A screwy way to make a million

Roger Trapp looks at a company that proves you don't have to have a costly product to succeed

Anybody needing evidence that, even on the cusp of the 21st century, business does not have to be complex to prosper should look no further than Screwfix Direct.

Since the early 1990s, this company, based in Yeovil, Somerset, has seen turnover double every year simply by being dedicated to supplying tradespeople and DIY enthusiasts with screws and related products by mail order.

As a privately owned operation based in the West Country, it is little known. But in the year to the end of January, it achieved sales of pounds 28m and is projecting to boost these to pounds 48m next year. Moreover, it claims to have Buckingham Palace and London's Tate Gallery among its customers, while Eton College is one of the 10 per cent of schools that order their supplies through the company's catalogue.

David Cox, chief executive, says his company's promise of next-day delivery, wholesale prices and a full range of products has enabled it to establish a niche between the traditional builders' merchants and the DIY "sheds" that have sprung up outside town centres.

The story started in 1981, when Jon and Jenny Goddard-Watts bought a small company that sold screws through Exchange and Mart. In the following years, they added two other companies in this field to the Woodscrew Supply Company and acquired a reputation for selling good-value products. By 1993, when they combined the companies under the name Screwfix Direct to create a comprehensive telephone ordering service for building supply products, turnover had reached pounds 350,000. Mr Cox attributes much of this early success to the "real passion" that Mr and Mrs Goddard-Watts brought to what many would regard as the prosaic business of selling screws.

The focus on attention to detail was continued when the couple's two sons arrived in the business. One used a background in logistics software to create a distribution software package, while the other had an intuitive feel for what tradespeople wanted and set about expanding the product range. These initiatives led to even greater success. But, crucially, by 1997 the company had reached the point where the founders felt there was a need to hire a professional manager.

This is where Mr Cox, who had worked in an engineering business and set up an interactive games company before taking an MBA, came in. The family members are still involved - Mrs Goddard-Watts looked after the books until a head of finance was appointed last October -but Mr Cox has been made chief executive with overall responsibility for the direction of the company.

Mr Cox is insistent that the company should not sacrifice quality and service in the name of growth. Pointing out that about half of new orders come from referrals and recommendations, he says: "We want to maintain growth by reputation."

Being a privately owned business that is cash positive and not answerable to shareholders has played a significant part in being able to do that, he adds.

"What it means is we'll take risks. If we want to put something in the catalogue, we'll do it. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, we'll take it out again."

He acknowledges that this can be demanding and does not suit everybody. Some people leave quite soon after joining, citing how hard the work is.

"The biggest problem we have with managers coming in is that we have to train them to be `inefficient'. The culture of most organisations is to be cost-effective today. We're not interested in cutting costs to the point where we see what we can get away with," he says.

Instead, he takes the view that since the UK repair, maintenance and improvement market is said to be worth pounds 9bn, with a broader definition doubling the size, there is plenty of business to be won yet.

Moreover, with the company venturing into electronic commerce, it is looking to expand into continental Europe.

Growing acceptance of mail order has got the company this far. Now technology looks to be taking it further. "It's been said to us before that you could never sell screws over the internet. We believe that we will certainly prove our doubters wrong," says Mr Cox.

If you think your firm qualifies for inclusion in the league based on annual sales growth over five years, then send for an application form to Philip Rego, KITE/Independent 100, Willoughby House, 439 Richmond Road, East Twickenham, Middlesex TW1 2HA.

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Customer Service Executive / Inbound Customer Service Agent

£18 - 23k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Customer Service Executiv...

ASP.NET Web Developer / .NET Developer

£60 - 65k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a ASP.NET Web Developer / ....

Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

£60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

Project Coordinator - 12 month contract

£27000 - £32000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our large charity ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album