Alistair Houghton speaks to DAVE WALKER, managing director of Armistead Building Services
SOMETIMES, you have to step back to move on up.Until last year Dave Walker, of Widnes company Armistead Building Services, combined leading the business with a hands-on role checking customers’ homes after staff had completed their repair work.
But, in 2011, Walker decided that he had to step back from day-to-day work to focus on the company’s growth plans.
He is still managing director, but says his role is now more that of a chief executive. And, in that role, he is planning to turn Armistead into a national brand.
The company’s core business is fire and flood restoration. Working on behalf of blue chip insurance companies, Armistead staff travel the North West repairing properties that have suffered often serious damage – for example, some homes damaged by last year’s flooding in Huyton.
But last year the company bought the regional Chem-Dry franchise, allowing it to offer new flood repair services, and it has now launched a construction arm to offer its services to companies outside the construction sector.
It also hopes to win national work off the back of the Government’s Green Deal programme to make British homes more energy efficient.
Father-of-two Walker now has what he calls a “helicopter role”, hovering over all the group’s businesses in the manner of a group chief executive and ensuring they are moving forward.
It’s a new role for the trained joiner, but it’s one he’s relishing.
“Up to last year I’d be the guy who would come to your house and sign the job off,” he said.
“That was a massive strength that we had, but also a weakness because we couldn’t grow. The fact that I was so passionate about the operational side meant that as a business we couldn’t really grow to the potential we had.
“So I took the decision to change role. I’m 44 years of age. This is the right time for us.
“It’s really great to be out of my comfort zone. I’d never done this before. But if you believe in something passionately and put the time and effort and heart in, things fall into place. And that’s what’s happened.
“We’ve managed to get some considerable investment from the banks, which people tell me is rare. They must have liked what we’ve put together and what we’ve seen. They believe in us. That’s nice to see.”
Walker trained as a joiner, studying a High Baird College in Bootle first at night school and then on day release. Finally, at 27 – when he was already running Armistead – he completed a degree in construction at Liverpool John Moores University.
“I was pushed by my dad early on,” he smiled. “Firstly he wanted me to get a trade, and secondly he installed in me that if you’re going to do something, do it well. So I continued my education. I just didn’t give up.”
That work ethic is, Walker says, something he now tries to pass on to his colleagues at Armistead.
“It doesn’t matter what you do,” he said, “but try to do it to the best of your ability.
“I’m a Bootle-born lad. I came from a terraced two-up two-down background. Everything I’ve got, I’ve worked hard for.”
Walker came across Armistead while working in Lancaster and, with another colleague, bought the business in 1992 after spotting the potential it had to grow in the insurance market.
But the travelling from Merseyside became too much and, in 1997, the “nice tidy little business” opened a Merseyside office from which Walker could work.
He said: “Within a year, because of the population of Liverpool compared to Lancaster , we’d outgrown Lancaster in 12 months.
“We looked for premises and we found this office in Widnes to be ideal logistically, with access to the motorway for our insurance clients. We’ve been here for 13 years now.”
In 2004 Walker bought out his first business partner and brought in two new directors, Doug Walker and Steve Sleight. The growth strategy they then launched, focused on the insurance market, has helped Armistead to weather the recession.
“We’ve never looked back,” said Walker.
“We’ve managed to make good profits, particularly when 2008 came.
“Like everybody, we thought the world had ended and we were ready to batten down the hatches. But we continued to grow, predominantly in the insurance market.