This ex-army man's new company is driving cowboy builders out of London with its focus on military precision

 
Chris Bown

We all love to moan about tradesmen – often with good reason. The famously flaky building industry means the cliches about people not turning up, or leaving a job half finished, are sadly too often still true. And consumers compound the problem by taking the lowest quote for a job.

It was this apparent absence of customer care that led one ex-military man into the sector, determined to deliver a better service. He’s currently driving the dodgy builders out of south west London, and if Billy Heyman has his way, he’ll improve standards across the sector as he grows the business.

Like many leaving the military, Heyman had a plan for civilian life - but it didn’t quite work out. “I tried to get into property development, but I realised not only did I not have enough money, I couldn’t find any good builders.” Plan B was to become one of those missing builders, and Heyman trained to be a plumber, setting off installing bathrooms. On site, he quickly realised he was better off organising, rather than simply doing the work, and was soon heading a team who carried out the projects.

The next move for BTL Property, as his business was called, was more fortuitous than planned. Looking to save money in the 2011 downturn, Heyman shifted his base from a serviced office to a high street shop unit in Fulham. “After a couple of months, people started walking in – they loved the concept of a builder they could come and see.”

A substantial order placed by one of those walk-ins persuaded him that he was on to something. Shops in Chelsea, Wandsworth and Wimbledon followed. “We’re growing at a pace,” says Heyman: “My aspiration is to cover the whole of south west London by 2018.” Work covers extensions, basements and interiors, while the team includes designers and in-home audio specialists. He has 35 direct staff, some of whom are also ex-military, and a team of up to 300 site workers.

Heyman, along with his peers, has the chancellor to thank for some of the growth in their business. With substantial increases in stamp duty, the cost of moving house has spiralled, while home prices continue to rise. Together, these factors mean that basement conversions become worth doing, when homes are worth £800 per square foot or more.

“The army taught me many, many things,” says Heyman, and those include planning, and doing what you say you will do. Clients get detailed pricing for their project, and it gets carefully managed from start to finish; BTL expects to do a sufficiently good job that impressed clients will recommend them. “The industry had to professionalise,” says Heyman, who is not unhappy that others are following his lead: “I’m watching the competition mirror us.”

In a buoyant London market, finding good people remains a challenge, but Hayman has his sights set on further disclipined growth: “I’d like to have a BTL on every high street in the capital,” he dreams.

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