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Building entrepreneur draws on his time as top sportsman

IN this week's SME Focus a construction entrepreneur explains how he has applied some of the lessons he learned as a top class oarsman in his business life.

DRIVEN: John Langley says his time as a professional rower taught him many of the skills he now uses in his own construction business. Picture: Steve Cox
DRIVEN: John Langley says his time as a professional rower taught him many of the skills he now uses in his own construction business. Picture: Steve Cox

Name: John Langley.

Age: 40.

What is your business called?

JML Contracts and, the recently launched, JML Garden Rooms.

Where is it based?

Auchterarder, Perthshire.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

JML Contracts is a house building and civil engineering business specialising in house building using SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) and renewable energy services. SIPs consist of an insulating foam core sandwiched between two structural facings, typically (wood-based) oriented strand board. They are manufactured and processed under factory controlled conditions and can be fabricated to fit nearly any building design, including extension works to existing buildings. The result is a building system that is extremely strong, highly energy efficient and cost effective.

We recently extended our offering by launching JML Garden Rooms, building garden rooms in SIPs.

Who does it sell to?

Our house building division is primarily private, environmentally-conscious self builders who have bought land and want to create a bespoke home. The clients of our garden room business want to increase their living space without the disruption, cost and complication of a house extension. Uses range from home offices and games rooms to extended version granny annexes.

What is its turnover?

Approx £1.5 million for the business as a whole.

How many employees?

14.

When was it formed?

JML Contracts in 2006, with JML Gardens Rooms starting during December 2013.

Why did you take the plunge?

I originally grew up working for my father's family civil engineering company and it became obvious to me there wasn't room for me to grow with his business so I decided to set up on my own. Having worked a few summers in the US on construction sites I knew of the SIP product, and felt certain that the UK would eventually follow North America and Scandinavia in its popularity. We've never looked back and I'm still 100 per cent confident SIPs will revolutionise the future of UK house building. They are also the reason our garden rooms can be used all year round.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

Following University, I worked in London as a marine geologist travelling the world, I then spent some time as a full-time athlete, trying to gain a place in the GB Rowing team for the Athens Olympics, before returning to work for my father's family business.

As a marine biologist, I was part of a British/French Survey crew surveying the seabed for fibre optic cable routes. We mapped the seabed and produced 'route maps' for the cable laying boats which let them avoid the various hazards such as rocks, shipwrecks, pipelines, other cables etc. Work was mainly in the Mediterranean and Red Sea, with the occasional Atlantic crossing.

From my time off shore I learnt all about time and motion, costing etc. Ships are incredibly expensive to run and every hour lost to weather or breakdown has a huge impact on the cost of the project. At sea you must be fully prepared for every eventuality, so pre-planning was essential. If you find out you are missing something in the middle of the Atlantic you can't just 'nip back' and collect it or order it in next day. We try to take this lesson with us when we are working by arriving on site fully prepared and self-sufficient.

I started rowing at Aberdeen University and had been a part of the Scottish Rowing Team for a number of years with ambitions to make the GB Rowing Team. Being based in Scotland makes this hard as the elite hub is in London. Having a full-time job makes training/racing difficult, even more so when it is offshore. Gyms and exercise rooms were non-existent on our survey ships so my 'offshore training programme' consisted of lots of alternative exercises such as two hour skipping sessions on the ship's deck.

After the Sydney Olympics in 2000 the GB Rowing team had done very well and I took the chance of taking a couple of years out from work and moved to London to train full time with the aim of making the GB rowing team for Athens in 2004. My rowing partner and I narrowly missed out on the team selection. However we returned home to compete for Scotland at the 2002 Commonwealth Regatta where we won a silver medal in the men's four and in 2002 we were also the first Scottish crew (in the 170 year history of the event) to win a cup at Henley Royal Regatta. After that, I retired from competitive rowing at the grand age of 29 and decided to concentrate on my career!

From my rowing years I learnt a lot about focusing and working towards a set goal within a team environment. We had to be extremely determined and driven, giving up was never an option. The pressures that come with racing and training with a group of guys sharing the same desires and aims can be pretty hard and you have to learn to cope with both the failures and success in the right way. Having a very strong self-belief, especially during the low periods and tough times is essential.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

My wife and I had some savings but we didn't require a huge amount of capital to start the business. It involved myself, a van, some tools and two employees with our office based at home.

What was your biggest break?

Our first SIP house build in Killearn. The project was a huge success and gave our business the opportunity to showcase all our skills from stonework and joinery (the client is a tree surgeon so he had a fantastic selection of natural wood) to the fact it was heated only by a wood burner.

What was your worst moment?

Soaked through, knee deep in mud on a wet, dark mid-December night on a ground works project near Glasgow with the horrible realisation that I had underpriced the job massively and still had another three months' work ahead of me!

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

Sharing its success with my wife who has helped launch our JML Garden Rooms business, being my own boss and being able to be more flexible with my time.

What do you least enjoy?

Late nights catching up on admin in the office, eased only by the company of my wife, typing away next to me!

What are your ambitions for the firm?

I want to continue growing the passive side SIPs business and become the most recognised and respected supplier of high-end garden rooms in the UK.

What are your top priorities?

Trying to maintain a healthy work/family life balance; client satisfaction about a job well done; to be offering the best quality garden rooms on the market; to be recognised as a leading supplier of SIP houses in the UK and to be one of Scotland's leading passive house builders

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

Provide a wider range of accessible grants and funding for small businesses.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

Working as a site labourer from the age of 16 and being able to work alongside your workforce in any weather or conditions should you need to.

How do you relax?

Family time with my wife and three young boys and exercise — rowing on my concept 2 in our JML Garden Room watching the London Olympics on repeat.

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