Market leader Topps Tiles might not have things its own way for much longer. Having enjoyed years as the leading tile retailer with few specialist competitors, it now has a credible and ambitious rival snapping at its heels – Tile Giant, headed by former Topps employee Mo Iqbal.
Iqbal not only has detailed knowledge of the Topps business, but also has the might of builders’ merchant and home improvement giant Travis Perkins behind him.
After acquiring two-store Tile Giant in 2004, Iqbal built it into a 29-strong chain and, last November, sold it to Travis Perkins for£12 million.
He is eager to challenge the market leader. Number two in the sector in terms of store numbers, Tile Giant intends to expand to at least 100 stores in the next three years and tap into related product areas.
“Retail’s not hard, it’s about good service and product,” says Iqbal. “But, in order to accelerate growth, we needed the investment of a company like Travis Perkins. The adrenaline is running high – I’m loving the excitement of the opportunity.”
Since selling the business, Iqbal does not need to work, but he is driven by ambition. At 35, the Kashmir-born entrepreneur, who was unable to speak English when he moved to Stoke on Trent as an eight-year-old, is not ready to retire.
“The day after the deal was done I was in the office at the usual time of 6am to show the staff I wouldn’t just disappear,” he says. “I might allow myself my first holiday for five years, but I am committed to the rapid growth of Tile Giant.”
Iqbal and holidays don’t mix. After 14 years at Topps Tiles – joining as a senior sales assistant and ending up in the property department – he needed a change, but it wasn’t a holiday he was itching for.
“I’d been with Topps a long time and it’s a great business, but at the time it was taking over Tile Clearance House and I wasn’t convinced it was still heading in the right direction,” he says.
When Iqbal left Topps he decided to go travelling, but after two weeks turned around and came home. “I missed the buzz of work,” he remembers. “So I realised it wasn’t a holiday I needed, but a new challenge.”
And Tile Giant certainly provided that. Having invested his savings in buying the retailer, cash flow was tight and Iqbal and his team ran the business on a shoestring budget. “The focus went on opening new stores. We ended up having to do everything else ourselves,” he remembers. “We would do the fit-out ourselves and our web site was built on a budget of£300 by one of the directors’ daughters.” Iqbal recalls the dedication of his team. “The directors were working all hours and taking home less than£30,000 a year, similar to that of a store manager,” he says.
So, has the sale dampened any of this entrepreneurial spirit? “I was adamant that the spirit of the business should stay the same,” says Iqbal. “That’s why I chose to sell to Travis Perkins instead of a private equity firm.”
Iqbal ensured Travis Perkins was the right fit by spending some time at two of its other businesses – building products distributor CCF and trade supplier Benchmarx. “Each of the Travis Perkins brands is run like an individual entrepreneurial business and I was impressed,” he explains.
There are also synergies with Travis Perkins that Tile Giant can tap into. Sister chain Wickes stocks a range of tiles, but while Iqbal has ruled out Tile Giant having concessions in the DIY stores, he points out that he can tap into the chain’s clout with suppliers. “I’m not a big believer in concessions, but we will benefit from their buying power,” he says.
With a parent as powerful as Travis Perkins, Tile Giant can also benefit from back office support. “Previously, I had to co-ordinate everything from buying to sourcing, finding new sites and admin,” he says. “And there was no budget for things like advertising, so it’s great to have the support of central teams.”
Just three months since the deal, Tile Giant has upped its store count to 32 and Iqbal has several irons in the fire. “This year will be tough, because of the economy, but hopefully even if people don’t move house, they will re-paint or re-tile,” he says.
Topps Tiles may not think a 32-store chain is too much to worry about just yet, but with Iqbal’s drive and Travis Perkins’ muscle, it will keep looking over its shoulder.
Family: married with three children
Interests: owns a private pilot’s licence
2008: sold Tile Giant to Travis Perkins, became managing director
2004: bought Tile Giant
1989-2003: various roles at Topps Tiles, including senior sales assistant, branch manager, management trainee and various roles in the property department