Aged just 21, Colin Stevens decided to call it quits on his golfing career. Since the age of 17 he’d been playing and practising full time in a bid to make it as a professional golfer. “I won a couple of British competitions, but after a while I could see that I wasn’t going to beat the very best.” He decided it was time to enter the world of business instead. That would prove to be a shrewd move.
During his golfing days, he’d supported himself by selling golfing equipment through eBay. But that ended when he ran out of supplies. “I had some discontinued stock from a factory that I was making good money on. But when I tried to get stuff from official distributors, the margin was terrible.”
Desperate for cash, Stevens went through a “Del Boy Trotter” stage when he tried selling just about everything through eBay. Eventually, his mum, who worked for a bathroom products distributor, suggested that he tried selling taps.
“I wasn’t that keen at first, but when I looked into it I was surprised how high the margins were.” Thanks to his low overheads – “I lived at home and sold through eBay so I didn’t really have many costs” – Stevens was able to sell cheaply.
After a year of strong sales he set up a website for his firm, Better Bathrooms. Now he could take on more suppliers and offer more bathroom goods; soon he was selling £500,000 of equipment a year.
Next, an ambitious Stevens wanted a shop. “The thing with bathrooms is that people like to come and see what they’re getting.” So in 2004 he splashed out on renting and fitting out a showroom in Wigan. Always keen to keep costs down, he negotiated with suppliers to give him freebies in return for display items.
Unlike many retailers at the time Stevens didn’t try to charge one price for internet buyers and a higher one for shop customers. “I used to look at firms like Comet that had different prices and I thought they were nuts.” Ultimately, reasoned Stevens, if your margins can take it you should simply offer all your customers what they want at the same price. Not everyone liked his discounting approach.
Suppliers, “who were basically price fixing”, tried to get him to change it, but Stevens wouldn’t budge. Even when many major names stopped supplying him, he stuck to his guns. “I got on a plane and travelled to places like Italy, Portugal, Thailand and China to find new suppliers.” His obstinacy paid off and by 2008 he was able to open another, much larger store in nearby Warrington.
Expanding as the financial crisis hit wasn’t easy. “Overnight the banks tightened up and suppliers went from giving us £250,000 credit to £50,000. We had to be a lot more careful with cash flow.” Yet customers continued to come through the doors and by 2010 he was ready to open a new Manchester store.
Last year, sales hit £36m with the firm’s phenomenal growth earning it a place in The Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 – an index of the country’s fastest-growing companies. Fed up with dealing with suppliers – many of whom have gone bust anyway – Better Bathrooms now often deals direct with manufacturers.
“It gives us more control over what they make, which means we can give our customers what they want.” Now 32, Stevens has set his sights higher still: he plans to get sales to £200m.