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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
science
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
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

Data Governance Manager (Solvency II) – Contract – Up to £450 daily rate, 6 month (may go Permanent)

£350 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently looking...

Java Developer - Banking - London - Up to £560/day

£500 - £560 per day: Orgtel: Java Developer FX - Banking - London - Up to £560...

HR Business Analyst, Bristol, £350-400pd

£350 - £400 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Account Manager - (Product & Account Management, Marketing)

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Account Manager - (Produc...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried