Q&A: Jason Ashby, chief executive of UK Flooring Direct
Here we interview Jason Ashby, chief executive of UK Flooring Direct. Founded in 2005, the company hit £50 million worth of annual sales in 2020 and is looking to treble this by 2022, whilst increasing staffing levels to 380.
Based in Hinckley in the East Midlands, UK Flooring Direct sells a range of more than 250 products, including wood and laminate flooring, to both retail and trade customers.
The company has also invested heavily in technology and has placed great emphasis on understanding its customer-base by utilising tools such as AI. In addition, it has made major investments in people and added key skills and personnel to its board and senior management team in recent months.
What were you doing prior to founding the business?
“I started my career as a flooring installer as a 16-year-old apprentice but, by the age of 21, I realised I could be earning more money if I had more people working for me. I had a team of five operating for me up and down the country. I opened my first retail store at 28 just as the internet was beginning to take off.”
Why did you decide to set it up?
“I could see two big trends coming – the rise of digital and online shopping, I managed to spot that early and that has been a big part of our success.
“I love business and I love retail. Even when I was an installer, my favourite part of the job was giving the floor a vacuum after everything was fitted and seeing a happy customer. I like understanding what a customer wants and delivering that. People are buying things to make themselves happy and it’s a retailer’s job to give great service and keep them satisfied. That really attracted to me setting up my own business.”
Tell us more about how you developed the business from £500 in the bank to £50 million in sales?
“It was 2005 and we founded the business with just £500 in the bank and spent £299 on our first website! We started everything from a drop shipping arrangement and we grew really quickly.
“In the first full year we turned over £750,000 and, by year five, we reached £9 million in sales. We’ve set turnover targets for ourselves and have continued to hit them and go beyond them.
“As a business, we’ve invested heavily in technology and in our people in order to keep growing at such a rapid rate. We expanded into new premises in Hinckley, in the East Midlands, in 2017 and then opened a second site in Coventry, in the West Midlands, in 2020.
“We also received £8 million of investment from BGF in November 2020 too, to help us grow the number of product categories we sell and further increase market share.
“The company has gone past the £50 million turnover target and we want to triple that by the end of 2022 and increase our headcount to 380.
“I am not one to stand still. Once we hit one target, we set another and, with the way the market is going and the way we are investing and growing, I believe we can be a £1 billion turnover business.”
Can you tell us more about your marketing strategies and activities to keep customers engaged?
“In the early days, much of what we did was built on Google’s organic rankings which was an a very cost-effective way of marketing. When it changed its algorithms, we had to change the marketing model around pay per click, which increased our marketing spend dramatically.
“Everything we do now is around giving the customer the opportunity to self-inform because consumers don’t want to wait for anything. They are used to being able to find out all the information they need at the touch of a button and are used to having products delivered the day after they ordered them. Just because this is a big ticket item, the consumer’s expectations do not change.”
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your business?
“Like every other business, Covid-19 was a shock and our first challenge was setting people up to be able to work from home and in providing reassurance at what was a really difficult time for everyone.
“The company spent more than £40,000 on laptops, telephones and technology and did home-work assessments for all office-based staff. We made sure staff and customers’ online security was at the centre of new practises, by investing in new security technologies and services. The warehouse remained open – but shifts were moved to 24-hours so that social distancing and other safety measures could be followed. The company ensured that communication and wellbeing remained top of our agenda. To support positive wellbeing, we held regular wellbeing check-in sessions with individuals and issued practical toolkits and guidance on how to work remotely.
“From a sales point of view, we had a record year and our products geared towards DIY proved to be a real hit. For some, the pandemic meant they had more disposable income and time on their hands so decided to improve their homes and that led to an increase in orders for us.
“Across the year, 114,954 orders were taken in every corner of the country – almost double the figure for 2018, meaning we achieved our best ever financial performance.”
Anything on Brexit?
“Brexit hasn’t caused trading issues with our EU suppliers as we all planned well in advance for potential increase lead times by increasing our stock levels and order lead times.
“The issues have come from what is an already well-documented shortage in skilled people and we are seeing impacts on both our inbound logistics and home delivery. The other area we are seeing a significant impact is on tradespeople whose numbers have been dramatically reduced, with both the consumer and commercial projects being put back due to lack of staff, along with material availability.”
How do you see the business developing in the future – new products, expansion etc?
“The ambition is to reach £1 billion in sales and that will mean new products and more investment – in our people and in technology.”
Would you ever consider opening physical stores?
“No! We are digitally native and all of our growth will come from online retail.”
How have you invested in technology and how has it helped the business?
“We are always investing in technology – even when you go back to that £500 website. Now we’ve moved onto an annual digital investment budget of £2.5 million to take in a range of technology to engage with and market to customers, including AI. We’ve also made ongoing investments in giving customers the opportunity to self-inform on the website before ordering samples.
“Earlier this year, Josh Ashby became our chief digital officer, which shows just how much importance we place on digital to the growth of the business.”
How do you think online retail will develop over the next five years?
“The pace of change towards online retail was accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis. It brought forward the shift from in-store shopping towards online by five years and we see this not only maintaining but continue to grow.
“Consumers, tradespeople and commercial customer groups all want to self-inform and self-service in a time of their choosing and from any device they want and with the continued advancement of machine learning and AI data driven technology, companies such as ours will continue to be on the front foot on ensuring we meet their ever-changing demands.”
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