West Lothian firm creates jobs after pandemic challenges

Name: Andrew Johnstone.

Age: 36.

What is your business called?

Loft Boarding Scotland.

Where is it based?

Livingston.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

Raised loft flooring for storage over insulation, loft ladders and loft lighting.

To whom does it sell?

Homeowners nationwide. Predominantly to owners of new-build homes, but our product is perfectly suitable in older builds too.

What is its turnover?

£1.8 million.

How many employees?

18.

When was it formed?

April 2017.

Why did you take the plunge?

My interest in loft flooring arose from conversations with Dave Raval, Director at LoftZone, which manufactures the loft boarding products we now install. I think the technical credentials of this system appealed to the engineer in me. Loft flooring allows the wasted void space under the roofs of most homes to be transformed into a useable storage space. The structural plastic and stainless-steel components of the LoftZone system make it able to support heavy loads. I think the recycled plastic supports it features make it a more environmentally-friendly option than a timber-based system, and the fully recyclable stainless-steel beams are much lighter than wood too, leaving more weight capacity for stuff.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

I fell into design engineering when I left school and embarked on a five-year course at the University of Strathclyde which led to a MEng degree. At university, I started a photography and video business called Shindig Shoots, which filmed social and other events at colleges and universities. Over five years, it turned over around £30,000 – though latterly it ran at a loss.

On graduation, I joined FMC Technologies in Dunfermline, a company I had worked for over the summer vacations while I was a student. During that time, the company sent me to Texas and Brazil on various projects – most of which turned out well. They gave me a job as a design engineer.

After a lengthy spell in Dunfermline, I was headhunted internally for a role as Operations Manager in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where my job was to open and develop a workshop which would support our oil and gas operations in West Africa. I was suited for this role because, as a then single man, I had no serious commitments which could have prevented me from going to Africa.

In the four years I was there, we built a manufacturing facility which grew from six employees to 35 and attracted £3.5m of internal investment for assembly and test facilities and, with some success, began to manufacture key parts for installation subsea off the coast of Nigeria.

Over time, however, as Nigerian nationals began to take over many of the key roles, the expense of having expats running the business, allied to a downturn in the oil price, led to me coming back to the UK.

I was moved back into a project management job in Scotland and became involved in a number of interesting projects, including one on robotic welding, but it was not as fulfilling as I hoped and, when the opportunity arose to launch a business in loft boarding I grabbed it.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

Not a lot of funding was needed initially. I built the website and marketing content myself, operated out of our garage, and sub-contracted the installation work to an existing team of joiners. The supplier gave me good credit terms and the customers paid upon completion of the work.

What was your biggest break?

After about 18 months in business, I was awarded Young Entrepreneur of the Year by WeDo Scotland and, off the back of this, I gained financial support from Funding Circle which allowed me to employ a team of joiners and two office staff, rent an industrial unit and fit it out with an internal office.

What was your worst moment?

The most recent lockdown meant that, unlike firms in England, we were prevented by Scottish Government guidelines from working from December 2020 until April 2021, as our service was classed as non-essential. The whole team was furloughed and, even with government support, we were still haemorrhaging money every month. We racked up costs of £50,000 – and lost out on income of approximately £550,000.

What are your top priorities?

Our core values help us make decisions on how we grow. We use the acronym RAISE: Respect, Appearances, Integrity, Safety and Enjoyment/Enthusiasm. My current priority is tackling the backlog of installations we have accumulated during the lockdown and, to that end, we have added two more joiner teams and a surveyor to our company.

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

The Scottish Government needs to drastically improve its engagement with SMEs in Scotland. There is a lack of focus and understanding in government of our challenges.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

I have a tendency to think of all the ways something could go wrong. I have been encouraged to think of all the ways it could go right instead, and consider the likelihood of each. Usually, there is a much better chance of things going well.

How do you relax?

I am someone who cannot sit still. During lockdown, I undertook a massive garden project which involved shifting 50 tons of soil, building walls and laying paving and decking. I had never laid a brick in my life, but I am really pleased with the result. I like to spend my time with my wife, Lizzy, and two children, Seth, five, and Layora, 11. I also like to read, play guitar, and go mountain biking whenever I can.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992