Pulling through difficult times requires a positive can-do attitude and upon chatting with Neil Sainthouse of Alpen UK in Cheshire, it’s like a breath of fresh air. It’sclear to tell from the off that Neil is a through-and-through optimist,who always believes in a positive outcome no matter the situation. Having set up his business Alpen UK, suppliers of high-quality drills and Starrett holesaws in 1995, we discover how his business is still going strong 25-years later...
Neil, tell me a bit about yourself.
Originally, I’m from Salford but now live just around the corner from my work in Wilmslow, Cheshire. I’ve been married for 37 years to my wife, Judith who has worked within the business since we started, doing all our administration and HR. We have two children,my son Pete, who is 25, young, free and single and living in London, and my daughter, Jenny who’s married.
We are very family orientated and with both our children living near London, we try to visit them every few weeks. During lockdown my daughter and granddaughter came to stay with us for nine weeks, as she had to isolate from her husband, who’s a doctor and caught Covid-19 but thankfully he recovered well.
In terms of hobbies my wife and I are very big football fans, and both support our local team, Manchester United. Football has played a big part of our lives, as I actually met my wife at Old Trafford when we were both working there many years ago - we even had our first kiss there after an Everton game.
I’m very interested in history and in particular post boxes. I enjoy searching for the rarer ones from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. My daughter even signed me up for a membership of the Letter Box Study Group - the acknowledged authority on the history and development of the British roadside letter boxes.
Tell us about your job and your role within the company.
I started the company in September 1995 and it’s about 25 years since I took my first order from a customer in Newcastle. Before then I worked for a company called Joran Drill Company who were also a Starrett distributor, so I’ve sold Starrett tools since 1983.
When I first started the company,I didn’t deal direct with Starrett, as at that point there was a very good holesaw dealer in the North of England, called Giles Shaw. When theyceased business in 2000, we started dealing directly with Starrett UK.
Officially I’m the Managing Director (MD)of Alpen UK, but I carry out the role of a salesman. We only deal through distribution and I’ve maintained relationships with customersI first starteddoing business with in’83 as a salesman and in ’95 when the company was established. My job is a bit like a footballer; I get paid for doing what I enjoy, so I’m still happy to go out and see the people we deal with.
We are a small team and I’ve had the same people working for us for a number of years. Stu has been with us for 24 years and Mark joined us from school, just before his 16th birthday and has been with us 19 years. As we’re not a big team, I believe in looking after them, as your team are key, and we wouldn’t be where we are without them.
Currently, I’m the full shareholder of the company, but I’m actually going through a process of devolvingsome shares to both Stu and Mark in gratitude for what they have givenus.
What’s your favourite aspect of the job and what do you enjoy the least?
I love closing a sale, as there’s no question about the buzz you get from it,or meeting people you don’t know and doing a decent pitch.
There are no aspects of my job that I don’t enjoy, except for having the chase payments, however over the years we’ve developed a solid and reliable customer base, so this isn’t really an issue now.
Is there one person alive or dead who you would love to talk with or meet, and why?
Renowned sportsman, Charles Burgess Fry who died at the age of 84 in 1956. When he went to university around 1892, he was seen as the‘Superman of sport’. He achieved‘Blues’ in cricket and football, represented the Barbarians in rugby, played football and cricket for England and played for Southampton in an FA Cup final, as well as Corinthians.
In 1893 he jointly held the world’s long jump record and in 1896 he would have won gold at the inaugural/modern Olympics but was touring South Africa with England. However, in the World Championships, the year before he won gold in the 100m sprint.
He had a party piece of jumping backwards onto a mantlepiece, which he could still do into his 50s, so not only was he a good long jumper, but also a great high jumper.
He was friends with an Indian Diplomat,PrinceRanjitsinjhi, who was part of the League of Nations after the First World War. With his connections, when there was a void in the Albania reign, they were looking for an Englishman with an independent income of about £10,000, so was offered the throne which he refused.
His autobiography was called ‘Life Worth Living’, which had quite a few exaggerations in it, but he really was incredible. He was someone I’d heard about in my younger days and always retained an interest in him.
Do you DIY yourself? What is your biggest project?
I used to when I was first married, working on our house but not so much now. From installing kitchens to working on electricals, I could turn my hand to most of these jobs. More recently, when my daughter and son-in-law moved into their new home, they removed their bathroom and I got roped into the reinstallation.
As a young boy of 12 or 13-years old I enjoyed tinkering with electrics, and my mum was keen to nurture this talent. She bought me my first ever tools and as they say, ‘the rest is history’.
What’s your favourite tool and why?
There’s no question about it, it’s a Yankee pumpaction screwdriver. I know it’s been superseded by the cordless, but there are a few certain occasions when I like to feel a bit more control, so use it then. I’ve had the tool since I was 15-years old and it’s still going strong, as it was built to last.
Tell us about your relationship with Starrett and the tools your company stock.
I’ve been indirectly selling Starrett products since the end of February 1983. I can even remember selling my first Starrett holesaw to Standish Tools and Fixings, just outside Wigan.
Now in Alpen UK, we only sell Starrett-branded holesaws, as well as Austrian drill bits for steel, concrete, masonry, and wood. Our company ethosis built on selling high quality, reputable products.People don’t come to us to ask, ‘how much are you today’ but for a product which does what it says on the tin. Even though they may cost more initially, they are designed to last longer, cut more holes and outperform competitors.
We don’t flirt by keeping cheaper products; if you want a hole saw we only recommend Starrett, if you want a drill bit, it’s Alpen and if you want anything else, we’re not the people for you.
What challenges do you think lie ahead for the industry and what do you think can be done to overcome these?
Personally, I am a firm European and devastated with Brexit- for me it’s the future’s biggest danger. I’m not worried so much about the import and export, but what it does to our currency. I believe in working with people, rather than having this belief that we still rule the world with our Empire. To combat it, I don’t think there is any way, I just hope we see the error of our ways and go cap-in-hand to see if we can join the club again.
Business wise, I think we need to do what the Austrians and Starrett do to beat the cheaper products by being more innovative, keep improving and offer solutions that others can’t. We have a case in point when drilling thick sections of stainless steel – you cannot do this with a cheap product, you need something like Starrett’s new Carbide Tipped Deep Cut hole saw, which simply works. Every product that Starrett makes and all the other products we stock are quality, reliable and will perform. We’ve got to keep innovating and never rest on our laurels.
For more information about Alpen UK, please follow this link: www.alpenuk.com