Fastest 50: Building on strong foundations
July 4, 2023
With a debut appearance in law firm Ward Hadaway’s North East Fastest 50 list capping a period of significant financial and physical growth, JT Dove is a company building at pace. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to the employee-owned construction, heating and plumbing parts supplier’s financial director Jon Archer, to learn more about its successes and how its past is helping guide its future.
The past exists never too far from the present at JT Dove.
Just feet from a loading yard, where tradespeople stack goods around the latest hardware in equally modern vans, late Victorian cloth-capped labourers stare from sunken eyes on a head office wall.
Their gaze falls to the regimented formation of a 1920s truck fleet, its collective size delightfully incongruous to JT Dove’s modern-day successors.
Meanwhile, in a red-carpeted, first-floor boardroom, on an intricately carved model lighthouse, the words ‘service’ and ‘efficiency’ blaze from white plastic as if shining from its lantern pane, the further descriptor ‘co-operation’ engraved vertically between tiny mock windows on the building’s tower.
JT Dove’s history, though, is more than a cache of black and white photographs and whimsical miniatures.
Society and the commercial landscape may have evolved since the photographic flashlights popped and a sculptor’s chisel made its last mark, but the ethos sewn into the business during those yesteryear days remains just as tightly stitched into the Newcastle-founded, 154-year-old independent builders’ merchant’s fabric today.
And it continues to drive great progress.
Abiding by the very tenets set out so creatively on its novelty sea-based navigational aid, themselves a product of patriarch Herbert Dove – who moved the company to employee-owned status in 1954 – the business surmounted COVID-19 and subsequent additional economic tremors to chalk a 136 per cent rise in pre-distribution profits over the last three years.
That momentum also included 17 per cent average turnover growth across its last three sets of accounts, a feat enough to earn JT Dove a debut appearance at number 46 on Ward Hadaway’s latest North East Fastest 50 list, which celebrates privately-owned businesses with the largest average annual turnover growth rates.
“Our absolute focus on customer interests all stems from Herbert,” says financial director Jon Archer of JT Dove’s figurehead, who continues to survey proceedings from a large boardroom portrait in the company’s Newburn Haugh Industrial Estate headquarters, west of Newcastle.
He says: “We offer good prices and always have good stock levels, which sets us apart from competitors.
“And for that to boost financial performance to the extent of making the Fastest 50 list was amazing.
“We had a huge reaction to our inclusion; I received more than 100 messages, many of which were from people I’d not heard from for years.
“But to record such financial results requires great service,” adds Jon, whose timeline at JT Dove began in 2019.
“And we pride ourselves on the level and value of advice we give to customers; anyone using a branch is never met with a ‘here are your materials, off you go’ attitude.
“Yes, we have the products, but we also have the knowledge – and that makes for a compelling offer.
“For example, these days you don’t get floorboards, you get boards with which you floor a house.
“That boarding comes with a varied thickness rate, and our advice has, on a number of occasions, ensured builders had the correct supplies to carry out the job.”
And such close connections now extend to the internet, where the innate customer care of JT Dove – which is HSBC’s oldest North East customer – melds with modern-day convenience via an online sales portal.
Jon says: “The internet opens a market far beyond the North East, and has brought a new dimension to sales.
“A significant percentage of what we sell online is workwear, whereas very little of that is sold through a branch.
“A lot of builders’ merchants don’t believe an online presence is needed because the average customer age is around the early 50s mark.
“But the demographic is changing, and increasing numbers of more technologically-minded customers are coming through.
“And that’s why, for us, online represents a big part of our growth.”
Similarly central has been the steady expansion of JT Dove’s branch estate, with openings that straddled the pandemic across Newcastle city centre and South Shields augmenting an already bustling portfolio that stretches from Teesside to the Scottish Borders via Cumbria.
The business – which launched specialist plumbing and heating branches in the late 2000s – has further added to its network through acquisitions, with a Builders Warehouse site in Shotton Colliery, near Peterlee, bought in early 2021, and Wearside family-founded wood supplier and staircase maker Nordstrom Timber absorbed through a merger late last year.
Jon says: “We are always looking for growth – the bigger we grow, the more we’re able to service customer needs.
“One way to do that is by taking on a company; another is to buy an empty site and create a base – as we did in Consett in 2018; and another is to acquire a site with an existing warehouse.
“Nordstrom represents the first of those three and marks a massive move for us; once fully up and running, it has the potential to be our biggest site.
“A lot of what JT Dove does centres on timber, so there was a natural fit between the businesses.
“But it will also provide an important lead into new customers, particularly the retail market.
“Around 90 per cent of JT Dove’s customers are traders, with the other ten per cent retail.
“With Nordstrom, though, it is the other way around, with retail sales making up a significant amount of the total, so the deal provides a further route into that market.”
And Jon says such presence will be fundamental in powering further growth in a marketplace that continues to operate amid no little financial strain, as will – typically – JT Dove’s past, with relatively recent boardroom changes to managing and commercial director personnel set to supplement its long-established ethos.
He adds: “There is a nervousness around the wider economy, but our diversification means we’re very well placed to ride out anything put in front of us.
“We deal with the housebuilders, but a more overwhelming element of our operations centres around repairs – which will never go away – and the white van man who comes to your home to assess a problem before coming to us for necessary parts.
“And we believe the momentum will continue.
“Our board changes represent an opportunity to build and refresh.
“But the business’ future direction won’t be removed from what has gone before.”
Facebook: JT Dove Building Materials
With a growing estate portfolio and successful online business complementing a rich history of more than 150 years, JT Dove is a fantastic addition to the latest North East Fastest 50 list, writes Tom Pollard.
As one of the region’s oldest employers, what is particularly impressive about JT Dove is how it is continuing to grow at a considerable rate.
For a business that has been around for so long, its progress is phenomenal, and it is testament to the commitment of its management team and workforce.
A lot of the larger builders’ merchants, which today represent JT Dove’s main competition, are backed by private equity, and the fact it keeps on expanding against such a backdrop, makes its achievements very impressive indeed.
Such flexibility was highlighted perfectly during the pandemic, which the business rode very well thanks to its decision to increase stock levels when others weren’t.
Given JT Dove’s ownership structure, it was able to take such a long-term view – and it more than paid off.
It is also a very acquisitive firm, one that is keen to bolt on businesses where they fit its structure – its Nordstrom Timber deal marks a perfect example – and expand with new depot sites or existing operators, which further strengthen its geographical spread and, therefore, market offer.
It all makes for a company more than deserving of its place on the latest North East Fastest 50 list, an achievement from which its team should take great pride.
Tom Pollard is a partner in the corporate department at Ward Hadaway. He advises clients on acquisitions, disposals, investments, management buyouts and buy-ins, corporate structures and reorganisations.
He has extensive experience of working on public and private company transactions across a variety of sectors.