We speak to two-time national president of SDF, Murray D Stewart, who is also owner of James Sandie & Son Ltd.
What’s your background?
I was 11 when my father bought over James Sandie & Son Ltd from his old boss, Robert Carfrae, who was once SDF President. The firm is long standing – it was formed in 1868.
From the age of 12, I used to go out and work alongside the guys when I was on school holiday. At that time, we had a staff of about 17-18. That early experience sparked my interest in the job and I always wanted to be a painter/decorator. I started work at 16 and went to Telford College in Edinburgh where I gained my apprenticeship/City and Guilds. I also sat my advanced course and a signwriting course.
Among other things, my father, Thomas Stewart, took me on jobs with him to learn the art of measuring up and pricing jobs. By the time he passed away in 1997, I was ready to take charge of the business, along with my sister Lynn, who works in the office doing the admin side, and my younger brother, Colin, who is on the tools with the guys. We’ve been running the company ever since and are still as strong as ever.
What’s your speciality?
We specialise in local private domestic work, mostly dealing directly with the clients. Our motto is ‘If you don’t do the job right, you’ll not be asked back’. We have a great team of decorators and could not succeed without them. Fortunately, we have a lot of repeat custom. And we’ve worked all over the country, from London to Aviemore, Arisaig, Campbeltown, Fife and the Borders.
When did you join the SDF?
Our company has been a member since the early 60s. However, it was when my father died that I vowed to join, since he was always on at me to get involved. In 1998, I went to my first Edinburgh branch meeting. The next thing I knew I was the local President in 2000 and then SDF President in 2003 (and again in 2013!). I’ve sat on the National Council ever since.
What’s the best thing about the Federation?
I was 21 when I joined and one of the younger members. Now, at 64, I’m one of the older guys. When I first joined, the Federation ticked along quite nicely. Then Ian Rogers came along and that was when I first noticed big changes. There was more drive, more involvement, more bringing together of manufacturers and so on. The aim was to push our industry forward and better our trade. It’s a pity that some manufacturers don’t get involved to help our efforts, but they may have their own agenda. Now, Ian’s son, Neil is in charge. I never thought that he would match up to his dad, but he certainly has.
How has the Federation changed?
Sadly, in the past we’ve had guys on the National Council who were simply in it for themselves. Luckily, they never last long and now we have a National Council that is focused on driving our industry forward. The Council members give up their own time to do this and I admire that. We have started our own apprenticeship registration scheme (SPADAC), which is a great way to get apprentices on board. We sit with the unions to negotiate wage increases and so on. Our legal advisers are really good. We have a conciliation service and we work closely with government officials in areas such as qualifications and standards. In addition, we offer technical advice. (I’m convenor of the relevant committee). So, we’ve been busy, and there’s a lot more I could mention.
What’s been the biggest challenge in your career?
Undoubtedly, just before my dad died he said to me that when you’re in charge of the company you not only have to look after your own family, but the families of the people we employ. That’s when it really sank in that the job would not be easy. As anyone who runs a business knows, you’re always first in and last to leave at the end of the day. That’s the approach I have taken so far.
What’s been your favourite job?
I’ve had lots of great ones. I always get real satisfaction when we are asked back and clients are happy. I’ve met a lot of lovely customers throughout my lifetime and we’ve built up a large client base here in East Lothian. We’ve also won awards from the SDF for various jobs over the years.
What would be your dream job?
Being a Hibs fan, I’d like to go to Tynecastle Park (the wee Edinburgh team’s ground) and paint it green! Seriously though, I am in my dream job. We have a great team of guys and some terrific clients around East Lothian. Just to keep that going is more than enough for me.
What are your long-term plans for the business?
This is a hard one. As I said, I’m 64 now and eventually we’ll have to sell the business. It’s not something we’ve taken forward seriously yet, but we’ll have to look at it within the next few years. There’s no one in the family coming through to take over.
What about your personal life?
I’ve been married to Alison for 42 years and we’ve lived in East Linton all our lives. Alison retired in 2020. She previously worked in a local primary school as a Support for Learning Assistant. We’re immensely proud of our two grown-up children. Our son, Graham, lives in the outskirts of Manchester and works for the large engineering firm, Arup.
Our daughter, Emma, is married to Gary and they’re both civil servants. They have a son called Finn who Alison looks after a couple of days a week. As I said, I support the big Edinburgh team, Hibernian. My hobbies are football, fishing, cycling and golf when I get the chance. I also have a boat which we fish off up north. We like holidaying abroad, but Covid has put paid to that for the time being. We’ve seen a fair bit of Scotland, though, including places like Skye, Harris, Lewis, Arisaig and Ardnamurchan.
What’s more, I volunteered as a retained firefighter at East Linton fire station for 34 years and ended up as Watch Manager. I retired from that role in 2019, but always found it a very worthwhile thing to do.