What does it take to be named as the highly coveted 2016 Brett Paving National Installer of the Year?
Well a crack of dawn start for openers, as Professional Builder recently discovered when we travelled down to Tonbridge in Kent to spend a day in the life of winner, Anthony Stokes of Stokes Baldock.
07.05 am “What time do you call this then?” enquired our host for the day, jokingly we hoped, although the already running engine on his Fiat Doblo pick up may have suggested otherwise.
Similarly, any excuses regarding the perils of tackling the Dartford Crossing at this ungodly hour were summarily
dismissed as Anthony gulped done the last dregs of his early morning cuppa, sustenance which, we would only later discover, would sustain him until well into the afternoon, and grabbed a waterproof jacket.
“It looks like it might rain later and we will be spending most of the day outside,” he confided cheerily, with one eye on my shiny shoes and fashionable cagoule.
07.30 am Arrival on site in the affluent back streets of Tunbridge Wells, a stone’s throw from the famous Pantiles. With off-road parking at a premium in these highly desirable residences, the customer was looking to open up the back of the garden with a small driveway extending to a raised patio, as well as some more general landscaping features on either side of the plot.
After two days of hard graft the plan was starting to bear fruition, and the spreading of a sizeable pile of Type One aggregate was the first task of the day.
Just one problem – no sign of the labourer who had clearly caught the same late bug as us. “Let’s hope his excuse is better than yours,” pinioned Anthony, who had already grabbed a shovel and was attacking the heap as if his life depended on it.
8.00 am With cries of “afternoon” ringing in his ears, a helping hand duly arrives and is straight into the action.
“Good ground preparation is key,” explains Anthony. “We only use the best base materials and never scrimp on establishing a really sound foundation on which to lay the paving.
“Call-backs for ponding or cracks are going to be expensive, and an extra bit of time spent now will give us all peace of mind for years to come,” states Antony, as he supervises another delivery of the Type One material from one of his two Nissan Cabstar tippers.
“In tight areas like this they are a real godsend, because the merchant lorries simply couldn’t manoeuvre around these narrow back streets,” he confirms.
8.45 am The first phone call of the day and it’s to the local builders’ merchant to check on some stock which was due in first thing that morning. A nearby wheelie bin doubles as a desk as Anthony runs through his requirements: “We have been a Brett Approved Installer for seven years now and enjoy a really close relationship with the company and their local stockist.
“The quality and range of products they offer is first class and pretty much meets all of our customers’ requirements. In fairness I am probably their biggest individual customer in this part of Kent, and the merchant has set aside a small area of the yard almost exclusively for the products I need. Woe betides anyone who gets their hands on them before me,” he warns.
9.15 am With the Tunbridge Wells job back on schedule, it’s into the Doblo and the short hop to said merchants. On route, Anthony fills me in on the background to the company. “My father Brian started the business with a partner in 1969 as a small landscaping concern, very much in the family mould, with my mother helping out in the office.
“Being involved from an early age and mucking in during the school holidays, there was never really any doubt that I would eventually follow in his footsteps. Fortunately, unlike many father/son working relationships we never really had a cross word, and his work ethic of using only the best materials, and always striving to maintain the highest possible standards, stood me in really good stead when I took over the business following his retirement ten years ago.
“Again, he has always been on hand to offer advice but, crucially, he gave me my head to make my own mistakes and hopefully learn from them. Today, the business is five strong, and most of the guys have been with me for several years, including Tom who has been with us for more than twenty years.
“You can’t overstate the value of having an experienced team of skilled tradesmen on board. It means that I can leave them to their own devices and know the job will be carried out to the same high standards we demand from the smallest job to the most challenging.”
9.30 am At the merchant’s yard I spot a very welcoming tea-wagon in the distance but Anthony is deep in discussion with the branch manager. The popular Brett Sandstone slabs have been delivered and, after a quick inspection of these, and a check on existing stock for a future project, we are on our way again without even a sniff of a bacon roll.
“I very rarely stop during the morning for even a cup of tea unless the customer insists, and even then I am usually in too much of a hurry to actually finish it,” says Anthony, oblivious to my mounting dehydration.
10.30 am We arrive in leafy Sevenoaks for the first estimating job of the day and it’s clear that the only ill wind that has blown through these parts in recent years is the great Hurricane of 1988. Confirms Anthony: “It’s an affluent
area and we were fortunate to be located in this part of the country when the worst of the recession hit.
“Things did dry up a little bit in Tonbridge, but we found ourselves taking on more and more work in Sevenoaks, where multi million pound houses in lots of land are the dominant feature. Happily, things are now back on an even keel and our workload is spread throughout Kent, including projects for the National Trust and various local authorities.”
10.45 am The quote in question is for a retired couple who are looking to achieve a safer way of accessing their raised garden and flower beds. The steep incline and unstable nature of the old wooden sleepers is clearly causing them some sleepless nights, and Anthony quickly comes up with a brick and slab solution which appears to satisfy their concerns.
It transpires that the couple had employed Anthony’s father at their previous property some twenty-five years ago, and the name and reputation had clearly stuck in their mind when it came to this new project.
“It’s amazing how often this happens and, whilst I may have been in short trousers at the time, continuing my father’s legacy is really important to me on a personal level. After all, it might be my boys standing here one day,” he quips.
A quick measure up, and the handing over of the latest Brett catalogue to show the various paving options in situ and we were on our way again. “The estimate will be with them within the next couple of days although workloads are such that it will probably be around six weeks before we can start,” predicts Anthony.
11 45 am Another site, and this time a fairly extensive garden transformation with pathways, patios and retaining walls: “This is pretty typical of the sort of work we undertake, and we are about half-way through a three-week project.
“We have had to bring in some extra muscle in the shape of our small Kubota excavator, which is worth its weight in gold. The guys are well in control of the job but I like to call in and see what materials they might require, and if there are any problems.
“There’s a couple of extra lengths of drainage pipe they need from the merchants so we will pop back to pick them up. I muck in with the physical stuff where I am needed, but I find that constantly feeding them is an effective use of my time rather than them breaking away to visit the suppliers,” he informs us.
12.30 pm Back in the merchants for some pipes and assorted fittings and a couple of bags of cement. And, of course, still no hint of that much needed brew!
1.00 pm More discussions with right hand man Tom and then… “lunch perhaps?” we suggest more in hope than expectation. “I usually snatch a sandwich in the van if I am lucky and catch up with some calls. I know what you reporter types are like but no long pub lunches for me.
“However, if you promise not to tell the wife, and we keep it brief, I will make an exception just this time and you can treat me to a ploughmans and half a shandy. We won’t be heading to my local, however, as they would never recover from the shock of seeing me in at lunchtime,” concedes Anthony.
2.00 pm As a judge on the most recent Brett Installer Awards, Professional Builder already has pictorial evidence of Anthony’s winning ways, but the opportunity to see up close and personal the actual project that won over the decision makers was too good miss.
“We can be there in about twenty minutes and whilst the pictures we submitted were representative of the job, I think you have to actually see it to really appreciate how well it turned out,” enthuses Anthony.
2.30 pm The award-winning patio is indeed a work of art, using a mix of Brett Classico Blocks. Anthony explains: “We have been entering the competition for a number of years, and have won some individual categories, but this was the big one.
“In fact, it was a truly memorable night all round as the top accolade was one of four awards picked up by the company, including Regional Installer of the Year (South East), Best Large Driveway and Contractors Choice.
“I spend quite a lot of time armed with the camera and try and chronicle the various jobs from start to finish. I understand there were more than 440 entries this year and the standards are rising noticeably all of the time.
“It is a real challenge to stay one step ahead of some very assured competition, and we have certainly given ourselves a mountain to climb to come close to this year’s achievements. Of course, we are fortunate in using such a varied assortment of different Brett products on our jobs and the company are very good at listening to its approved installers requests and acting accordingly.”
3.30 pm As predicted the heavens have opened and the builders’ merchant’s yard has taken on the appearance of the nearby River Medway. Whilst I somewhat sheepishly remain in the van, Anthony slips on the weather-proofs and loads up some slabs for the Tunbridge Wells job.
“The weather is an on-going headache for us, and this winter has been especially wet, but you just have to get on with it. Providing you invest in the right equipment it is possible to pretty much get through anything nature cares to throw at you. The soft southerners tag is a myth when it comes to Kent landscapers,” says Anthony defiantly.
4.00 pm A last check in at Tunbridge and the progress made in the time away is truly commendable. Anthony, however, seems non-plussed commenting: “It’s sort of where I would have expected to be by this stage and the customers are happy, so that is the main thing.
“No letters from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells then,” I joke, but Anthony is already back on the phone fixing up an appointment with another potential customer.
5.00 pm It’s back to Anthony’s impressive homestead, a converted Oast house on the outskirts of town, with, not surprisingly, a wonderfully laid patio and sweeping driveway in Brett colours. “A lot of builders I know do great work but their own places are, frankly, more like constant building sites.
“I could never operate like that, even if I did my wife Joanna would be on my case. She is as passionate about what we do as I am, and she has been fundamental in helping to push the business forward through her technology and design skills.
“She created a more modern logo and a dynamic image for Stokes Baldock. ‘Behind every good man’ and all that…”
5.15 pm “There’s still some paperwork which needs attending to so I might settle down for the evening around 6.30 with a nice takeaway from the award-winning restaurant literally 20 yards from my front door,” says Anthony, as he waves us on our way. What else would you expect from a man who clearly curries favour wherever he goes!