Checkatrade has become the go-to website for DIY’ers to avoid cowboy builders. Thanks to chief executive Kevin Byrne it’s also a go-to employer of choice, reports Peter Crush

Checkatrade

Kevin Byrne has a vision: bodge-jobs, poor service and unsafe trades-work must have no place in today’s Britain. With the HomeOwners’ Alliance and TrustMark revealing incompetent tradesmen cost homeowners £1.9bn between 2013-15 (more than five times the UK’s domestic burglary claims), the job is a colossal one.

But as founder and chief executive of Checkatrade, Byrne is providing a place where buyers can find people they can trust (and which have been rated as providing excellent service). Judging by recent growth (3% per month), he is tapping into a huge pool of demand.

Despite launching in 1998, it’s over the past two to three years that the brand has gone mass market. Checkatrade.com now attracts more than 1 million web visits a month; it generates more than £2.7bn in work for reputable tradesmen; and, most crucially, saves the public an estimated £200m by avoiding rogue traders.

Given Checkatrade’s mission to shun shoddy traders, it can’t be seen to be a shoddy employer itself. But under Byrne, his 208 (and growing) staff need not worry. In September the business launched its first employee engagement programme called FAB, which comprises a portal enabling staff to buy and sell holiday, buy childcare vouchers, arrange cycle-to-work, and even give colleagues thank you cards.

However, as he revealed in an exclusive interview with Reward, this is far from being the start of a new approach to reward. It merely adds to what’s been long established – and very personally – by himself.

“FAB is the most corporate thing we’ve done and we decided to do it because of the size we’d reached, but it would be wrong to suggest reward is anything new,” he says. “It’s a cliché, but we really are our people, and key to our growth is not losing good people. So, from day one I’ve wanted to create a place where staff genuinely want to be.”

This includes shutting down between Christmas and New Year [staff don’t have use any holiday entitlement]; giving staff the use of a gym and access to a free personal trainer (two sessions a month, in work time); a winter ball; Christmas parties; even assigning £150 per member of staff to managers to spend as they choose. Some eke it out over the year, but most recently Checkatrade’s finance team blew the lot on a Michelin-starred meal.

Byrne says: “These are the things staff remember. Not a policy, or a process. It’s simply being more human!”

As well as employee reward being influenced by Byrne’s own sense of what is right, it’s the business model that has also directed it.

“Our business is about signing up new tradespeople to our site [they pay an annual subscription to be listed]. It’s sales-based,” he explains. “But by the nature of our mission, we’re all about quality, not the quantity. Therefore we couldn’t use money to encourage salespeople to sign any people up. That would drive the wrong behaviour.”

Instead, sales staff receive a nominal £5 per new tradesperson gained, but another £40 is also put into a pot. Then, at the end of the year, it’s literally emptied, and shared out. Most importantly of all, it’s not just distributed among salespeople; everyone gets a share.

“All staff, from the receptionist up, gets a cut because the business ‘is’ everyone,” he qualifies. “It would be wrong not to divide it any other way. Everyone is the Checkatrade brand. We grow together.”

Shortly, the 20,000th sign-up milestone will be passed, and for that Byrne is planning something extra special – he’s setting aside £50,000 to take the whole company out for a weekend away.

“When we were smaller, we used to take everyone to France for the weekend. We had to stop once we got to 75 staff, but this seems the right time to do it again, to say, once again, thank you to the team.”

Increased numbers of employees [Byrne says around a third of staff have only been with him for a year or so] is something all fast-growing organisations have to face at some point, and Checkatrade is no different.

FAB was one response to this, but despite this Byrne says he’s adamant he’ll maintain the personal touch. “In 17 years of employing people I can honestly say only four people have left because they were unhappy. It’s because I’ve always got to know them,” he says.

Indeed, all new starters have an hour’s face-to-face meeting with Byrne. They also have two weeks’ induction, seeing what everyone else does, before starting their own jobs. “After this if staff do want to move on – perhaps because an opportunity arises that Checkatrade can’t fulfil, I can only be happy with that,” he adds.

Of course, Byrne doesn’t actually have an attrition problem. In other sales-based companies attrition is 30%. “We’re single digits,” he says. Some have left, and (perhaps not surprisingly), discovered the grass isn’t as green. But here, Byrne is equally philosophical. “If they call me, and say they’ve made a mistake, I will absolutely welcome them back.”

All of this explains why Checkatrade is now a Sunday Times-ranked ‘Top 100 Companies to Work For’ business, but there are plenty more reasons staff have to stay loyal, including the fact staff can influence how to make the working atmosphere even better.

“We have what we call our Utopians Team, where staff can suggest ideas,” says Byrne. “From them we’ve created our ‘Hub’ area – a space where we’ve put a snooker table, an X-Box, kitchen and hang-out space.”

Every month, staff also enjoy a company-get-together. “But…” just as Byrne recalls it, it’s already causing him concern: “We use the local community centre, directly across the road,” he says with a worried tone to his voice. “It’s pretty much at capacity now…I’m not sure what we’re going to do when more staff come on board!”