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.

News
Jennifer Lawrence was among the stars allegedly hacked
peopleActress and 100 others on 'master list' after massive hack
Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Voices
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
News
i100
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Application Support Analyst / Junior SQL Server DBA

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established professional services...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Business Development Manager / Media Sales Exec

£28 - 32k + Uncapped Commission: Guru Careers: A Business Development Manager ...

C# .NET Developer (PHP, Ruby, Open Source, Blogs)

£40000 - £70000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: C# .NET ...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor