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Tue 18 Aug 2015 01:03 PM

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Fixing up the maintenance industry

Co-founder of maintenance company Jim Will Fix It, Colin Thomas, explains why he launched the company and how it continues to be at the forefront of the sector’s evolution.

Fixing up the maintenance industry

If you have lived in, or even just visited Dubai in the past seven or eight years, you will have almost certainly seen the purple and yellow Jim Will Fix It vans going from job to job.

Their noticeable presence not only speaks volumes about their eye-catching branding, but also the company’s success in redefining the emirate’s approach to home repairs and maintenance.

Offering a range of services including DIY, plumbing, electrics, air conditioning, carpentry, and painting and decorating, the business was founded in 2007 by two men who wanted to change a maintenance landscape which they believed was restrictive and often poor quality.

Colin Thomas and Daniel Garner both arrived in Dubai from the UK in the early years of the new millennium – Thomas with Sony PlayStation, and Garner with Morgan McKinley. But despite the heady days of pre-global financial crisis Dubai, there was something that the duo felt compelled to address. So much so that they started their own business to deal with it.

“I was living in a big place in Al Barsha, and the whole nugget of the idea came when the AC broke down,” explains Thomas.

“On three different occasions I phoned three different companies. They either needed an annual contract and wanted all the money upfront, or alternatively it was a guy who spoke no English and came with one screwdriver.

“We thought surely there’s a better way of doing maintenance than this. So we kind of started from there.”

Joining forces with Garner, the duo “sort of did it backwards” by quitting their jobs before embarking on a six-month research period, culminating in a business plan.

“We did our market research - we were stood outside Spinneys and Choithrams every evening for about a week, and that research came back to say quite clearly that there was room for something that was radically different,” continues Thomas.

“And that ‘different’ is exactly where we sat. Back home you would never have somebody coming to you saying ‘pay me £3,000 for the year and I’ll look after your house for you’. People would laugh them out the door. So we couldn’t understand why up until then Dubai had been operating in that way.”

The important thing in the early days was for people to try out the fledgling company.

“The real key to the business was: can we get the quality service without needing an annual maintenance contract, so people have the option of trying us to work out whether we›re as good as we say we are?” says Thomas.

“If we offer them a warranty not only on parts but also the service that we do, then they can have the peace of mind that they haven’t spent a small fortune before finding out whether we’re any good or not, and they have a warranty so if anything does go wrong they have that peace of mind there as well.”

The timing, however, was not ideal. The company launched in 2007, shortly before the financial crisis engulfed most of the globe. But while many new businesses were struggling to stay afloat, Thomas says Jim Will Fix It proved to be somewhat recession-proof.

He explains: “It was quite clear within a month or so that the recession was very much upon us here in Dubai and at that stage there was a big question mark of whether or not the business would work.

“But what became clear was that things break even in a recession, and you either lived with it or you get it repaired. It kind of grew exponentially from day one. And that’s continued for the last seven years which has been fantastic.”

Part of the company’s early success, according to Thomas, has been its balance between offering a full range of services, and building a reputation for honesty with clients.

“We couldn’t just look after one particular facet, like a plumbing service,” he says.

“We really needed to offer people enough of a breadth that we were almost a one-stop-shop for their maintenance needs.

“That said if there was something too specialist, unlike some companies that claim to be experts in everything, we had to be prepared to walk away from it if it wasn’t within our core expertise. That’s really helped us build a rapport with our customers. They know if it’s a job we’ve taken on then we’re good at it.”

This kind of rapport has helped Jim Will Fix It compete against other companies in the facilities management sphere, but for Thomas there is a much more important differentiator.

“What you tend to find with those guys is that they’re very much competing on price, while we’re very much competing on quality,” he explains.

“For us it was important that we had the right staff - really capable people who come to us with qualifications. For example all our AC guys are three years qualified in the Philippines and then we retrain them again, so they go through a really rigorous training process with our senior technicians to ensure they’re the required quality. 

“Then we have ongoing training. So every three months they go through a refresher course on customer training, and then we have a refresher team on the road that just trains, trains, trains and shadows each of our teams.

“It’s permanent because we have to maintain that quality, even as we’re growing at a very quick rate.”

The company’s tag line – ‘one call, one visit, job done’ – is “more than just a mantra”, according to Thomas.

He explains that the quality of service needs to be strong throughout the entire process, starting with the initial call to the bookings team.

“The first call is critical because that call is for us to be able to determine that we’ve got the right person there, make sure we have the materials we need to do that job, and make sure the customer understands exactly what that job is.

“And that’s followed up by the fact that our staff are all English speaking - they are able to communicate, and are constantly retrained in communication with the customer.

“They are there to eke out the maximum amount of information so that we can go there in one visit, can get the job done, ensure it’s going to be right, and that we’ve got all the right materials to proceed.”

The company also has back-up plans in place, just in case the job turns out to be more difficult than first expected, or if parts aren’t available.

“We now have a fleet of very big vans that float around Dubai and work as mobile warehouses as well,” says Thomas.

“So if we do have a job where those parts aren’t available, there’s a good chance they’ll be in the mobile vans, so we can get the parts to people quickly and still get everything done in that one job.

“However, there are always going to be those jobs where you’ve got specific items, so when a technician is still on the roof, for example, from the roof he can call the parts team in office, and they will call in immediately the part details. The parts team will then call our driver who is already in the area of the supplier. So in effect from diagnosis to part being available, it can be as quick as half an hour. It’s something we’ve really worked on perfecting as we’ve got bigger.

“We’ve now done 55,000 jobs and we’re kind of at the stage where we’ve seen everything before, without a doubt, and we’ll know how to deal with it.”

The focus on quality is something that Thomas and Garner were adamant about from the very beginning. While starting out, they took advice from friends who had also launched businesses in Dubai, and decided that there were certain things they would leave in the hands of other professionals.

“We sat down with those guys to learn from their mistakes, and what that told us was that we didn’t need to worry about the bureaucracy of setting up. We could focus on our business and find a facilitation company to look at the set up requirements. We’ve got a great one that we still use to this day.

“There’s a real decision to make when setting up a business, which is what will you spend money on, and what will you focus on yourself. We knew that our product delivery had to be better than the lowest common denominator operators, and the established operators as well, and we couldn’t just match it, we had to be significantly, demonstratively better. We wanted to focus on that.”

That focus paid dividends almost immediately.

Despite the challenges the founders faced in the form of competition and a generally poor perception of the maintenance industry, the quality that they were so intent on establishing shone through.

“Within probably six months of us starting, Dubai’s word of mouth kicked in massively for us and it made our significant advertising efforts pale in significance,” says Thomas.

“Expat Woman was probably the best source we had for word of mouth and we were getting 60-70 percent of our work on referral alone. For us that was absolutely critical.

“As well as that, there were just huge amounts of hard work and graft. When you’re signing the cheques yourselves, and it’s money you’ve earned yourselves [the start-up money came from the founders and their families] it makes you beyond hungry to make sure it works.

“So for us it was ridiculous hours, ridiculous days. I lost a huge amount of weight, and for the first six months I spent a lot of time on the road going to the jobs, being on the roofs in 50C heat to ensure our service delivery was right, and I’m able to talk about jobs knowledgeably, which was absolutely key.”

Having established a strong following, and ensured a consistent quality of service through continual training, a system of spot checks, and customer feedback, the company began to expand its offering.

In order to provide the best possible service, Thomas explains that he and Garner keep a close eye on new products and procedures available in other parts of the world which could enhance their offering in Dubai.

One example is the addition of duct cleaning to their AC service. Thomas explains that they have brought in a specific piece of equipment from the US which cleans AC units and ducts much more quickly and efficiently than they were previously able to do.

Another new addition to the company’s offerings is window cleaning, which is due to be available by the end of 2015. “Not a mop and bucket,” says Thomas, but a high tech system that’s being brought in from the UK and uses pure water as the main cleaning method to eliminate smears and droplet marks caused by ‘total dissolved solids’ (TDS).

With any new product, there needs to be a tangible benefit to the customer and the company, explains Thomas.

“If we can keep our quality level, but use the technology to make it faster while maintaining that quality, and get to the point where we reach a really nice competitive price, then it means it’s feasible for the Dubai market, and feasible for us.

“There’s a bit of chicken and egg situation with new products, in as much as we know it’s being used in a certain way, but can we tweak it to get the quality we need, and can we get the economies of scale that we need to get to a price that will make it mainstream in Dubai?”

The answer for an increasing number of products appears to be yes. But while the breadth of what they are able to do is increasing, the geography in which they do it is not. Yet.

“At the moment we’re in Dubai, and the reason we’ve stuck to Dubai so far is that for our services and the reputation we have here, we have a really strong amount of growth year on year, every year,” continues Thomas.

“But we are looking at Abu Dhabi, without a doubt - it’s just a case of how soon we will roll it out.

“We also get approached on an almost weekly basis for franchises abroad. To date we’ve decided not to do that. It’s so critical that anything we do, we do to our quality level, and to package all of that up into a little manual is not really possible in the way it might be for a fast food outlet.

‘If our key is quality, then it doesn’t really franchise that well, in our view, and we have to stick to maintaining that quality.”

Speaking with Thomas, it is clear that his business is about much more than making money. The company’s dedication to quality service is matched by the partners’ assertion that it should be a place their employees feel comfortable working, and also a company that isn’t afraid to work hard for a good cause.

A prime example of this occurred earlier this year when Nepal was struck by an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, killing thousands, injuring many more, and leaving hundreds of thousands of others homeless and without provisions, clothing or belongings.

“The night when all of the news reports were coming in from Nepal, Dan gave me a phone call and said we really need to get involved with this,” says Thomas.

“We realised that we’ve got a whole bunch of vans in Dubai, a huge amount of customers looking for an outlet to donate to Nepal, and it was quite clear we needed to move quickly.

“Dan drove to Abu Dhabi, to the Nepalese embassy, and agreed with them that we would collect and donate directly to them.

“We arranged with our customers that anyone who wanted to donate, we would pick up from their houses, collate it back at the warehouse, and then take it down to the embassy ourselves. In the end it all went pretty crazy - we ended up with 11 tonnes of donations, which to give you an idea is three of our massive vans filled to the gunnels. 

“We turned up there and it was the most amazing sight. There were hundreds of Nepalese workers from around the UAE who were just at the embassy to help. They didn’t know what they were helping with, but they were there just to help. 

“It was such a positive atmosphere - we had these human chains that got rid of these 11 tonnes in about 45 minutes. It was just a constant shaking of hands, and a real feeling of positivity about getting Nepal back on its feet. It was an amazing experience, and something that we’d really like to it again.”

It’s an episode that speaks volumes about what Thomas and Garner stand for, and the ethos that they infuse into their business.

People are at the heart of what they do, and the quality they are keen to provide at every turn is a constant reminder of this.

Having helped fix the reputation of the maintenance sector in Dubai, no doubt Jim Will Fix It will continue to be at the forefront of its development in the future.

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