How a man with a plan and a campervan revolutionised Britain’s damp proofing industry, John Stacey finds out.
Most sportsmen and women would agree that it takes drive, determination and passion to succeed.
And former rowing enthusiast turned entrepreneur Evert de Graaf is no exception.
The man who 10 years ago came to Britain from his native Netherlands with a van and a plan to sell damp proofing
has enjoyed increasing success thanks to a single-minded belief in his product.
From humble origins working from a rented cottage in Pickmere, near Knutsford, Evert’s company, Holland Damp Proofing, now has four branches across Britain, a multi-million pound turnover and a raft of awards hanging on the office wall.
The company won Trinity Mirror Newspapers’ small business of the year award in 2005 and was crowned Vale Royal business of the year in 2008 and its innovative method of installing damp-proofing was named best invention of the year in a national competition in The Netherlands.
It’s a far cry from Evert’s life as a student at university at Groningen, where he displayed entrepreneurial skills by transporting rowing boats between universities, combining his love of the sport – he rowed for the university for a year – with fledgling business acumen.
Eventually, he set up in Cheshire with a vision of bringing a damp-proofing system that had a proven record of success in the Netherlands to the British people.
In the cottage, Evert and a small team worked on spreading the news about their product – something that can be fitted in a day, doesn’t use chemicals or leave a mess for homeowners and is environmentally-friendly.
One of the company’s first damp-proofing installations was at Deansgate terrace in Manchester – the longest Victorian terrace in the country originally built in 1898 to hide the Great Northern Warehouse.
The damp proofing system, which originated in Holland and has been popular there for around 27 years, was a revelation to British property-owners who for years had been led to believe that chemical injection was the only way to eliminate damp problems.
Evert, 40, explains that the business was modest in the early years, but started to take off after 2005/2006.
He puts the growth down to a greater awareness of the product and a growing interest in green issues.
He says: “People started to recognise our track record and in 2007 came an explosion in environmental awareness and desire to use natural products.
“British consumers were getting into green products. Then the housing market crashed in 2008. We saw it coming. In the boom years, there was a lot of work being done in buying and selling properties which all of a sudden stopped but we saw it as our chance to grow the business.
“The crash in the housing market had a negative effect on the damp proofing market as a whole because the number of transactions had dropped. But we took this as an opportunity to convince people they should improve instead of move.
“Also, we decided to go national by opening the south east branch, which enabled us to improve our marketing. We could target people more through national targeted media, which is not so easy in regional media.”
What appealed to customers were the all-too-obvious benefits of installing the Holland Damp Proofing system: the speed and efficiency of the disruption-free work and its green credentials.
Indeed, for Evert, being environmentally-friendly is of great importance to his company and to him personally.
The Holland Damp Proof System uses natural airflow to dry houses, allowing the walls to breathe, letting moisture evaporate and in turn making the walls better insulators. No chemicals are used during the work.
Being green is at the core of Evert’s company ethos. Since trading began 10 years ago Holland has continually completed audits to make product and processes greener.
For example, printing is done only on recycled paper, all ink is eco-friendly and more than 99 per cent of the company’s waste is recycled.
This eco-awareness translates to the choice of where they set up their four branch offices – at Bristol, York, on the Surrey/Sussex border, and of course at Pickmere, where it all began a decade ago.
Rather than open offices on a less-than-green industrial estate, the company chose to re-use old buildings like barn conversions and a disused watermill.
Evert finds it a shame that in the current climate of recession many environmental issues are put on the back burner again.
“It’s a misconception that green alternatives are for the ‘well off’ and cost more money. Our product is a fine example of a product where choosing green will actually work out cheaper in the short and long run.”
Evert feels health issues are similarly important. His product is ideal for homeowners who suffer from asthma, arthritis, respiratory diseases and numerous allergies, all caused by living in a damp environment.
The Holland Damp Proof System® is natural and helps reduce humidity, making the air less attractive to dust mites and fungi. The system is also chemical-free – so there are no toxic fumes.
Since ‘going national’ business has boomed as more and more householders, landlords and property-owners began to realise that today they have a choice and do not have to rely on chemically-injected methods of damp-proofing.
The normal after-effects of damp-proofing work – replacing hacked-off plaster, redecorating and waiting for newly plastered walls to dry out – are banished in a trice. All that impressed the public.
Because engineers can complete a job in only a day, increasing the volume of work taken on, turnover naturally began to rise. In 2008 alone, growth soared by 70 per cent. Such a massive increase in orders brought its own problems, however, and today Evert looks for a more realistic 30 per cent yearly growth rate.
Unfortunately, Britain’s damp-proof industry has displayed a certain reluctance to welcome the ‘incomer’ with open arms, a situation Evert accepts somewhat philosophically, wryly commenting that he finds a suspicion of new ideas and methods an amusingly British trait.
“Our product has a unique selling-point,” he says. “It’s green. It’s tried and tested. We have been here for 10 years but people still think of it as new. It’s a British thing.”
But you can’t argue with the numbers being crunched and the rapid increase of orders across the country that Holland Damp Proofing is currently experiencing. The fact that Evert talks about his company in terms of being a ‘multi-million’ pound business speaks volumes for its success.
Now the company has completed work in thousands of private homes as well as properties owned by Solihull Housing Association and Sefton Council. Landlord-owned accommodation is a key growth market area.
So where does this single man with a single vision envisage his company being in 10 years?
“I want to open more offices, but they will be smaller, making the company more manageable. I want to deliver a better service. It is better to have smaller centres nearer to people so engineers don’t have to travel too far to do their work, driving their vans and using petrol. It’s all about our carbon footprint.”
And the secret of his success? “I think it’s drive. It’s honesty. It’s listening to my gut feeling.”
It’s clear Evert, who stays true to a love of the outdoors he discovered in his teens by regularly going running, skiing or working out at the gym, is proud of his company and its product.
“It is very nice to have a product that is so green,” he says. “I like nature. I grew up in a forest.” (He was born in a village to the east of Amsterdam.) “At primary school I was campaigning against killing seals.
“I have a product that reflects my ethos on life. But I’m not an eco-warrior. I just care about the environment.”