Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Chris Vincent, co-founder of V4 Woodflooring

CHRIS VINCENT left his Surrey school with big plans — he had decided to become a Formula One racing driver.

“I loved go-karting when I was a kid,” said Vincent. “I started competing in single-seater cars when I was 17.”

He entered championships at Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Donington Park but it was an expensive hobby and with no sponsors Vincent had to give up. “I was good but not good enough to make a living,” he said. “I wasn’t the superstar driver they wanted so I had to be realistic.”

In 2000 he picked up the family trade and began selling hardwood flooring with his brother Nathan. They built up a network of retailers for an Austrian manufacturer, Steirer Parkett, before deciding to take the plunge and make their own products.

The brothers co-founded V4 Woodflooring in 2002, supplying retailers in Britain and Austria. The products are made in factories in the Far East and mainland Europe.

“Working on the different looks — brushed, stained, oiled, lacquered — takes a lot of time,” said Vincent, who is managing director. “We have some really unusual designs in our collection and that’s what makes us interesting.

“In business you need good people where you are weak and at V4 Woodflooring we have a strong team who are qualified in different areas.”

The business, based in Woking, has 30 staff. It posted sales of £9.1m in the year to October 2013, and profits exceeding £600,000. In December it expects to report revenues of £15m.

V4’s hardwood is sourced from farmed forests in Europe and America. Only mature oak and walnut trees are harvested. “We are working to reduce the impact our flooring has on the environment,” said Vincent.

When a tree is felled, fast-growing saplings are planted for the next generation. The process is relatively low-carbon compared with plastic, metal, ceramics and common concretes.

Though V4 does not supply or fit flooring, shoppers can sample its designs with a “room visualiser” tool on the website, where they can also find their nearest retailer.

The company, which has about 1,000 approved dealers, features in the Grand Designs Live exhibitions. “You could be anywhere in the country and there will probably be one of our dealers within five miles,” said Vincent.

His grandfather worked as a floor fitter in Barking, Essex, in the 1930s and went on to start a flooring business. His grandmother would make the linking panels. Two decades later, Vincent’s father and mother joined in.

“That’s how Nathan and I knew about flooring but we decided to take our own route,” he said. “We wanted the excitement of creating a new product, and I still enjoy experimenting now.”

Vincent, 37, grew up in Ottershaw and attended Abbeylands School in Addlestone. “I was dyslexic. I got through it but left as soon as I could,” he said. His GCSE grades were poor.

V4 has had to recover from a fire in July 2011 that destroyed half the stock. “We don’t know what caused it, but the building was only four months old,” said Vincent. “We lost 10,000 sq ft of space and everything in it but luckily it wasn’t near our offices.”

They rebuilt in just 10 weeks but the company’s growth slowed dramatically. “The fire definitely set us back a couple of years.”

Vincent has put the episode behind him, and plans are under way to open V4 World, an exhibition centre for architects, designers and customers, at the Woking site. “Shops have only a small selection of samples,” he said. “We want to present our products better and to get more involved with specified work.”

There are plans to extend the 6,000 sq ft space to 45,000 sq ft if it is a success. V4 already has four warehouses totalling 30,000 sq ft.

In 2012 the brothers founded a sister company, Concreate, supplying sustainable and cost-effective panels of polished concrete. The decorative low-carbon material — magnesium oxide cement — was used in much of the Olympic Village in Beijing.

“It’s a brand new type of flooring and we have a worldwide patent on its construction,” said Vincent. Concreate is heading for £1m sales and plans to open a showroom in Los Angeles. The brothers own 100% of both businesses.

“Concreate could be bigger than V4 Woodflooring in three or four years. With wood flooring there are hundreds in the market but Concreate is unique. There’s no competition.”

Vincent lives in Chobham, Surrey, with his wife Kerry and their three children William, 10, Milly, 8, and Marco, 6.

His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is: “Never be complacent and think you have made it. You need to have a passion to go further because there will be setbacks along the way.”

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Chris Vincent of V4 Woodflooring

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