Brief in counters: David Coster talks to Robert Jay

Robert Jay

Robert Jay, who has launched his own consultancy for worktop fabricators and kitchen & bathroom studios.

David Coster, Director of Advanced Stone & Masonry Supplies, which sells Stain Proof and Tenax products, talks to Robert Jay, who has set himself up as R J Stone Consultancy, having previously been a Director of Prima Marble & Granite in north London.

David Coster: Quartz, sintered/porcelain or natural stone?

Robert Jay: Categorically, being brought up in the industry in the ’80s, natural materials for myself. We had materials like Kinawa Rose back in the ’80s for kitchen worktops and flooring. But from a business point of view and knowing what the material size and cost will be before you start a job, you can’t beat man-made materials. For volume production it’s going to be man-made. My preference is for something more bespoke, but the expectations of clients are too great for natural materials. If those expectations can be managed and are more realistic, I think there’s a market to be had there.

David Coster: Straight off the CNC or hand finished?

Robert Jay: Off the CNC. After being brought up in a factory where we had 25 blokes on benches with angle grinders and seeing all the machines available today there’s no need to try to finish by hand. The technological advancements over the past 20 years… you can’t beat it.

Physical templating or digital?

The majority of templating now is digital, although a couple of guys are still more comfortable with Correx.

In the residential, end user market, Correx makes sense because Mrs Smith wanting a set of worktops including a breakfast bar with an overhang can see a piece of Correx and agree on the size of the overhang, radius ends. It means something. Doing it digitally you can’t get that across to an end user. Signing off something that says a radius size on it, people don’t get it.

But the moment you have any sort of volume and speed is required, you can’t beat digital templating. It’s fairly new for me to say that. Once I would have always been a Correx man. But with Correx you have the issue of physically getting the Correx templates to a factory. If you have a guy who’s onsite at 8-o-clock in the morning and he’s templating until the end of his working day at 4-o-clock, he can do that every day with digital templates, but with Correx he has to pick it up in the morning and take the templates back before the factory can start making something. You have a massive amount of wasted time, effort and money in moving Correx about.

Tell us about the consultancy you have started up now.

My business now is offering a consultancy service on templating, supply and installation of all types of stone and solid worksurfaces to retailers, people I have worked with for many, many years. I’m also offering some of my knowledge and experience on systems and the development of systems for smaller fabricators, who are often stretched and just haven’t got the time or experience to put new systems into place to be scalable.

So many of the fabricators and factories I’m talking to are stuck in that rut where they can’t move forward from where they are.

Nobody has the time, so you offer your services to see if you can save them that time somewhere?

Indeed – save them time, save them money. Putting in new procedures because so many of the people I’m talking to are still working in what we would have called, back in the day, working off the back of a fag packet.

A lot of the people in this industry started by working with their hands. You would happily be the head to go along with those hands?

Yes. My background is purely commercial. I have never been on the tools. I have never been a templater or fitter. I have purely done the business side of it, so I can add that commercial expertise to any small business; to those companies turning over a million to one-and-half-million and run by people who know the business and are still on the tools all day every day. The moment they come off the tools and start looking at what new processes are needed they’re not producing goods and they’re not earning.

What are you looking to work on over the next year or so?

The systems that a small company turning over a million or so can afford to put into place – a fairly easy, straight forward customer relations management system (CRM) that will just manage their quotes and their jobs fairly simplistically, but ensuring the systems are followed and which any member of staff can access – right the way through to putting in much bigger systems that will run a whole company, from the initial CRM and quoting through to final invoicing.

I can offer that now, including all the training and setting up of all the products and prices for stock management. I can take it as far down the line as you need it, through to accounting to ensure every bit of the business is managed. It allows the owners to have a very quick overview of where they’re at without physically having to be sitting in front of spreadsheets all the time.

When it comes to Brexit and Covid, are we out the other side?

I think our industry is. The bigger impact has been to our clients – to kitchen retailers, building contractors and main contractors, with them getting product through so they’re ready for when they need us. We have a shortage of labour in this country. It has hit our industry as well, but has predominantly hit those trades before we are needed.

We are coming to the end of marble quartz, maybe? Where would you want to be as a fabricator?

I would want to be offering more than just worktops. I think one of the big things in our industry is that getting a client is tough; converting an enquiry into a job is tough. So we have to make more of it; come up with a way to get a bigger order number off the same order, whether that’s offering different types of splashbacks, offering sideboards and furniture for the lounge, offering elements within the same job to beef the number up.

People are talking about glass worktops coming back. They say there’s been developments that make the glass stronger, and that might attract some at the top end of the market. In stone, ideally marble with a decent finish to it. Something that’s sustainable, manageable, will live up to clients’ expectations as a kitchen worktop.

And bathrooms?

Absolutely. Two or three of my big clients do kitchens and bathrooms. If someone is doing a refurbishment that involves a kitchen it probably means there are also two or three bathrooms and perhaps a utility or downstairs cloakroom.

It always makes me laugh that as an industry we fight over 5m2 in the kitchen when there’s perhaps 90m2 in the bathrooms in the same house.

I totally agree. Once you have that client on board they’re trusting you because they have placed their biggest order with you. To pick up a few bathrooms that might only be £10,000-£15,000 each, but there might be four or five of them and a downstairs cloakroom, is not so difficult. Tiles, stone worktops, window cills and the rest can increase the value of the job massively, just by making sure we win those other areas.

So you can help fabricators make the most of what they have, saving them time and eventually money?

Making them more profitable, categorically. Enabling them to be scalable. If there’s one big message for smaller companies it’s that they can’t grow if everything’s done in a notebook on a desk somewhere, because that’s not scalable.