“Business Matters” interviews Peter Hare

What does your company do? What products services does it provide?
Hare & Humphreys is a company specialising in decoration, arts and conservation.

Many readers may instantly recognise our works but few will recognise the name behind the work. We are renowned for the reinstatement of many of the nations most beautiful interiors and favourite historic monuments; celebrated projects such as the restoration of Windsor castle following the fire damage – a project that assisted our receiving of the royal warrant, much of the interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Monument to the great fire of London and more recently Gloriana, The Queens Royal Barge. Other projects include the infamous red staircase at the St Pancras Hotel and much of the external gilding at the Houses of Parliament.

Where did the idea for your business come from?
When I was young I had always been in awe of the beautiful palatial, museum and church interiors that I had visited as a child. As a teenager I became a particular lover of the British “arts and crafts” movement. All of this was far from my own life experiences having been raised in the east end of London, but the opportunity to work in such environments and to re-awaken the almost-lost skills of our ancestors was something that drove me to transfer my dreams to reality.

Following a less than exciting job in accountancy, I decided to change step and look for an apprenticeship with a church decoration company. It took me some time to find the right company, but having made the jump and the initial pay-cut sacrifices, a couple of years later I landed on a dream project; the William Morris room in the V&A museum. It was there that I met my future business partner Paul Humphreys and found someone with a shared passion for developing a company that linked traditional decorative skills with fine artwork and the then emerging conservation field.

When did you start up, and what support were you given?
I initially set-up my own sole trade business “Peter Hare specialist decorations” in 1982. Cash was very tight and a careful selection of clients and close managed projects was essential. In those early days I operated with a £1,000 overdraft limit. It was not easy but I just about managed. Finding security for bank overdraft facilities was almost impossible and it took tough planning to make it work.

I’d kept in touch with Paul Humphreys, occasionally linking up for projects and in 1985 we were awarded the reinstatement of the Charles Barry Rooms at the National Gallery. This successful joint venture led us on to many later galleries at the National and the Royal Academy of Arts. Hare & Humphreys Ltd was formed during our Spencer House refurbishment in 1988, and has been going ever since.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?
There have been so many technically challenging and aesthetically rewarding projects which I could reflect on. The Gloriana project was very special for me personally, but I would say the success of bringing your hopes and aspirations to seamlessly unify the three great disciplines of our works – decoration, art and conservation – is still quite a staggering achievement. Hare & Humphreys today is widely regarded as one of the finest companies in its industry in the UK. There were of course countless candles burned late into the night at our offices and on site and there often still are. It took huge commitment, persistence and sacrifice to reach our current position.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?
Getting through the sterling crisis, recession and huge interest rate rises of the early 90’s was very tough. We are often sub-contracted by main contractor’s overseeing the full project and during the early 90’s our exposure was ripped open as several contractors went bust owing us a great deal of money. It was pretty desperate at some stages and could have easily led to the collapse of H&H. However there were normally interesting projects to be found and we worked incredibly hard to secure them and get through that period. We gained a supporting loan through the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) and of course paid a lot of interest to the banks, meaning profits were scratched out for quite some time. I am a firm believer in finding the positives from the negatives and surviving such torrid times in fact became an invaluable experience and without doubt shaped much of our on going judgements with the company.

This latest recession has been quite different for us. Our exposure to main contractors has been “vetted” to those we trust and it is kept under strict control. Today your business plans need to change very quickly to suit the demanding climate and that’s never easy when you have great staff and the youth training policies we operate. For us one phone call can often change the horizon and it is important for all businesses to look ahead and plan out your workforce to suit.

How would you say you differentiate yourself from the competition?
Unrivalled professional quality and service, from enquiry through to delivering the finished project. Our conservation team, led by the highly talented Cathy Littlejohn (ACR AAGradDipCons), is Icon registered, sleek and professional and we frequently take projects from the design concept or the historic investigation phase through the report stages and to the final application – all internally. We also provide water colours and visuals for concept enquiries.

Every project is treated as bespoke and our management and staff are carefully selected to ensure they understand the project and what is required of them by us and by our client. Quite rightly our clients expect the best from us and we set the bar on our service very high, ensuring that excellence is achieved.
Our company is very much a team whether in or out of work and I am a great believer that if you enjoy your work and the people you work with it will reflect in your performance.

What has been the best decision you have made to-date?
Creating a succession plan. We have spent time identifying key people throughout business and rewarding appropriately. We have some really promising young people who have moved through their apprenticeships and become junior team leaders and others who have stepped up into management.

Two of our staff were awarded shares and brought into the directorship of the business. Awarding directorships is challenging to the structure of your company but it is also incredibly rewarding in all aspects.

Identifying key people is of course an on-going process and the door is never closed to those who make the difference.

Where do you see the business in 12 months’ time?
Company enquiries and results are already up on their comparisons over the past two years and I am optimistic that growth will continue, albeit for us in the private sector for the time being. We are expecting 15 per cent growth in the year.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
It is a great time to invest and start a business with interest on borrowing still low.
However it is imperative that you critically research your product or service thoroughly. Set out your business and think every aspect through. Make it attractive but practical. Enter each aspect of your plan as a cost on your spread sheet and ensure you develop a realistic working cash-flow forecast. So many businesses fail in infancy due to over-optimistic cash-flow forecasting. If you need financial backing and are considering outside investment, consider whether the investor should be passive or if you need structured investment and someone that can add a service, a skill, some experience or knowledge to the benefit of the company.

Entrepreneurs are optimists by nature and thank goodness for that, but your optimism must not blind you of the challenges of running a small business. Reality checks are essential if you are to avoid the pain of failure.

Finally you must fully believe in what you are doing and be prepared to make the commitment and sacrifices necessary to carry it through. That is critical if you are to convince others to commit to you.

As a starting point for any entrepreneur, I would recommend looking at the Business is GREAT website. There is a lot of help and advice out there for small businesses or start-ups and the Business is GREAT site is a fantastic place to find out more about what’s available.

See the article: