Tile firm's success has been a real family affair

Stokes Tiles can trace its history back more than 100 years to 1899, when Tim Stokes' great grandfather, Robert James Stokes opened a shop selling paint.

Robert's brothers and other family members joined the business, which grew and began making paint in the 1920s.

The company started selling wallpaper and then tiles before developing into two separate businesses – one focusing on paint and the other on tiles and associated materials – both still run by members of the Stokes family.

Stokes Tiles celebrates its 40th anniversary next year and for many years the whole business operated from Moore Street, close to the city centre, where the company still has a shop.

However, as the business grew, it moved more into distribution.

"At first we sold through or showrooms and then to a few businesses locally, like John Lewis," says Tim Stokes.

"Then we got involved with the local council and started selling to a number of local authorities and social housing organisations. From that, we evolved to selling to builders merchants and small, independent retailers."

Receiving multiple deliveries – some of them up to 20 tonnes - at Stokes' Moore Street premises, rapidly became increasingly impractical, so the company acquired the former Viners cutlery factory nearby as a bulk storage centre.

But, even that extra space filled up and Stokes began hankering after a freehold property closer to the motorway network to make it easier to receive international deliveries, break them down and distribute tiles to customers across an area that spans the North East, North West, North Wales, the Midlands and East Anglia.

"We wanted somewhere where we were able to expand and owning the freehold gives us the flexibility and freedom," says Tim Stokes.

The answer came in the former Dormer factory at Holbrook, which Stokes acquired two years ago and which is now its headquarters – although the company retains retail outlets in Moore Street and Oldham, Lancashire and, for the time being, the former Viners' premises.

Holbrook was a bit further than we anticipated going," says Tim Stokes, "and we had to look after the needs of our staff. It suits some, but for others it is a bit further for them to travel.

"One thing we do is to lay on a shuttle bus from the city centre for a number of staff who haven't got transport and have a long way to come."Decorate your home with many sizes and colours

Time was when tiles were white, about four inches square, made by a limited number of companies and, even the poshest of homes would only have a narrow border of them around the sink or the bath to stop the wallpaper from getting splashed.

Nowadays, they are a fashion item, supplied in myriad colours and finishes, made from different materials, depending on how hard wearing you need them to be, getting ever larger and cover an area from the floor to the ceiling.

The growth in the use of tiles over the past 40 years has been phenomenal and riding that wave has been Sheffield-based Stokes Tiles.

Stokes has seen major changes over the years – not just in style but also where the tiles come from. When the firm started supplying tiles in the early 70s, UK manufacturers had around 80 per cent of the market. Today, that has dwindled to just 20 per cent.

"The growth of imported products has been explosive," says Tim Stokes, the fourth generation of the family to be involved in the Stokes business and the second generation to be involved in tiles.

In the early days, most imports came from Spain and Italy, but, today Stokes buys from other emerging European sources, such as Poland, as well as Turkey, China and even Brazil.

While British manufacturers have dwindled, Stokes Tiles has thrived and grown thanks to a combination of keeping ahead of the fashion and traditional family caution.

"We are a conservative company, in terms of what we take out of the business. We like to keep reserves for a rainy day – and it has certainly been drizzling recently," says Tim Stokes.

"We have always run lean and we have been running leaner in current times. We don't carry any fat and we buy everything – we don't have lease or hire agreements, so we have a good asset base. We own all our lorries and our buildings."

Keeping ahead of market trends means travelling to shows, visiting the manufacturers to see new products and designs that are yet to be launched, getting the manufacturers' representatives to comer to Sheffield to present to a panel of experts at the firm's headquarters and test marketing some products.

While UK manufacturers have their own merchandising and sales teams who help to create market demand, Stokes also has its own in-house merchandising department, working all the time to promote products.

When it comes to discontinuing ranges, Stokes doesn't have specific targets, but it keeps a close eye on demand and responds when it can see a product's life coming to an end. Tim Stokes reckons the number of tiles the company stocks runs into five figures and says the company has benefited from increasing stocks in the recession.

"While others have de-stocked we have stocked more and found that people come to us as a result. We think we are getting a bigger market share, although the market has shrunk," he adds.

Although Stokes has a well developed web site, which trade customers can use to check prices, stock availability and order progress, the company doesn't sell direct to the public over the Internet.

"One or two of our competitors do, but we feel it alienates customers.

A big part of our business is selling to independent retailers. If some one goes into their showroom and then goes home and orders off the Internet, they have lost a sale although they have done all the work for it. Some of our customers won't deal with a competitor who sells to the public on the Internet."

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