All things bright and beautiful

It's not always easy being self-employed. Gill Webster talks to craftsman Ian Pocklington about the high and lows of running his own business

Ian Pocklington is one of a new breed of craftsmen and women whose skills borrow more from the 15th century than the 21st century. A maker and repairer of stained glass, it is thanks to the abilities of people like Ian that many of our churches have been so faithfully restored.

But it is not just the Church which makes use of Ian's talents - for a growing awareness of ancient arts such as his is bringing him work from both private individuals and now a large conservatory company.

Launched own business

On leaving school, Ian, from Reepham in Norfolk, took a degree in design, majoring in glass, but then couldn't find work. In 1984 he went on a government Enterprise Allowance Scheme that paid him 40 a week if he put 1,000 of his own money into his business - and so Ian Pocklington Stained Glass Design was born.

Working from his father's garage and living at home, he just about coped. 'If I hadn't had the support of my parents I wouldn't have survived; he says. 'In my first year I think my profit was 100!' But he was lucky. Within a few weeks of starting, the BBC Pebble Mill at One launched a Youth in Business competition and he was spotted and appeared on television. Although he neither won nor was a runner-up, it proves how important it is to enter competitions and get publicity. His appearances brought forth a flood of inquiries, both locally and nationally - and a lot of work. 'For the past 17 to 18 years I have been constantly employed,' he says. Two years after launchingthe business he moved from his father's garage to a small workshop, and about four years ago he moved to his present studio in an old mill.

Growth through referrals

Most of his work comes from architects who are looking for someone to restore old stained glass windows in churches, and he also makes one-off stained glass doors imdwindows for converted barns and house renovations - again, the work comes by recommendation. In addition, he has now secured a contract to provide stained glass to a large conservatory company. The managing director, who happened to live in Reepham, 'popped in' to look at his work, and liked it so much he signed him up -which just goes to show how important it is to treat every phone call and every visitor as a potential customer! Ian's onlyadvertising is now in Yellow Pages, although in the beginning he attended craft fairs and art exhibitions around the country in . an effort to build up business.

Competitive pricing

He maintains it is the quality of his work and his competitive pricing that has been the backbone of his success. 'I think I have a flair for it. It is essential to produce something that is technically good and catches the eye, but you must be competitive; he says.

Over the years his aspirations have changed. His dream was to do more creative designs, but church restoration work has turned out to be his bread and butter.

One of his most difficult tasks was actually finding someone to teach him the craft. Although he went on courses in Chartres, France and also in America, he is largely self- taught. 'I would have liked to work within a company and learn more about the trade before starting on my own; he says. 'But it just wasn't possible with so few companies around.'

Red tape

Since the majority of his work is church window restorations, it is necessary to be accredited by the British Society of Master Glass Painters and the UK Institute of Conservationists. 'I managed to get in quite easily, but now there is so much red tape and money involved that anyone starting today would have a hard time; he says.

Another problem he encountered in the early days was cash-flow. 'I have nearly always been paid, but there have been times when it was difficult getting money from people.

'I invoice at the beginning of the month, but the company doesn't look at my invoice until the end of that month and then doesn't pay until the end of the next month, so there is effectively a 60-day gap between invoice and payment. If I hadn't been living at home, I would never have coped.' Perhaps there are lessons here for us all - to invoice as soon as a job is complete, and the importance of sorting out money issues up front. It makes sense to find out what payment is dependent on, and have a contract stating your terms and conditions clearly for your client.

Money issues

There were times when he found It difficult to make ends meet, but thanks to help from a good accountant, he prepared a busnessplan and managed to persuade his bank to give him a loan. His accountant also often helped out by writing stiff letters to companies that were slow in paying their bills.

'I never got to the point where I had to call in debt collectors, but I did have to make telephone calls hassling for payment. I found that very difficult. The churches themselves were sympathetic, but they get their funds from large organisations - and they were not so sympathetic; he says.

'Once into the system it is all right, because money is coming in each month - but to begin with it wasn't like that. And with tools to buy and bills to pay, I could have been in trouble. Much of the church work is paid through grants, and while grants are secure, once builders get involved there can be problems.'

Job security

Another problem that constantly worries him is his own job security. 'I work long hours and have always believed it is important to have two or three weeks break each year to recharge your batteries; he says. 'But nobody pays my holidays. Nobody but me pays into my pension scheme, and nobody pays me if I am off sick.

'Five to six years ago I cut myself very badly and had nearly four months off work. Fortunately, a few months earlier I had decided I could afford to take out sickness insurance. Thank God I did. If I hadn't done so, I would have been up the creek. Naturally, I've kept it up ever since. But if that accident had happened the previous year, I probably wouldn't still be here; he says.

'Working for myself, I have no back up. If you are employed you have security. Working for yourself you don't. As I get older, and I am now approaching my 40th birthday, it is more apparent to me that security is not there.'

One way of establishing long-term security would be for Ian to grow the business and take on a trainee - he regularly gets around 20 to 30 letters a year from students allover the country wanting work experience.

But he says taking on a member of staff would not be easy. 'It would mean I would be working at about half the speed, which could jeopardise my work; he says. 'And once they had learned all I know, I worry they would set up in competition. I also like the flexibility of working for myself.'

Ian says working for himself plays havoc with his private life, however - the long hours and dedication just take over.

But he has a plentiful supply of work, and there is always his hobby - sculpting - for relaxation. One day he hopes it might even make him his fortune!

Better Business No 87
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