Jonathan Hey Westbury Garden Rooms
In the early 1980s, Jonathan Hey (pictured) knew an easy way to make money – “buy a house, do it up and sell it”. The property market was in good health, and the process was made all the more profitable because the government of the time was handing out grants to homeowners – to build indoor toilets. In 1981 a lot of houses still just had outside toilets. The only trouble was that Hey, then 22, didn’t have the money to buy a house. So he asked his employer, a farmer, to help him save.
“I knew I would spend it all if I had it, so I got him to give me half in cash and put the rest into a bank account.” Eventually, he saved enough to buy a property in Hertfordshire with a friend, who was an electrician. The pair did up the house together – “we had to get a plumber in to help with the toilet but … we were able to do a lot ourselves” – sold for a profit, and moved on to the next project. It was the start of a string of successful deals. But by the late 1980s, Hey was tiring of the “feast and famine” nature of the business. “All the money would be tied up in a house and I’d be waiting for a sale before I could have some.” Also, the booming housing market meant more competition. “Everyone started to do the same thing as us.” So in 1987 he switched to installing conservatories. To begin with, the going was tough. His new firm, Westbury Conservatories, got just three customers in the first year. “It was hard to get people to trust me. I was a small firm. They’d always ask if I’d done the conservatories in the brochure.” As the decade progressed and housing boom turned to bust, things didn’t get any easier. But Hey persevered, and gradually his reputation grew, along with his sales. By 2000, Westbury Conservatories was selling £1m of conservatories a year.
But the real breakthrough came in 2001, when Hey tackled his biggest problem. The joiners who supplied the company “weren’t reliable and that meant I was sometimes forced to let my customers down”. So he spent £700,000 buying a joinery firm. While it meant that Hey had to learn fast about manufacturing, “it improved our company completely”.
He invested heavily in software-controlled machines that made products faster, and more efficiently. The new machines also meant more could be done in the factory, so less time was needed on site. This boosted profit margins, allowing Hey to spend more on marketing and win more customers. Group sales – there is also a window and joinery unit – hit £5m last year. Hey now employs almost 50 people.
Recently he has also decided to focus more on higher end ‘garden rooms’ than conservatories (pictured). “Conservatories were getting cheaper and often becoming badly-put-together rooms with bad insulation and ventilation.” To mark the change in emphasis, last year he renamed the firm Westbury Garden Rooms.
Hey, now aged 51, continues investing heavily in new machinery and last year splashed out £500,000 for a new tooling centre. The new investment hasn’t gone smoothly and there have been some teething problems, says Hey, but “this year it will make a big difference” to the group’s prospects.
The Waiter Who Bought The Hotel Federico Rodriguez, Blyth Hotel
In 1966, aged 23, Federico Rodriguez stepped off the ferry from Spain knowing that back in Granada his mother and three younger siblings all depended on him. He had nothing but a small wooden suitcase, £3, and the name of a contact in Kent who could get him a job.
His contact found him work as a waiter at the prestigious Bromley Court Hotel in south London. Desperate not to stay a waiter for long, he saved every penny. In 1973, he bought a lease for £11,000 and opened The Majorca restaurant nearby. Former customers flocked to sample his new wife Maria’s authentic Spanish cooking. But just a year later, disaster struck when Rodriguez was hospitalised with peritonitis. He was so ill he was forced to sell up and return to being a waiter. “Those were black days,” he recalls. His flair for looking after customers was earning him huge tips, but when a new manager decided all tips would be pooled and shared equally, an enraged Rodriguez quit.
With one of Britain’s biggest shopping centres due to be built in Bromley, Rodriguez knew that contractors ranging from architects to electricians would flood into the area. But where would they stay? The choices were the pricey Bromley Court Hotel or cheap local B&Bs. Rodriguez believed a family hotel could fill the gap, and already had his eye on a huge, derelict Victorian house on the busy London Road. He met the owners, Bromley Council, and after promising to restore it to its former glory and provide local jobs the building was his – he just had to find £80,000 to pay for it.
A much tougher meeting with his wife followed. She conceded that working as a waiter would never earn the family enough money and eventually agreed to sell the family home and move into the crumbling pile with her mother and their two daughters. A week after relocating. Rodriguez’s daughter Elena remembers a roofer shouting to his mate: “Oi, Dave, guess what – there are people living in here!”
In the following months, Federico and a few handymen created a 12-bedroom hotel with bar and restaurant, mixing Victorian architecture with Spanish wrought-iron balustrades and terracotta tiling. He toiled on site by day, and in the evenings worked as a waiter to pay the bills. The building threw everything at him, from dry rot to rust- ruined pipes, but he applied his motto that “every problem, except death, has a solution”. Less than a year later, in 1984, he was nailing up the new sign for Blyth Hotel (pictured) when a car pulled up and a man called over. “Are you open?”
With work on the nearby shopping centre cranking up, customers started flooding in. “We were full to the brim from day one.” recalls Maria. Word spread about the characterful and clean hotel, and Federico’s takings rose to over £5,000 a week. 52 weeks a year. He added six more bedrooms over the next two years. The family worked seven days a week from early in the morning until late at night. After ten years, he put the Blyth up for sale. A week later a buyer walked in and offered Federico, then 53, just over £1m for it. Now 70, he splits his time between Britain and Spain. His advice to budding entrepreneurs? “Money is in the air, you just have to find a good way to catch it.”