Definition of an Artisan:
Skilled craftsperson: somebody who is skilled at a craft.
Alongside the M4 in Wiltshire lies the burgeoning town of
Swindon, which, in 1997 was officially designated the fastest growing town in the world. The town has a rich industrial heritage and is associated with that most famous of engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his Swindon Railway Works where the engines for the Great Western Railway were built. Swindon was the ‘
Silicon Valley’ of its day and at the forefront of the nascent rail industry.
Today virtually every ‘National’ hire company has a foothold in the town along with a wide range of independent hire companies, all jockeying for position in a fiercely competitive arena. To start and successfully run a hire business here has ‘tested the metal’ and proved too much for some national companies, even when equipped with plentiful resources and finance. However, for two young men to take a struggling business and virtually build from scratch the thriving, independent hire company that is Artisan Hire is no mean feat and worthy of analysis.
Tracing the success story of Artisan Hire uncovers the names of both hire companies and individuals that are now part of the industry’s history. This rich vein of heritage and pedigree is not lost or, forgotten, and is still very apparent in the Artisan Hire of today where it adds a depth of experience and knowledge that is proving fundamental to its undoubted success.
Hire in the blood
In 1988 at the age of fifteen Chris Comer left school to join the
Swindon workshop of Action Plant Hire to learn the craft of ‘test and run’. The choice of career however was no accident. Tool hire was well and truly in Chris’s blood, with his father, Roger Comer, Operations Director of Action Plant along with Mick Batten and the now sadly deceased Bill Lendrem. Mick, Bill & Roger, who learnt their trade with HSS from the middle ‘sixties’ onwards, had started Action Plant in 1972 and had developed it into a ten-branch company.
By 1990 Chris had progressed to being Manager of the
Gloucester branch of Action Plant Hire and then the recession of the early nineties arrived.
This was a period of turbulent economic activity, especially within the hire industry, and in 1991 Action Plant fell victim to the recession and was duly acquired by Kendrick Hire.
From the ashes of Action Plant, Mick Batten started Hi-Speed Hire and the two Roger’s acquired the ‘
Center’, a Chippenham and Melksham based company. Chris joined his father and continued to progress his career with the
Center adding new depots in Trowbridge and
In 1995, Jason King, joined the business and set about acquiring the skills and knowledge of the hire industry.
1999 brought more change with the Renter Centre acquired by Vibroplant. Nearly two years later, Jason’s chance conversation with a plumber suggested a small hire company in
Swindon called Artisan Hire might be available to buy as the owner was looking to retire. Artisan Hire had started life as a ‘HireTech’ franchisee based in the local Homebase store. However, the franchisee later moved out to start again as an independent.
In September 2000 Chris and Jason left Vibroplant to become the new owners of Artisan Hire. For two young men with mortgages and families this was a bold move, especially when you consider
Swindon had sixteen hire companies battling for business.
From day one, the company set out their stall supplying new, high quality kit matched by the highest levels of service they could offer. This approach, coupled to hard work and long hours, began to yield results with their reputation amongst local business rapidly spreading by word of mouth. Artisan Hire began to generate a strong following and support and were clearly on the move.
It’s a family affair.
As the company grew more hands were needed and Jason’s father-in-law joined the business followed the next year by Roger Comer.
After a brief spell a second depot was opened in Devizes and a strategy for the development of the business began to emerge. Chris and Jason recognised that to grow successfully a computerised operation would be vital, but the dilemma of whether to buy new hire kit for the rapidly growing business or, IT, was ever present.
In 2005 an expansion opportunity appeared when the old
Center premises in Melksham came on the market, closely followed by a unit in Chippenham. A quick re-shuffle saw the Devizes depot closed and Artisan trading from three hire depots.
As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, Mick Batten at Hi-Speed Hire had meanwhile decided that after over forty years in the business it was time to sell up. Artisan Hire saw this as an opportunity to extend their operation along the M4 corridor and acquired the business along with the services of Mick Batten who joined the Artisan Hire team.
Rationalisation saw the closure of Hi-Speed’s Nailsea and Avonmouth depots with the Filton branch becoming Artisan’s flagship
The purchase of Hi-Speed injected a huge amount of equipment into the Artisan Hire fleet and the need for computerisation of their expanding operation could not be delayed any longer and the decision was made to introduce the ‘Insphire’ system into the business.
This roller-coaster ride over the last eighteen months has seen Artisan Hire expand to four depots and create a reputation that continues to grow. Time for EHN to investigate how it’s being done.
On my visit to the Melksham branch of Artisan I asked Chris Comer what philosophy drives the company?
“Setting hire standards” appears on our literature and we aim to do just that. We firmly believe in buying top quality tools and equipment, attaining the highest standards in fleet maintenance and constantly working at improving our level of service. This is what our customers demand and apart from those who are no longer trading, we still retain all our original customers”.
The right brands.
The hire fleet appears modern and well stocked with leading brands such as Topcon, Fairport, Pentax and Hilti. ”Our customers want to pay a fair price for the right kit and are increasingly brand aware. Cash customers too appreciate the benefit of hiring equipment that has been designed and built for the trade”.
Interestingly, Artisan has chosen not to add mini excavators to their hire fleet although this has not stopped them doing good business by cross-hiring mini’s from local plant hire companies. “Many of the national hire companies are reluctant or just not interested in hiring to non-account holders. We earn good revenue by re-hiring mini-excavators to these customers, along with our own tracked barrows and compressors” said Chris.
From VPN’s & VOiP’s to ear tags.
Having the right kit is only part of the equation and Artisan clearly maintain their kit to a high standard and Chris explained that this is where their IT system which links their four branches by VPN (Virtual Private Network) has proved invaluable. ”Being ‘Windows’ based, our workshop team have quickly learnt the system and appreciate the ability to quickly monitor and update maintenance records”
So apart from a helping create a well-maintained hire fleet what else does Artisan have in its IT armoury? “We have made a major investment in all our IT including our VOiP telephone system (Voice over Internet Protocol). This not only makes all our inter-branch calls cost free but most importantly allows our staff to prioritise incoming calls and ensures our main telephone lines are available for our customers to get through to the depots” said Chris adding “the systems we have installed allow us to monitor our costs carefully and identify any areas that require specific attention. One other important aspect of the IT system was its compatibility with the ‘COINS’ payment system used by our bigger construction customers and early in 2006 we integrated the package into our system. After a few teething problems we’ve at last turned the corner and the system has performed very smoothly. Our customers who use ‘COINS’ are extremely impressed and it’s got to be the way forward”.
Adopting new technologies has not stopped Artisan from finding solutions to other industry problems by slightly less ‘hi-tech’ methods. The colour coded tags found attached to all their power tools were originally intended for use as cattle ear-tags, but Artisan found they offer a superb ‘lo-tech’ solution to providing customers with vital ‘HAV’ data. “The ear tags give a combination of colour coding and written data and appear practically indestructible,” said Chris.
Back to the future
So what next for Artisan Hire? Chris answered” We have a clear plan of where we want to be in five years with a network of ten depots our goal, but not at any cost. Any future premises must be good, high profile locations and we have already identified the next site for opening. But of equal importance is employing the right people, so we carefully research and investigate an area to find the people who ‘catch the eye’”
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing Chris and Jason will be dealing with the impending retirement of their two ‘Elder Statesmen’, Roger Comer and Mick Batten. However, Chris and Jason are already planning for that eventuality and their own business acumen accrued over the years will no doubt stand them in good stead.
In an era where the major hire companies seemingly dominate the agenda it’s refreshing to come across a dynamic, young team supported by ‘two wise old heads’ who are successfully building a business by adopting new technology, stringent standards of fleet quality and providing exacting standards of customer service. Early in our interview Chris had explained how ‘word of mouth’ recommendation was so important to them and he told me a story, which supports his belief. Some members of the local ambulance service were regular users of Artisan Hire and one particular paramedic was extremely impressed with a flail mower he had recently hired. Later on an emergency call the paramedic encountered a gardener who injured himself with a brush cutter. “You should have hired a flail mower from Artisan,” the medic said as he loaded the accident victim into the back of his ambulance.
Some weeks later the very same gardener limped into Artisan Hire and asked to hire the flail mower as recommended by the paramedic! The power of ‘word of mouth’ recommendation works and proof that the Artisan team meet the definition of the word ‘artisan’.