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Embracing the underdog

Written by Hannah Prevett, Natalie Seery on Wednesday, 03 July 2013. Posted in Big business, Interviews

To say a young Colin Stevens had a short attention span is a bit of an understatement. But once he fixes his mind on something, no stone is left unturned in the pursuit of success

Embracing the underdog

Us Brits love an underdog. We continue to root for David even when Goliath’s already won the battle, packed up and gone home for lunch. Colin Stevens, who was an unruly and unpredictable child after ADHD went undiagnosed, was also an unlikely victor. But at the age of 32, his business Better Bathrooms turns over £32m and employs nearly 200 people. Take that, Goliath.

It’s safe to say a seven-year-old Wigan-born Stevens couldn’t have imagined meteoric success was to follow a couple of decades later. “My attention span was terrible, not that I realised it at the time,” he says. “I definitely should have been tested because I would have been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder.”

Instead, Stevens was a little rebel and paid more attention to his money-making scams than to his schoolwork. In primary school, he got into trouble for selling sweets in the playground. His next money-spinner was photocopying pictures of Star Wars characters drawn by one of his peers and flogging them to friends to make a few pounds for the tuck shop. “That’s my first memory of being entrepreneurial – not that I knew that’s what it was at the time.”

He was easily distracted at Shevington High School, too, flirting with the girls in classes, and getting into trouble with older boys in the breaks. But Stevens says his lackadaisical approach to school would have been helped with more attention from the teachers. “I’m not sure if it was a case that there weren’t the resources to deal with it then, or whether they weren’t trained to deal with it,” he explains. 

He also attracted attention for other reasons, besides his disruptive behaviour. “We weren’t rich, my parents weren’t millionaires, but we did have a bit more money than other people,” Stevens says. “All my clothes would be new and clean, and other people would go to school in the same uniform for years. There were lots of people with struggling families in Wigan, there’s not a lot of opportunity in the area, so that meant I stood out as being a bit different.” He says he developed a thick skin and soon learned how to defend himself physically. “Yeah, I got involved in fights. But I never started them,” he insists.

Aware that he was getting into a bit of trouble at school, Stevens’ parents sent him to stay with his uncle in Newcastle, where he learned how to play golf. A decade-long love affair with the sport was to follow. “For the rest of the summer, I went to a public golf course every day and I was there from 8 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night playing.”

With a new focus on becoming a professional golfer, Stevens’ already minimal desire to begin college in September began to wane. “My parents were happy that I’d found an interest as it meant I wasn’t going out and getting into trouble,” he smiles. “But they said I still needed to go to college in case the golf didn’t work out.” 

Stevens began college studying A-levels in business, geography, maths and sport but after a few weeks was adamant that attending lessons full-time was a waste of his golfing talent. “I just sat there in lessons looking outside and thinking that being at college wasn’t going to help me become a professional golfer.”

He subsequently paid his tutor a visit to inform her he’d be dropping maths, geography and sport, and just attending college for his business classes. The rest of the time he could be found at the nearby golf course, he told her. “She warned me I might get thrown out, but somehow I got away with it. I just turned up for business studies, and then I went and played golf. I practiced and practiced and practiced, to the point where my hands used to bleed. That’s how much I wanted it,” he says, earnestly. 

Having completed his business studies A-level, Stevens’ golfing career began to gather pace as he amassed national junior trophies. But golf is an expensive sport, and at the age of 18, the coffers were empty. “I was trying to play in professional golf tournaments, but to go and play around the country costs a lot of money – which we couldn’t afford,” he recalls. 

Having been funded until this point by his parents, it was time he began generating his own income. He started selling things – anything he could get his hands on – to friends and family. “I was like Del Boy,” he laughs. “I was playing golf one day and I met this guy who had a load of golf equipment from a liquidated golf business.” Having sold a couple of sets of golf clubs to friends at the club, Stevens decided to try selling the equipment on eBay – which in 1999 was very much in its infancy. 

“I told this guy that I needed some pictures for a brochure I was putting together to send to golf clubs, but I was actually putting them on eBay,” he smiles. “I couldn’t tell him the truth because then he’d have done it himself. So I put them on there and I was selling sets day after day, picking them up and taking them to the Post Office to ship to customers.”

Selling golf-related paraphernalia – first clubs, then T-shirts and clothing – worked well for a couple of years. It allowed Stevens to fund his fledgling golf career and he was enjoying the fruits of his eBay-related labours. But, supplies began to dry up after the major golf brands tired of seeing their merchandise being sold for bargain basement prices. “If I was getting hold of any supplies, it really was the dregs and I was making no margin whatsoever.”

At 21, Stevens started selling designer clothes on eBay. He had a contact in the distribution of such wares who provided him with some stock. But the venture fell flat. “It didn’t work as it was too high priced, and nobody really trusted the internet back them.” Again, he was left casting around for ideas, when his mum came to him with a suggestion. “She asked me if I’d consider selling taps,” says Stevens. 

At the time, both Stevens’ parents were working for a tap retailer in Yorkshire after the family manufacturing business had gone down the pan. At first, Stevens was scathing about his mum’s suggestion. “I’m thinking, ‘Taps? It’ll never work,’” he recalls. Rapidly coming to the conclusion that he didn’t have too many more appealing options, the aspiring entrepreneur decided to give his mum’s idea a shot. Having retrieved some snaps of the products from his mum’s workplace, he put a set of taps on eBay. “They sold the next day,” he recalls.

The margin on taps was far better than that on clothes. Whereas golf merchandise had been producing a measly 10% margin, Stevens was doubling the money he spent on taps. “Within a few weeks I was going down to the Post Office with ten or 15 sets of taps. I always remember Reenie, the lady who worked in the Post Office, looking at me each time I walked in as if to say ‘Not you again.’”

As his plans for an e-commerce empire began to take shape, his interest in playing golf began to abate – ironic, considering he’d only begun the business to fund his love for the sport. “I realised I’d been trying to hang on to my golf career, but, in reality, money was more interesting to me.” 

After his epiphany, Stevens decided if he were to build a reputable business he would need a website. “I realised that having an eBay shop was great but it was an expensive way of selling things, what with the seller fees. I figured if I had a shop, people would look on eBay, remember the name and then go to Google and find us that way. Also, I could put a link to the website on messages I sent to customers through eBay to drive traffic.”

At 1.30am one night, he began his search for a suitable domain name and came across betterbathrooms.com. Over the next week he built a crude website, after having read some to-do pointers online. “It was just pictures and prices – there wasn’t even a shopping cart – and a message saying ‘ring this number’. And people were actually ringing up,” he laughs.

As his reach became broader, so too did the product range. He started speaking to suppliers and retailers about buying other bathroom products. As a result of being super cautious with cashflow, he had a reasonable sum of money in the bank. So when he was offered a container of basins and toilets at a bargain price, he couldn’t say no. The sticking point was storage. He was still living with his parents in Shevington, near Wigan, and they didn’t have enough room for a container-load of washbowls and loos. The day before the shipment landed, he secured a warehouse. A good job too: it took Stevens and three friends from 6 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night to unload the 40ft high cube. 

The toilet sets started to sell and the website was attracting an increasing amount of traffic. But after a drunken night with friends, Stevens was reflecting on the fact that there was a piece of the puzzle missing. “At 2 o’clock in the morning on my way home, I’d seen a to-let sign and thought what a good place it’d be for a showroom. I woke up with a fuzzy head and drove there the next day and within a few days I had signed the lease on it. That was to be the first Better Bathrooms showroom.”

It’s safe to say that the first showroom was a bit of an amateur job. “Overnight I became a builder, painter and decorator,” he laughs. “We were pushing down walls and all sorts. Our way of getting glass out of a window was to throw hammers at it.” But Stevens and his pals managed to pull together a respectable-looking store, in an Ikea-style format. “We put the product on display at the front and then all of the stock behind it. We put a Better Bathrooms banner out the front and we were all set.”

Stevens says having a presence both on- and offline has been crucial to the company’s success. “When people using our website realised we had a store, they wanted to come and have a look at it. Very early on I realised that having a showroom was quite important,” he explains.

As the business grew, Stevens began recruiting aggressively. One of his first employees is now area manager for the original showroom, and the subsequent Warrington and Manchester stores, which opened in 2007 and 2010 respectively. “He’s now responsible for 24 people and about £15m of business,” says Stevens. “He learned on the job, just as I’ve learned on the job, and he’s exceptional.”

One of the biggest departments within the business is IT, which has a team of 16 people. As 65% of the company’s revenues continues to be derived from online sales, it’s crucial that the web offering keeps apace with competitors and continues to scale with the business. 

It’s also said that every business needs a few grey hairs and in Stevens’ business that experience and wisdom comes in the form of his father, Peter, who joined four years ago. “He said, ‘I’m not working for you’, so I had to bring him on as a consultant,” says Stevens. “He agreed to do one day a week.” But the amount of time and energy Stevens Snr ploughed into the business gradually increased and he is now a key person of influence, overseeing operations and the supply chain. 

In fact, Better Bathrooms has become quite the family affair with mum Linda and sister Paula also working within the company. Ironic, considering Stevens’ absolute refusal to consider working in the family business his parents had owned in his youth. “I remember being asked, ‘Are you going to go and work for the family business if your golf doesn’t work out?’ I said no way,” he laughs. 

That’s not to say that running his own business has always been a walk in the park. The financial crisis hit the bathroom manufacturing industry in the UK hard, Stevens says. “We saw all of our suppliers apart from one disappear. Also we went from 60 or 90 days credit to 30 days credit, to weekly credit. Our cashflow was really squeezed,” he admits. “It was only through luck and ignorance that we made it through.”

He accredits the business’s survival to luck, but in truth, it’s due to more than a little business nous. The money he’d kept in the bank for a rainy day allowed him to continue trading in conditions that saw many of his rivals hit the runners. Though he admits the cash in the bank had been intended for a very different purpose. “It was always there to build the business. It wasn’t kept there in case something was to go wrong because I never envisaged that was possible.”

Still, through a little bit of luck and a little bit of skill, Better Bathrooms pulled through and is now thriving, with a turnover of £32m. Stevens hasn’t dropped the ball when it comes to expansion plans, either. He has recently signed a deal to sell 30% of the business – a process that will allow him to invest a substantial amount of money into growing the company. He remains tight-lipped on exact plans, but it is understood he is looking at potential showroom properties in the M25 region and even hinted at European expansion. Watch this space. 

Asked if he worries about selling a large chunk of his business, Stevens says it’s the right thing if he is to succeed in his lofty visions. “We want to grow very fast. We’ve done really well so far: we’re the number one independent bathroom retailer. But I’m seeing the bigger picture and how it can happen quite fast. We can be at £100m in three years and potentially £300m in seven years if the money’s there to be able to do that. We couldn’t do it with the existing money. We could get somewhere near but it’d take longer and be a bigger risk. It’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”

Indeed, it’s likely that security has become more important to him of late. His fiancee gave birth to the couple’s first child, a girl called Arabelle, four months ago. “At the moment, she sleeps, she eats, you change her nappy and then she sleeps again. So I try to plan my day around when she’s awake,” he says. 

The self-confessed workaholic admits that becoming a father has changed his attitude towards work slightly. “People said to me, ‘It’ll change everything when you have a baby,’ and I said ‘Nah, not me. I’ll still be work, work, work.’” And how does he feel now? “Obviously I’ve got a huge responsibility at work, but I am finding myself not wanting to leave her. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps I have changed a little bit,” he smiles. 

About the Author

Hannah Prevett

Hannah Prevett

Prevett likes to think she's something of an expert when it comes to small business. Having cut her teeth writing about tech, she latterly moved on to such illustrious titles as Growing Business, Management Today and the Sunday Times to indulge her enthusiasm for entrepreneurship: from P&Ls to private equity and all that's in between, you can't keep this girl away from the heady world of start-ups. 

Back in the day when she had spare time, she would spend it networking, horse riding, drafting and re-drafting ideas for novels, and playing auntie to her niece and three god-children. Those were the days...

Natalie Seery

Natalie Seery

Seery is the keen snapper who paps our cover stars each month. And she’s had plenty of experience, with a portfolio of shots of some of the UK’s hottest music stars as they strut their stuff on stage.

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