Classic car fan Ken Smith is still firmly in the driving seat at Solihull’s £100 million turnover builders merchants EH Smith – at the astonishing age of 94.
Aston Martin driver Ken has clocked up a remarkable 76 years with the building group, and still works a full five-day week at the helm of the Shirley-based company.
The sprightly nonagenarian, who puts his amazing longevity down to a regime of cold showers and cod liver oil, recently welcomed Solihull Mayor Councillor Ken Hawkins to launch the building chain’s new £400,000 redevelopment of its Shirley site.
And he brushed aside any suggestions that he should follow the recent example of Sir Alex Ferguson by slowing down. “What’s retirement? Retirement is death,” said the veteran businessman.
Mr Smith has been chairman of the £100 million turnover firm, which has a string of outlets across the UK, since 1959, when he took over the reins following the death of his father Howard, who founded the building group.
This week Mr Smith clocked up yet another milestone in his extraordinary 76-year career, when the £400,000 relaunch at Shirley saw the building group’s first ever mayoral visit.
“This is the first time we have had a mayor here. It’s another big step forward for us.”
Mr Smith’s earliest memory is of accompanying his father Howard on a horse and cart whilst making deliveries in Birmingham.
“My father launched the company and the first year we had a horse and cart and he went round seeing builders on it.
“I can remember being on the back of his motorbike at the age of four as he went round Birmingham getting materials. That is my earliest memory, over 90 years ago.”
Mr Smith also vividly recalls the war years with EH Smith. “I was working in the industry through the war years and we had incendiary bombs across our depot in Coventry. That was in 1940.
“I also had a rocket dropped near me in London in 1944 – I was driving my Morris 8 in Lambeth; we had depots in Shepherds Bush and Battersea.”
Ken says the firm, which has outlets throughout the UK, has survived several recessions over the decades. “We survived 1929-30 – it affected us quite a lot – we only made £150 profit but we didn’t lose any money. We kept our heads down and kept going.
“But this has been the worst recession I have ever known. I think we are beginning to come out of it slowly but it has been a slow process. We have taken the time to expand and bring our depots up to date – we have always had a big stock.
“Some of our competitors have fallen by the wayside or been taken over.”
Ken said his managerial approach owed little to the Alex Ferguson “hairdrier” style. “We have had some marvellous chaps in our business over the years and sadly many of them have passed away. I have always tried to work with them and support them.”
He still drives himself to work five days a week from Monday to Friday in his Aston Martin, putting in a full working week.
Away from work, age has forced him to give up fell-walking and climbing in the Lake District, but he attributes his fitness to a disciplined regime. “I still have a cold shower and take cod liver oil.”
The Acocks Green veteran was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 by Builders Merchant News.
EH Smith marketing director Mark Mallinder said of the firm’s £400,000 relaunch in Shirley: “We have spent the last 12 months as a business completely re-thinking how we interact with our collection customers.
“‘Project Collection’, as it became known internally, has been researching, planning and re-positioning our offering towards collections, culminating in the reduction of 13,000 collected prices throughout the group. This is the biggest and most exciting change we have made within the business for at least a decade.
“As part of the project we have also completely renovated our flagship branch in Shirley, making it much more focused on collected trade. We have entirely remodelled and refitted the branch, changing the way customers move around it, for the first time enabling self-selection.
“Prices are key for builders, and we have hammered down prices. These are not promotional prices – they are fixed at a low level. So many independent businesses have been swallowed up by the big nationals. This is a family business and fiercely remains so.”