Adrian Lee: The ‘man with a van’ who made good

Having worked in the trade since he was 16, Adrian Lee used the latest technological wizardry to turn his flooring business into a nation-wide money spinner.


Adrian Lee,

Fifty-two-year-old Adrian Lee knows the value of sticking to what you are good at he has worked in flooring since he was 16 years old. He left school to work alongside his father for his uncle's flooring firm and by the age of 21 had 15 people working for him. "If anything, I was too good at what I was doing. It made me want to set up on my own." Lee's uncle warned him against it "he'd seen a lot of employees try, and fail, to set up their own companies", but Lee went ahead anyway. He's glad he ignored his uncle's advice.

Lee "had learnt from the best" at his family's company and was well trained in fitting floors in everything from hospitals to family homes. It also meant he had some standing in the industry and good relationships with suppliers. Starting out as 'a man with a van', as sales picked up he was able to hire another employee. Soon afterwards, a friend who worked as a butcher supplying six US European air bases with meat tipped Lee off about plans to renovate the bases.

Lee's subsequent work with RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath helped him land a contract for the other European bases. It was a massive boost, but Lee was careful not to overextend, hiring contractors to help him with extra work rather than taking on new full-time staff.

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The firm's biggest break came from a casual chat with an American airman, who told Lee about the internet before it became part of day-to-day life. "He explained how big it was in America and how big it was going to be here and I realised it was important for my business." So in 1997 Lee commissioned a website and renamed his firm "Back then almost no British firms were on it and the dial-up modems meant that pages took ages to load." But as internet traffic began to pick up, Lee's early-mover advantage started to work in his favour and he began getting calls from around the country.

"That one little webpage turned us into a national company." At one point Lee returned from a "quick job I was only out a few hours" to find 80 messages on his answerphone. "I knew this was going to be big."

At that point he decided to stop installing floors himself and began hiring more staff to deal with the extra demand. As the company began to grow, Lee realised that "the real challenge is fulfilment". The internet may have given Lee a nationwide customer base, but he still had to find a way to serve them all. "It's not easy to find an economical way to send one tonne of wooden flooring to Aberdeen from Norfolk in 24 hours. It gets even more difficult if the customer doesn't like the product and wants to return it."

Over the last decade Lee has learned to "try to solve problems before money is paid and flooring is shipped". For example, he now sends hundreds of samples to customers each day, so that they can be sure of their order.

This strategy has worked nicely last year the firm sold £11m worth of flooring and Lee is now planning a change in direction. "We're going to launch a London showroom in July, with more planned in the future." It's a significant investment and a seemingly risky step for an internet retailer. However, Lee is confident of picking up more sales from "customers who want to feel and see flooring before they buy it".

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.