The behaviour of Britain's largest firm of thatchers has sent frissons over England's straw roots.
"We're very proud of Lady Thatcher's work," beams Bob West, passing a black-and-white photograph of an olde rusticke cottage over the desk. "She entered her Ideal Homes roof in the All-England competition last month and it came second. In fact, she's at the Woman of the Year lunch even as we speak." The ensuing astonished silence is broken by a guffaw of realisation from West. "Ha! I see your problem. Not that Lady Thatcher: our lady thatcher, Kate Glover." Then, with an expression that changes to one of obvious displeasure, "Quite a different proposition, I'm delighted to say. No relation at all."
Both West's pride in his own lady thatcher and his exasperation at her professional namesake are understandable. As managing director of Thatching Advisory Services (TAS), Britain's biggest firm of roof thatchers, the last three years have, he says, been "bloody unhappy ones - nobody smiles or jokes around here any more".
To be fair, not all of this woe can be attributed to Lady Thatcher and her heirs. Following the hurricanes of 1987 and 1989, West observes wryly, "any existing thatched roof that had even a straw out of place was re-done on insurance", leaving a subsequent lacuna in domestic thatching commissions. The present recession has, however, scarcely helped matters. West has colourful things to say about his bankers, whose demand for instant re-payment of a £150,000 overdraft led to the dismissal last year of 15 out of a full-time workforce of 35 at TAS's Berkshire headquarters. At the same time, UK new-build projects - a potential replacement market for all those neatly re-thatched, post-hurricane roofs - have effectively ceased to exist. Domestic roofing commissions now account for less than 40% of TAS's turnover, down from nearly 90% three years ago. A thatcher's view of Thatcherism is understandably a bleak one.
It therefore comes as a surprise to hear that 1993 looks set to be TAS's "biggest income-earning year ever", a rather less lachrymose prediction that has much to do with the entrepreneurial nous of the firm's managing director. West is no stranger to coping with commercial adversity. "When I founded the company in 1974, thatching was dying on its feet," he recalls. "Bus conductors had better career prospects, and they were being phased out. The main problem was that thatching was dropped as a subject from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors" curriculum, which meant that you couldn't have a full survey on a thatched house, which in turn meant that no building society on earth would give you a mortgage. There were also lots of horror stories because of early degradation of straw caused by nitrate fertilisers. People would shake their heads and say, "A thatched roof only lasts for two years, you know."All bollocks, of course."
West's response to these problems was (like his vocabulary) typically pragmatic: he set about training his own surveyors to standards acceptable to building societies, and began the process he now describes as "demystifying thatching as a craft. I believed then and I believe now that all this mystique nonsense was responsible for thatching's decline. People used to say, 'You've got to wait five years to find a thatcher' or 'You mustn't upset thatchers - they're all prima donnas.' I had to get the message across that thatch is a simple form of roofing - probably the simplest and most widespread in the world - and one that compares favourably in price. It's a roofing system, not a romantic pastime ... It's a real alternative to things like slates, and no more expensive."
Not entirely surprisingly, this demystification - the publication of West's subversive owners' manual, Thatch, sent a particular frisson across the straw roofs of England - was not greeted with general rejoicing by the traditional, corn-in-the-hair, thatching fraternity. Nor was his next move, in 1978, which was to franchise TAS's operation nationwide, turning the company - which now has 35 franchisees - into "the biggest thatching outfit in Britain by the distance of several light years". West's diplomatic description of the typical olde Englishe thatcher as "a mononeuronic rural simpleton" does not seem guaranteed to win him friends perched among Home Counties chimneypots either, even if the typical TAS franchisee does seem more likely to have written a thesis on the novels of Thomas Hardy than to resemble a character from one of them. Waving at a wall map, West rattles off a list of franchisees - all of whom receive six months' training on TAS's mock roofs for their £15,000 - that includes an ex-DAF marketing director with a doublebarrelled name, a nautical engineer and a commodity broker: hardly the stuff of rural romance.
Fans of Gray's Elegy may mourn this invasion of commercial realpolitik into the bucolic idyll, but West has no time for such sentimentality. He maintains that TAS's demystification has swollen the thatching market for everyone - "I suppose we got five or six out of every 100 or so new thatching jobs our work here created", allowing him to dismiss the many fists shaken in his direction, as belonging to "bloody hypocrites".
A tour of the 350-acre Turgis Court Farm, leased from the Duke of Wellington's Berkshire estate, provides further evidence of TAS's atypicality as a thatching operation. For one thing, the farm allows the firm's franchisees to be completely self-sufficient in two of the three materials (combed wheat reed and long straw) traditionally used in regional thatching, although West is insistent that no franchisee is under any obligation to buy.
The means of harvesting these crops is also a departure from the traditional thatching norm: R and D spend for the one-man thatching band tends to consist of the occasional whittling of a new straw-rake; contrariwise, TAS's own in-house engineer spent several years and £300,000 developing a pair of unique stripper-and-trussers that steel-bind straw from which the grain has previously been removed. This means that the grain can be sold earlier and that the straw is in better condition when it is eventually harvested. The potential benefits of this last fact are a source of delight to West who notes with glee an EC directive forbidding stubble-burning from the beginning of next year. "I already flog my straw for £490 a ton while my next-door neighbour gets £17 a ton for his," he points out, gesturing fondly at his machines. "Everyone's going to want one in the next couple of years."
This mechanical good cheer is far from typical of West's commercial mood, however. Although his stripper-trussers are whirring proof of TAS's one-time R and D spend, they are unlikely to find companions in the near future. Since the advent of the recession and what West sees as the treachery of the Big Four banks, TAS's R and D spend has had to be cut to the bone, a retrenchment that threatens both to decimate the firm's income from outside sales and to undermine its own marketing position as thatchers with-a-difference. One of the reasons that TAS has won such notable commissions as the recent one to re-thatch Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in Southwark, London ("You will recall that the original burned down," observes West, pointedly) is the firm's development of flame retardants, produced in the small company labora-tory. Future projects in this line are now firmly on hold, a fact that causes West a certain amount of bitterness.
The fact that TAS survives at all in the present climate suggests that its MD is not one to be cowed by such dark moments. Although the firm is fortunate in having a guaranteed recession-proof £1 million or so in annual premium income from its £400-million thatch insurance business - another entrepreneurial wheeze in West's panoptic thatching world view - TAS's relatively secure bottom line rests on its MD's determination "not to sit on our backsides and wait for something to come along and save us". Reasoning that survival lay in "maintaining our square footage of thatch production", for example, the firm began to produce off-the-peg gazebos in 1990. Sales of these have fallen from £300,000's worth to more or less nil this year, although "cunning" inventory work avoided the spectre of vast stocks of unwanted Wendy houses.
Undaunted by this reverse, West and a team of franchisees have spent the subsequent two years tucking their stooks under their arms and setting out for such unlikely destinations as Taiwanese holiday camps, New Zealand pubs and the Bronx Zoo in search of thatching work. The exotic nature of much of this (film sets of African villages and pseudo-Polynesian theme parks have become something of a company speciality) has resulted in "roars of laughter" at TAS's HQ; West and his team clearly reason that ribaldry is preferable to the alternative sound of dole cheques dropping through the door.
Given a pessimistic view of the domestic economy's short-term chances and the clear benefits of being a net exporter with a low pound, West is understandably keeping his eye firmly fixed on these newly-acquired foreign markets. Earlier this year, TAS recruited its first overseas franchisee (in southern Ireland), a move West sees as being a tentative first step to possible wider international franchising. In the meantime, he says, TAS can "easily continue to bump along on the bottom like this for another five years", keeping capital investment to a minimum and making savings where it can.