Darren Crookes: Ambition with a difference

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On entering the APSS offices on Kingsley Road in Lincoln, an abundance of striking features greet you; modern lounges tucked behind a sweeping staircase, a spacious entrance bathing in natural light, inviting meeting rooms, a gym and a stylish kitchen. And that’s just one section of the building.

Following managing director Darren Crookes up to the lively communal office space on the mezzanine floor and into his office, he explains that every inch of the building and its furnishings is a walk-through catalogue for clients.

“We even have whacky things like this,” he says, as he gently presses the wall behind his desk revealing a secret washroom in a glamourous game show-like manner.

From humble beginnings in 1997, when a fearless 27-year-old Darren made an entrepreneurial leap with two fitters in tow, the storage and partitioning business has grown to offer an innovative interior fit out service and construction solutions for the modern business premises.

Now consisting of a team of 50 and working towards a £24 million turnover, the company can boast an enviable portfolio as it gears up to celebrate its 20th birthday.

“My first ever APSS client was Siemens” said Darren. “After about seven years working at a company called VT Plastics in Lincoln, where I worked in the interiors arm doing a similar sort of thing to this, I had developed a really close working relationship with them. So when I went off on my own they jumped overboard and came with us. That really gave us a sense of stability and we’ve now dealt with them for 19 years solidly, working on their main Lincoln site and fitting out the Teal Park development.”

No job is too big or small for the company, and Darren explains that he values a small enquiry as much as the high profile wins, which are setting new benchmarks daily.

“We just completed a bit of work that came to about £350 and we just got an order this week for about £3.2 million so the range is huge. We do the smaller jobs because they’re the guys that are going to do well and grow. They’re the ones that are going to take the country forward. If we don’t look after them there there’s no way they’re going to come back to us.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Going solo

Growing up in a busy pub environment in Fiskerton, Darren explains that his father was always a ‘do-er’, seeking opportunities and even encouraging him to buy his first property at 19. He sees it that he’s adopted his father’s drive and shrewd determination to go out and earn a living, and his motivation for a top career started at a very young age.

“I played a lot of football at a decent standard and my motivation at school age was to go pro. I was quite close to it but sadly I didn’t get there. I had a bad car accident when I was about 15 and I broke my pelvis so I was in hospital for about a year and didn’t sit any of my exams. I had the choice to stay on but I had older friends who had a few quid in their pockets and the best trainers, so my motivation was ‘I need to go to work and earn some money.’

“My first job was working for a motor factors who was a friend of the family. It gave me a good foot in because the guys I was working with really were grafters. At 19 I ventured out and worked for VT Plastics. It was a huge £120 million turnover business, but when you look back, it wasn’t run very well. I worked really hard for them, got great training and loved what I was doing, but I started to think I could be doing it for myself.”

In the early days, APSS (Acorn Partitioning and Storage Systems Ltd) was a product driven concern, based on Darren’s expertise in demountable partitions and mezzanine floors, combined with storage and shelving systems. “We used to fax everyone and we did design drawings by hand. Getting the message out was difficult. There was no Lincolnite, it was all about the Yellow Pages.”

The challenge of spreading the word about the business saw Darren knocking on door after door, rain or shine and working on leaflets from home to try to get a foothold on local clients. “The risk profile was minimal,” reflected Darren. “I didn’t have children at that time and I was actually probably a bit naive and I had no fear.

“What we found when we slowly began to build a working relationship with clients was we were limited to what we could offer them. There was only so much need for shelving for example so repeat business was limited. We recognised quite early that most of the clients that we were dealing with were coming to us and saying ‘you know you’re doing that, well can you get carpets, and can you get furniture?’ It opened up the marketplace and we began to offer more of a service driven product.”

When the recession hit, pulling many firms’ purse strings tight and erasing the workplace posts that might have fit ‘painting the windows’ under their remit, APSS were ready and waiting to offer sustainable and creative ideas. “Businesses couldn’t move to new premises and spend millions on a new unit, so we were showing them how to utilise their own spaces better and squeeze as much as they could out of their existing building. Recessions in a weird way have been very good for us.”

Today, APSS has expanded on the skills demand from its customers and added construction to its specialisms, as well as bringing joinery in house. Clients span from Aberdeen to Southampton and Darren and his team are proud of their ever growing reputation, proving that the design and layout of a workplace can directly affect efficiency and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Working with other big-hitters like Wren Kitchens fitting out commercial showrooms with everything from flooring, lighting and dry lining, meant the company was able to grow its specialisms even further by bringing kitchen fitters on board. “We have also worked with Capital One,” said Darren, “and we’ve just won a big project with Virgin. They’ve taken on the East Coast railway line and we are doing all their offices in York.

“We’ve also worked with Bakkavor, who are Tesco’s biggest food supplier and loads of other local businesses like Rimmer Brothers.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Lessons learnt

Darren puts the main facilitator of the company’s growth down to the team. While he admits it was difficult to let go of the reigns when the services and the client list grew (describing his personality as ‘slightly OCD’), he says, “you need to let people make their own decisions so they can grow. If they make mistakes they’re not going to get shot… unless they make them twice.”

“As I said before, the small jobs matter,” Darren says as he reflects on the changing personality of the business and its service offering. “There’s a really good lesson in one of our projects and we use it as an example to get the process right.

“We did a small job for Superbikes sponsors MCE Insurance and they were happy with it. About 13 months later, so way after the warranty was up, they called to say they were getting moisture in their double-glazed partition. Basically, the guy didn’t get the response he should have got, I think he was told we were too busy.

“He called again in the evening and I picked up. I said I was in the area the next day and would take a look. It turned out the cleaner had been using too much cleaning spray, but I said we’d sort it. He said ‘how much?’ and I said in a joking way ‘don’t worry, you’ve been a good customer, but if anything else comes up make sure you think of us’.

“It cost me about £350 in the grand scheme of things, but about a year later he offered us the chance to tender for a new premises, a massive building, 200,000 square foot.”

Despite being up against five other nationally recognised companies, APSS’ retention-inspired design with gym, coffee shop, sports pitch facilities and dance studio was selected and brought them a £2.9 million project, which is due to start in June.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Onwards and upwards

APSS deals with around 2,000 jobs a year of various sizes, with the latest £3.2 million factory extension contract for Wren Kitchens the highest valued project to date.

The biggest risk to the firm’s success in Darren’s eyes is complacency. “We’ve just achieved our most valuable order but we won’t be going out there and ringing a bell and popping the champagne. To me, as soon as you shout success the complacency kicks in. I’ve had it with people in the past, God bless them they’ve moved on now, but as soon as an element of the business was doing well you could see their efforts detracted.”

The company continues to think outside the box, and although whacky requests like Google-inspired slides are often knocked on the head when a number is put on the table, the team’s designers have achieved a huge range of creative spaces like floating glass rooms and secret storage solutions.

For his own sense of escapism, Darren has swapped football for triathlons and has completed in Ironman events and recently the London Marathon. Together with his wife, the family spend a lot of time supporting their two daughters, seven and 11, with their running, gymnastics, swimming and dance.

This feature interview was first published in issue 78 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.