SME Stories: Richard Freer

Richard Freer took over as fourth generation chairman of the William Freer Group in 1997. Over the last 20 years, the group has faced numerous challenges and I spoke to Richard about these hurdles, and how the business navigated them effectively.

East Midlands business William Freer was established 130 years ago with the main intention of providing gas engineering services. It subsequently diversified into heating, plumbing, air conditioning, refrigeration, electrical, and catering contracting. In the last 20 years the William Freer Group has moved away from domestic services and into specialist commercial contract maintenance for education and local authorities, universities, and breweries. Through offering a full array of services with highly qualified staff in a strictly regulated market, it has established a niche market.

Building strong foundations

Strong group expansion has come with Duplus, initially a specialist contract glazier, but who since developed into a mainstream manufacturer and installer of glass curtain walling, windows and rooflights. Duplus now represents 80% of group turnover.

Richard explained to me how in the early 2000s the group identified that the invention of polycarbonates provided a clear material that could be thermoformed and curved to manufacture atria for the top of shopping centres. After riding that boom, it became apparent that in time polycarbonate deteriorates and gets dirty and scratched. Glass looks better. Architectural demand changed, as did energy efficiency standards, and Duplus changed with it, moving away from plastics into glass, a much better thermal protector.

Duplus seized the opportunity of changing technologies and with their design expertise responded to changing architectural fashion and building thermal regulations.

Established in 1985, Duplus has something else on its side: history, and with it, contractor stability. As Richard says: “The average life of a subcontractor in the construction industry is nine years. Having a company, like ours, with a history and financial backing to give confidence that we shall be able to finish the job is appealing. It’s a real problem in the construction industry – where risk has been pushed down the chain to the subcontractor. It makes the main contractor vulnerable as the subcontractor can easily go bust.”

What goes up, nearly always goes down

But disaster nearly struck with the 2008 financial crash. Just prior to the markets tanking, Richard had invested heavily in turning a London building into domestic flats. When property values crashed and confidence in construction firms disappeared, the banks twice appointed restructuring departments to Freers. Barclays smelled a good opportunity to buy Freer assets on the cheap, but the group survived.

The second black swan was a sudden change in building regulations which effectively prevented Duplus’s leading polycarbonate rooflights from meeting the new thermal efficiency standards. And there was no way of enabling them to do so. This coincided with the financial crash.

In 2007, the polycarbonate rooflight product range accounted for 20% of group turnover and a greater percentage of profit. Duplus had to completely shut it down and focus on developing a new glass rooflight system with an aluminium frame aimed at the domestic sector. It took a year of concentrated effort but the resulting product exceeded expectations.

Lessons learnt

If there’s anything to learn from it,” Richard says, “we should have been doing our product development five to six years earlier. We should be trying to look ahead all the time whether it’s improving existing products or developing new ones. There’s a balance to be drawn in exploiting what you’ve got and developing new products. At the moment there’s a fair bit of change and we don’t have the resources for completely new product development.”

The advice Richard got from his father was simple and still rings true to this day: “Construction is always boom and bust. When it’s boom, prepare for bust. When it’s bust prepare for boom.”

His advice to others? “Be prepared to fail three times out of four!” 

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