Contractor Spotlight: Colin Barber
For this edition, we sat down with Colin Barber, owner of Colin Barber Tiling Contractors in London, England. The company, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is a current member of The Tile Association (TTA).
How did you first get involved in the tile industry?
Barber: Well, it was not planned. After teenage years focusing on junior level sport cycle racing, winning local championships and being in the national youth squad, I realized I had better earn a living. A local tiling firm gave me a job. My family had not been connected to construction jobs, so it was very new to start using tools in earnest. The first winter was a tough one, but I stuck it out and went on from there.
The 80s in London meant great change, as the economy strengthened and money reappeared, greatly changing the property market and everything associated. In tiling, we went from constantly using the standard 4-, 6- and 8-inch tiles plus mosaics, all in very limited color ranges over and over, to the start of the extensive use of marble and the influx of continental tiles being imported.
Looking back, it was a great period to start with standard tiles and learn the trade. A great grounding in development, commercial and some residential work, as there was so much work about and generally few tilers.
What were some reasons for starting your own business?
Barber: I am marking 30 years this September since I went out on my own in 1988. We reached a natural conclusion on the firm. I was doing the high-end residential and interior designer-led work that was much in demand by then and had essentially developed that side of the business through the quality of work I did. It was a bit of a risk leaving, but all of the companies that used me followed without prompting. I didn't steal clients or even let them know; they found me. That was a great testament and it instilled confidence in me to carry on. I am thankful still. I believe in doing the very best for each job, and am proud to say that I have never been without work to this day.
Has the tile industry changed much since you first started?
Barber: Very much, as all in this industry of 20+ years will attest. The tiles certainly, as well as the materials and equipment. Also, client expectations, I would say. People care far more about their tiles than they once did.
As said, there was a limited range of tiles that were available back when I started. Through the 80s onwards, the quality and adventurousness of interiors and what they comprised of went up and up in stages. “Wet rooms,” for instance, were rare and we did them only for wealthier jobs.
Looking back, it is interesting to have seen the rise and development of interior design, bathroom and kitchen types, and all of the associated materials and equipment. In tiles, as we all know, the rise of porcelain has been the main widespread change, but there are many innovations of all types of tile and mosaics, and the increase in natural stone availability. In the course of my career, I have been lucky enough to have been able to work with the most interesting tile materials right across the board.
Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Barber: Gosh, to be a little immodest, it is difficult to choose. I have had the good fortune to work on many standout jobs. Being in a capital city like London has meant that in doing consistent good work and building a reputation for that, many opportunities have come my way and I have been able to work on fascinating projects, beautiful homes, and for interesting people.
One project of note was for Sting, the musician, in his renovation of his 500-year-old country house to bring up his family — installing bespoke mosaics. It was featured in Architectural Digest, and along the way, I got to have Sunday lunch with Sting and his family.
Another two works in my life have each taken more than a year of time — one on a Scottish Highland Estate seven miles down a track beside a loch, and the other near Ascot under the classical architect, Craig Hamilton. Both were for families that are among the wealthiest in the world with budgets, choices of materials and specifics of the work among the very best. They were considerable, personal and professional undertakings to achieve, but they came out well. My fellow tradespeople on them were crews of many skills and characters, and they as much as the work are a great memory.
At the start of this year, I also did some restoration work on Buckingham Palace's Royal Mews, working on original Minton tiles, which my mum would have been proud of. Currently, we are involved in a house in London, designed by NYC designers, Drake/Anderson, doing some beautiful marble mosaic floors.
Tile work is increasing in its desirability right across the board at all budget levels, and I hope to be a part of it for a good while yet.
What are some common issues you have to deal with on the jobsite? How do you overcome them?
Barber: I think they are common for tilers all over: not being rushed to ensure the work is the quality it should be, getting paid and rushing (a bit) to meet deadlines. Also trying to keep people from walking on newly set floor tiles.
What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Barber: I have always taken time to go into the requirements of successful tile work with people, both in the importance of the quality of materials used to install them and specific items such as uncoupling membranes, grout options etc., and the part they play in the process. Then, I send links or informational documents as part of a quote. Manufacturers’ sites have caught up a lot lately, in being able to show their products, and customers can make their own mind up about whether you are serious about the work that you do from who you are and what you intend to do to complete the project.
There is still much about tiling that is unclear to customers and a less than up-to-date view of it from many general contractors. This is changing though with the appearance of the Internet, mostly for the good, and I have noticed increasingly more people making informed queries as a result of careful online research prior to their commitment for tiles and tilers.
As far as tiles are concerned, I have always encouraged people to go with what they first wanted, rather than be put off by the downbeat stories they hear from less than enthusiastic sellers/contractors/friends. Then, enlarge on what can be done to address any negative comments about the material in question. It has changed people’s minds many times and we generally get the job.
If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Barber: Always stay focused and personally interested in the whole process. Remember tiles are a serious investment for anyone and play a major part of any large or small building. The good fitting of them was, is and always will be something to be proud of. Done well, everyone appreciates them. Learn your trade as thoroughly as you can. Don’t think you stop learning; I certainly haven't and am still enjoying going out to start a new job every time.