Working in a small community has its benefits, says Clinton Findlay from Kenneth C Findlay & Sons Ltd.
Painting and decorating can be dangerous. Most of the time you’re up a ladder or on scaffolding, some paints can be hazardous to work with, and the clients? Don’t get us started!
Orkney is regularly voted as the best place to live in the UK, however, it also tops the charts as one of the windiest. With gusts often hitting 100mph in winter, it means spray painting outdoors is impossible and reaching customers in the outer islands can involve a stormy sea crossing. But despite the challenges, Clinton Findlay, whose family firm has been based here for more than 40 years, wouldn’t swap places with anyone.
“We do work on the outer isles,” Clinton concedes, “but not that often. Getting there would require a ferry or plane journey and an overnight stay. The logistics are difficult but not impossible,” he says.
“There was one time, about 25 years ago,” he remembers, “when we did a job renovating an old house on Gairsay. Only three people live on the island, and the only way to get there was in an old dinghy. The client ferried us the mile or so across the water. There was no pier as such, we just landed on the beach. One day, the wind really got up, and there were four of us in the dinghy. The outboard motor cut out halfway across, and we started to drift. Well, I really thought we were done for. It was touch and go, I’ll tell you, but we made it!”
Clinton’s dad Kenny started the painting and decorating business in 1978, building up a solid reputation on the island, and securing long-term contracts. Clinton (pictured above left), joined the business in 1985, with his brother Alton (pictured above right), following in his footsteps in 1989. Both served their apprenticeships as painters and decorators, and now jointly run the company, with Alton organising the team on site, and Clinton dealing with accountancy, quotes and valuations in the office in Orphir (a small village 10 miles from the largest town of Kirkwall).
“When dad started, there was quite a bit of competition,” Clinton remembers. “There were at least two other big companies on the islands vying for work. But everyone knew each other, so it was a friendly rivalry. There seemed plenty of work to go around.
“Dad picked up a lot of business from the Department of the Environment as it was known then. It managed any painting work required for government bodies such as the Post Office and the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Dad got a lot of that work. Nowadays, there would be tenders to complete and hoops to jump through, but it all seemed easier then. If you could do the job, you got the work.”
In fact, since Kenny started his business, the population of Orkney has been steadily growing, reaching more than 22,000 in 2018. This has led to an increase in the number of new houses being built, and the Findlays have benefited from this.
“We work exclusively with two building contractors,” says Clinton. “There are only four contractors in total here, and we are really busy. We’ve been very lucky to have only closed our doors for two months right at the beginning of the pandemic, as most of the ongoing projects are new builds.
“We also work with a local developer, who has a real knack of seeing the potential in an old building, and we help him to realise that vision. He often asks our opinion before the plans are finalised, so we feel we have a stake in the project.”
Some of the recent projects that the Findlays have been involved with include the Twenty One Restaurant, the Storehouse Restaurant, the Old Library and Archive and the Kirk Gallery for Sheila Fleet Jewellery. The businesses are all run by local people, and they see the benefit of employing local tradesmen.
“They know that the money they spend with us gets spent on the islands, Clinton says. “If they hired a company from down south, the money would go south too, as soon as the job was finished. And there would be no comeback if anything went wrong,” he continues.
“In fact, we’ve been called in to finish snagging on jobs where a contractor was brought in from down south,” he goes on. “Our reputation is everything,” he emphasises. “We have never advertised in 30 years of business. Our books are full.”
Keeping it local
Most of the jobs the Findlays do are on the largest island of Orkney (called the mainland). It is only 500 square kilometres (200 square miles), but 75 per cent of the population live here, and it is busy during the tourist season, especially when the cruise ships dock.
Although everything is relatively near at hand, the company’s fleet of four Ford Transits still manage to clock 10,000 miles a year. “I have them on a ‘rolling replacement’ contract,” says Clinton. “There’s a good dealership here on the island, and I went to school with the owner, so it makes sense to do business with someone I know.
“The paint has to come from Inverness, though,” he continues, “but we can order it directly from the manufacturers, and it’s here the next day, depending on what we’re after. The harsh climate here demands paint that will take anything that is thrown at it, so we tend to use a mineral paint like Keim or Pliolite from Johnstone’s for exteriors. They can last for more than 10 years,” he says. “Even here.”
Apprentices are hard to come by on the islands, so the Findlays have struggled to get the younger generation engaged in the trade. However, they currently have two apprentices due to a large recruitment drive by the company. The team is made up of the two brothers, four tradesmen, and a third and first-year apprentice.
“We’re lucky that we can do any additional training here on the island for our tradesmen. Our apprentices spend time in Aberdeen North East Scotland College and the staff have the necessary tickets for everything,” Clinton says. “First aid is very important, as you might be working in a remote spot. We had to go south for training on our Graco spray equipment, but we tend to only use it for indoor work,” he laughs. “It’s too windy on Orkney to spray outside.”