’s also a council member of the national Employee Ownership Association.
The NSBRC celebrates ten years this year – why is the anniversary so special for your team?
It’s special because we almost didn’t make it. The brand was established in 2007, founded by BuildStore who were, and are, market leaders for self-build mortgage products. However the concept never paid for itself and this came to a head in June 2014.
We turned up for work one day – I was general manager at the time – and there was a chain on the door. We were evicted from the building. The landlord was fed up as we had not paid the full level of rent and this plunged us into very dark days.
What did you do?
My first task was to put the old company into administration and make the whole team, then about 24 people, redundant. The credit crunch had simply got the better of the business at that time.
We were all out of a job. I told the team there was a small hope, but I needed help for the next three months to try to sort things out. I asked if any team members would be willing to keep the place open – with no guarantee the plan would work and no guarantee anyone would be paid. We had no money. Five hands went up. Today those five are all direct shareholders.
What was your plan?
To seize on the one glimmer of light we could see. We identified an investor – Capital for Colleagues, a specialist investment company which will only invest in companies converting to become employee owned. They invest in companies with high growth potential and employee ownership is proven to be a more successful business model. It’s known this is more likely to create success as the team all have a genuine say in how the business is run and they all care about the business. Probably the most well known brands doing this are John Lewis & Waitrose.
How did you deal with an angry landlord?
We approached the landlord honestly and told them we were planning a new way of doing things and our investors would put £250,000 into the business – which would now be called The Homebuilding Centre Limited. After some consideration they gave us a new 15-year lease with some very tight restrictions for the first two years. We honoured those restrictions. Now they are fully on board and are impressed with our vision and drive.
How is the business set up now?
We are an employee-owned business – 37.5 per cent of the shares are owned by that original core team, 37.5 per cent are in an employee-owned trust. Everyone has a say and the responsibility and the success are shared. Currently we have a team of 11 and we are also recruiting for a couple of roles.
What key things did you do to survive?
To move towards profitability we created a business plan as a collective with a three-year vision. We identified some goals and each member had responsibility for a goal. Our top three were:
1. To understand our financial figures – be open & transparent both internally and externally.
2. To grow footfall – and create a wider marketing plan.
3. To diversify the business – one example was to improve our conference offering.
How has it gone?
It’s been a journey but we’ve done so well. Last year 16,349 individual self-builders came to the centre. We also invested in new projectors, new tables, great WiFi to improve our conferencing and workshop facilities. Revenue from this increased by 75 per cent in 2016 when we welcomed 10,266 conference delegates. We’re regularly profitable now.
What can you offer businesses?
For smaller businesses & micro traders we have an easily accessible informal meeting place with a café, loads of free parking and WiFi – we want to be the small business hub in an excellent and convenient location.
We also offer conference and workshop facilities. The main theatre can hold 240 delegates and we have meeting rooms from 20 to 40 and then smaller ones for six to 12 people.
We need more space for our exhibition stands, which we are thrilled about. Our landlords are supporting this and we are planning a new mezzanine floor.
We are also going to be installing electric car charging points before our next large event The Big Green Home Show in October.
We’re also raising money for a Swindon charity which supports the homeless – Threshold – and we’ve set ourselves a target of £2,000. We felt this charity aligned with our ethics around having a home.
Your proudest moment so far?
There have been many. But it was amazing to tell our story to the judging panel at the recent Wiltshire Business Awards (Newsquest) and to win Small Business of the Year. We’re proud of how far we’ve come – but it was humbling to see others recognise our journey.
And what do you do out of work?
I live in Old Town and spend time with my six year old son. I enjoy running and you’ll often see me on the railway path from Old Town, through to Rushy Platt in Swindon. I recently ran the London Marathon for the second time in my life – the first was ten years ago. I ran for Threshold in under four hours, so I was very pleased with that achievement.
To find out more about NSBRC visit: www.nsbrc.co.uk