The Story of Blue Flame – By Paul Smith

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Monday 10th October 1988:

This was a Monday morning both Mark Bolitho (fellow Blue Flame co-founder) and I entered the British Gas offices in Newham, Truro to a very cold welcome.

“See me in my office,” demanded the District Service Manager.

We walked through the office under the gaze of the full operational control team of around 75 people. Some were peering over their glasses, while some were looking from the corner of their eyes.

They knew something we didn’t.

We were left in an office on our own to consider our fate unaware of what was happening.

At the time we’d been working on a self-build scheme spending in excess of 30 hours per week on building our own homes, as well as holding down our jobs as a boiler change team with British Gas. We knew without discussion that we would one day leave and work on our own and the plans were being discussed on a daily basis.

Whilst stewing over our position we discussed our reaction to what we might receive.

“Well if we’re in too much trouble let’s not take anymore ****! We’ve been thinking of leaving let’s just do it!” I said to Mark.

The boss walked into the room and demanded we explain where we were the previous Friday afternoon.

That previous Friday we had finished a solid fuel boiler change to gas early and took the time to visit a builder on our way home. This was our own research to see what the market place was looking like for gas work and if it was worth us starting our own business.

Mark and myself: “Oh, we dropped in on a builder to see if he had any work.”

Boss: “You can’t do that. You work for British Gas and with you self-build commitments how do you think you can do any more ?”

Mark and myself: “We can’t do anymore! It must be pretty clear we’re leaving and starting up on our own.”

Boss: “It’s not right using company vehicle and company time to promote private work.”

He went on and continued to tell us off (I’m being polite here!) us over the situation.

Mark and myself: “Hold fire! Boss we’re leaving, so there’s no point in going on. It holds no value.”

Boss: “What about notice? What work have you got planned?”

Mark and myself: “How much notice do you need?”

Boss: “One week.”

Mark and myself: “Take it from now then!”

With that we walked out of the office heads held high with a confident glare to anyone looking down on us.


Tuesday 11th October 1988

Mark and I arrived at the Newham British Gas depot where the news of our pending departure had been gathering pace. We were inundated with colleagues who were concerned about our decision to leave the Gas Board (as it was affectionately known).

An engineer from the Redruth depot who had left to work on his own 12 months earlier had pleaded for his job back and was reemployed as a floating support engineer being posted to any depot who needed addition labour. Our view was that he was being used as a lesson to us all that you couldn’t make it on your own.

We were questioned by our peers about how we thought two of us could make it when one on his own couldn’t. They tried to persuade us that we should stay. They told us the job was for life, the board was an institution and no one should take on the board.

However, we were determined to give it our best shot.


Wednesday 12th October 1988

Margaret the showroom sales manager summoned us to the showrooms in Falmouth’s Arwenack Street.

Margaret was a matriarchal figure for us as young apprentices. She was the person who could always work out if you were struggling or upset about anything and had a very good knack of working out how to put things in order. As a single parent she had brought up her children on the back of her job with British Gas.

“What do you two thing you’re doing,” she said.

“Leaving a job for life with all the prospects ahead of you. It’s not easy being on your own without all the support of the gas board!

“I hope you don’t regret what you are about to do. Have a think about it as I’m sure it’s not too late.”

But we were resolute we were going to do this.


Thursday 13th of October 1988

This day we were left on our own to contemplate our future.

On completion of the day whilst unloading the van back at the Newham depot the District Manager (the big boss) pulled up alongside us and gave us a piece of his mind.

This was something we expected to be honest the Gas Board had trained us, provided us with skills and work. All at a very good pay rate. However, things were beginning to change within the industry.

The monopoly commission had reviewed the industry and in 1986 British Gas was privatised. This had had a direct impact on our positions. Competition was beginning to have an impact on the work we carried out and our decision was to embrace the opportunity.


Friday 14th of October 1988

We arrived early to complete our last installation for British Gas. By early afternoon the job was complete and we left the job with a £25 tip destined for the Spar shop where we purchased a slab of beer, two bottles of wine and an arm full of snacks and crisps . Then back to the depot for our official departure.

Employees had left in the past with a fine send off, collections were made and gifts were provided. Not for us though and we knew it.

Upon arriving at the depot we were summond to the car park. Our tools were one by one returned and ticked off a list, our van was checked and double-checked. Our uniforms were returned for disposal. In our view it was like being demobbed from the forces on the parade ground.

However, we were not disturbed by this. It was a process that was developed to keep the integrity of the board and all its stakeholder. Our reaction was to invite our senior management demob officers to a pint and snack at our expense in the stores at the days end along with the rest of our colleagues from the service, installation and garage departments. An invitation, which with a bit of further enticement they did take up.

We had a fine send off all sponsored by the soon to be ‘Blue Flame’ where we were approached by the non-domestic team who offered us work within the commercial and industrial departments (being proud and not wanting to look desperate we refused).

Now home to worry about our future!!


Saturday 15th & Sunday 16th October 1988

Self-build days

The self-build scheme was a project where individual tradesmen formed a company and built their own houses. Our project was by the fire station on Trescobeas Road, Falmouth .

Our commitments extended to 10 hours each day on site on Saturdays and Sundays plus two hours every night. Mark also took on the Chairman’s role and for my sins I was the company secretary. These role were covered outside the 30 hours of onsite commitment.

After all the fuss and stress of the last few days (I think I can safely speak for Mark as well), we’d meet up outside of our self-build day to sort out what we were going to do about tools and transport.

The privatisation of British Gas had been kind to us and we had both received some shares worth £1,200. We these in to start the business as it was the only capital we could raise.

Look out tomorrow were going to get ourselves tooled up. What we were going to do with this sum of money was nobody’s business!


Monday 17th of October.

This is the official start day of Blue Flame

Workload wasn’t a problem the self-build group had committed to increasing productivity and reducing the build time. Some of the work streams were being sub contracted out and we were being used to complete all the plumbing and heating work in 10 of the properties.

Being local lads and involved in sports and other activities we were destined to be a popular choice for working locally.

With our £1,200 in hand it was off to South West Power tools in Heston to purchase our tools for work. Then back to Vosper’s Falmouth to view the vans. The tools exhausted our funds, so we need finance for our first van.

We picked out the vehicle we liked from the used stock and explained to Steve Hewitt, the sales person that we would be back to pay once we have sorted the funds with the bank.

Steve was a fine, good looking local lad who was well liked and respected, who sadly passed away in 2011.

Our visit to the bank was an experience and one to be treasured!

 

Mark and myself: “We would like a loan to buy a van.”

Bank: “Can I see your trading records?”

Mark and myself: “We don’t have any we’ve only just started, but we’ve got loads of work!”

Bank: “Sorry without trading records we can’t help you.”

Mark and myself: “Is there anything else we can do to get a loan?”

Bank: “You could get a guarantor.”

Mark and myself: “What’s a guarantor?”

Bank: “Someone who will commit to covering any outstanding loan should things go wrong.”

Mark and myself: “Thanks, bye!”

 

Me: “Dad? Can you help us out? Things have gone a bit too fast and we’ve messed up!”

Dad: “What have I got to do?”

And he did bless him he did help out.

Besides this we had work to do that day as Peter Lee had put an order in to replace his back boiler for new (I had known Peter for year and had worked for him at the Garden Restaurant on the Moor Falmouth washing dishes form the age of 13).

He was a good person to know and a respected friend. The job was meat and veg for us and we completed the work in time enough to make our self-build commitments in the evening.

All this with both of us trying to keep things in order at home – Debbie Bolitho with their daughter Jess only six months old and Debbie Smith due to give birth to our son Jordan in three weeks !


From Monday 17th October 1988 to Wednesday 17th October 1988 – 30 Years On! 

In a nut shell…

We worked in the day at the self-build site until our van arrived and then started to work with our customers.

We developed our apprenticeship programme in 1992 and the majority of our colleagues and staff have been trained through this academy.

Simon Foxhall joined the Blue Flame board in 2010 to add his expertise in business development and helped to guide us in putting a full management structure in place

We now employ in excess of 90 people, have 60 vans on the road and look after 12,000 customers across Cornwall.

We sometime times wonder how it all happened, then we remind ourselves that things only happen when you turn up, consistently, every day, with open mind, ready to learn and above all with support from home!

Thanks Debbie and Debbie only you know! xx