From starting as a one-man bucket-and-ladders operation, Andrew Fox has built a team of dozens and grown his business through shrewd acquisitions. He talks to Phil Ascough…
The shambles surrounding this summer’s exams triggered only one memory for Andrew Fox – after he took his GCSEs he didn’t even bother to collect the results.
It wasn’t that he feared failure – he still has no idea how he fared. It’s just that by the age of 16 he was already working and didn’t want to stop.
“I was very stubborn,” he recalls. “I wanted instant income. People have their own opinions and my view was that I didn’t want to go to university and come out with £30,000 of debt. I wanted £30,000 in the bank and by the time my friends finished university, many of them no nearer to realising their dreams, that’s what I had.”
And much more now, with a big house in Hessle that stands as a symbol of the success of Fox Group, a specialist cleaning business that is expanding, innovating and has a direct line back to the window cleaning round and the car valeting service where it all began.
Andrew’s home and family – wife Charlotte and children, nine-year-old Polly, six-year-old Frankie and their five-year-old brother Toby – are also constant reminders of the difficulties of his own childhood, which motivated him to make money and seek security.
Andrew’s parents divorced when he was young and the friction with a father who expected academic achievement fuelled a determination to succeed alone. They have a good relationship now, with Andrew pleased to have proved himself.
He said: “He was very business-minded rather than family-minded. I always wanted to get on without his help so I rejected all offers of support. It didn’t work for a long time but he recognises what I have done and he’s proud of me.”
To bring extra money into their single-parent household, Andrew and his sister went out washing cars when they were still at school. Then, with the GCSE envelope gathering dust, he went into window cleaning.
The first window cleaning round that he bought, in Hall Road, Hull, is still part of the business. Over the years he’s acquired a few more rounds, taken a stake in the Hull-based Cleansure business and just this month completed the purchase of Sutton Cleaning.
From starting as a one-man operation Andrew has built a team of 40 permanent staff with another 100 people in front-line cleaning roles and 30 more coming on board as part of the acquisition of Sutton. The strategy is all about learning and growing, identifying and then filling gaps in the market, over-delivering to impress clients and build long-term relationships.
Andrew said: “Being a window cleaner is a good job but there have always been a lot of them so from the start we looked at different areas of the market such as high-level window cleaning, rope access, machine access. The services that get you work with bigger businesses and bigger buildings.”
In parallel and in partnership the company added other services to its portfolio. The merger with Cleansure had its roots in the successful delivery of joint projects with Ben Green & Associates, Cleansure’s predecessor. Andrew sits on the board alongside Janet Green, a founder of the original business, and her son Julian, who has a key role putting together tenders and developing software for staff and stock control.
Andrew said: “We were learning as we went, doing a good job and discovering a whole new world of how other companies worked and what sort of services they were offering. Some of them were charging extravagant amounts for things like maintenance and landscaping work so we bolted those on to what we did.
“I liked the business side of learning, improving and expanding. Our ethos is to take just a little bit out of a lot of things and reinvest the rest. We invest in new equipment to make sure we have the right stuff and the right staff and that we are operating safely.
“The biggest thing for me is that although like everybody else we are in business to make money we don’t take shortcuts. Our staff and our family culture are the biggest parts of our business. We have had some difficult people over the years but they don’t last long and the team we have now is very good. We all work hard.”
The journey of discovery coupled with the commitment to doing things right kept Fox Group’s staff working during lockdown after Andrew sourced a Covid-19 fogging treatment complete with the all-important certifications.
He said: “We work on all sorts of sites from residential customers who have been with us for years to offices of blue-chip companies, where we are appointed by managing agents. A lot of it stopped because many businesses closed their premises and people didn’t want workmen in their homes during lockdown.
“When I became aware of the fogging treatment I knew we had to get it here quickly. It was a significant investment at a difficult time but we have now moved into profit on that project and secured our supplies for the future.”
The fogging treatment was essential to the reopening of the Westwood restaurant in Beverley. It has since been applied to the Lincolnshire site of a major employer that has also booked Fox Group to treat another two of its UK sites. A local authority in West Yorkshire is in discussions about using the system on its vehicles.
Andrew said: “There are some out there who are trying to take advantage of vulnerable businesses in difficult times but we have stuck to our principles of providing a good service at a fair price. As a result we’re now having conversations about providing other services such as facilities management. It’s all about building trust.”
Most of the growth in recent years has been organic and has nudged 250 per cent on the maintenance side. The acquisition of Sutton Cleaning has brought a mix of confidence but also caution with Andrew aware of the potential pitfalls of expanding too rapidly.
He said: “I paid about £2,000 or £3,000 for the first window cleaning round that I bought and since then we’ve maybe paid around £40,000 for the others and brought in more people. Sutton Cleaning is a £250,000 company.”
Andrew’s immediate priority is to make sure everything runs smoothly with the integration of Sutton Cleaning as the growing business brings more people into its office at the Deep Business Centre. Beyond that, future opportunities beckon but Andrew’s policy of putting the right people into the right jobs ensures he won’t be cleaning any windows himself.
He said: “Because so much of our growth has been organic we don’t carry debt and our customers benefit from our low overheads. We will always be careful but given where we have come from we will also look for more because it’s an addiction!”