Miner who cashed in at a chalk face

David Jones took his redundancy money from the pits and turned himself into a businessman. Chris Arnot reports
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The Independent Online
Visitors to the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, South Yorkshire, can see the two sides of David Jones. Back-to-back in lifesize form are David Jones the miner, in pit helmet and overalls, and David Jones the businessman in smart suit and with briefcase in hand.

At one time there was also David Jones, the club singer, and David Jones, the footballer, who had trials for Rotherham and West Bromwich Albion. As one of his former coaches might have put it, his life has been a game of two halves. Not that game is quite the right word. It certainly was not much fun in 1987 when Silverwood Colliery in South Yorkshire closed down and he was made redundant.

Only two years earlier he had marched back to work with the colleagues after a year-long strike that had resolved nothing. Today, he is occasionally accosted by old mates from Silverwood who plead with him to give them a job. It grieves him when he has to say no.

Already his workshop and office on a Rotherham industrial estate supports nine employees, mainly joiners and furniture assemblers for his educational supplies business. But he knows he could take on more and double his turnover. Although the demand is there, he is having to turn down contracts because of a lack of financial backing. The venture capitalists he has talked to want too high a return, the banks are reluctant to increase his overdraft. He has little in the way of collateral beyond a l0-year- old car and a three-bedroomed semi, albeit in a leafy part of Rotherham.

The business he has built in fewer than 10 years is ticking over with a turnover of pounds 500,000. "I miss the comradeship of the pits," he says, "but I wish I'd started doing this 20 years ago." He is 51, a man who has adapted in middle years to fundamental changes in his working culture. Yet you sense his frustration at not being able to capitalise further on his capacity to supply schools with what they want at a price they can afford.

The firm is called Jard Products (Jard being an acronym of his wife Jean, son Aaron, daughter Rachel and his own initial). Jean acted as the catalyst for her husband's tentative moves into business when she was learning to drive. She had difficulty memorising parts of the Highway Code so he devised mini-signs with a concealed tag that revealed the answer when pulled out. Raw material came in the form of old cornflake boxes. But after a survey of bookshops in Rotherham and Sheffield revealed no comparable product, he saw an opportunity to use some of the redundancy money that would soon be on the way. He set to in the kitchen and devised a more marketable road safety package. Two educational supply companies included it in their catalogues.

"Schools were using them for cycling proficiency tests," he says. "Eventually, I was turning out about 100 a fortnight. But with the cost of cardboard, printing, phone calls and deliveries, I was just about breaking even." One day he received a call from a Sheffield head teacher who was keen to buy the product direct.Word spread and his phone number was passed around. His help was sought in acquiring other products, such as jigsaws, classroom and library furniture, even a disco and bar for a school function. "I saved one head teacher pounds 800 on furnishing a classroom, and we split the difference," he recalls. "She was happy and so was I." He took on a joiner and built up a network of contacts. If he could not supply a product direct, he knew a man who could.

He was also introduced to Barry Hooper, a business consultant, who is now a partner. Together they designed more exotic items of classroom furniture, notably sturdy book boxes attached to hand-painted penguins, zebras, lions and other creatures. "It was a way of increasing our margins," says Mr Hooper. It was also a good way to get exposure in mail-order educational catalogues.

Production expanded rapidly. With the help of British Coal Enterprises they acquired a workshop. Within four months, they had another three. "When I asked for a fifth, they said I really ought to have my own factory," says Mr Jones.

Jard products have found their way to Germany, Thailand and Kuwait. "We've even sent our zebras and elephants to South Africa," says the former miner. Sometimes he muses that life was simpler when he worked at the pit and somebody paid his wages. "I've seen boardroom chairs worth more than I was taking home then. When I first went in to one of those boardrooms, I was nervous and overawed. I remember Barry kicking me under the table because I was dunking a biscuit in my tea.

"I'm not bothered any more. It doesn't matter how plush the surroundings. You're only there because you've got something they might want to buy. Everything else is just a front. I've learnt that you have to be hard- headed and not accept what people say at face value."