How to start up a fencing contractor business

Two men starting to build a fence in the winter

Two men starting to build a fence in the winterFencing contractors put up permanent and temporary fences, gates, screens and other barriers on domestic, commercial and agricultural property. Check out our practical guide for starting and running your own fencing business.

Research your target market

When you plan your new fencing business it's very important to make an accurate assessment of the amount of work that is potentially available - and of how well the market is already served.

Customers

Think about who is likely to use your services. Customers might include private householders, landowners, businesses and public sector organisations. Organisations like conservation trusts and sports clubs might require fencing services too.

Domestic work

Domestic customers are most likely to need boundary fencing for their gardens. They may require various different types of fencing and walling, from plain wire mesh to ornate fencing and trellis work. Take a look at domestic properties in the area and make a note of the following:

  • districts where there are plenty of houses with reasonably sized gardens
  • the types of fencing and walling materials that seem popular locally - some styles may be more in keeping than others
  • the general condition of properties and gardens - are they well looked after or could they do with some maintenance
  • the types of people that live in the area - are they elderly people, young families, tenants or owner-occupiers

Give some thought to other related services that home owners and domestic landlords in your area may require - these might include external timber work like decking, general landscaping work and so on.

Non-domestic properties

Think about other types of property where your services might be required. These could include commercial, industrial and agricultural premises. Any business or organisation that owns or manages land is a potential customer - for example:

  • commercial premises like supermarkets and other large, out of town superstores
  • businesses like pubs, holiday parks, hotels and zoos
  • industrial premises like factories, storage yards and depots
  • agricultural, equestrian and forestry businesses
  • organisations like schools, prisons and hospitals

Once you have identified who your potential customers are, you can direct your advertising efforts at them.

Contract and sub-contract work

Try approaching businesses that may need fencing services regularly. You could, for example, leave your details with building contractors, architects and property developers. Civil engineers who build and maintain roads and railways will also need fencing services. Some businesses, such as builders and event organisers, may need temporary security fencing services at different sites on a regular basis.

Most local authorities own and manage large amounts of land and property and usually need fencing services on a regular basis. Some may be prepared to include your business on a list of 'approved contractors'. Housing associations may also be potential clients. The Ministry of Defence is a major user of fencing services in many parts of the country, as are Network Rail and the Highways Agency.

Large organisations who invite firms to tender for contract work may be reluctant to use a newly established business. Also, a young business may have difficulty in funding a large contract, as many things may have to be paid for well before any payment is received. But it may be worth finding out who is responsible for putting fencing work out to tender in organisations like housing associations, local authorities and big construction firms. Try to find out how the tender process works and what you would have to do if you wanted to tender for a contract.

Establishing the level of competition

Once you have decided who your customers might be, you need to find out how well they are already served.

How many other fencing specialists are there in your area? A look on Yell.com (try categories 'fencing services', 'fencing materials' and 'fencing manufacturers', perhaps also 'landscapers', 'garden services' and 'decking') and other similar directories will help to identify some of your competitors.

Remember that certain other types of business may also be competitors, depending on the range of goods and services that you offer. For example, plant and tool hire specialists may offer temporary fencing, while garden centres, DIY stores and sawmills often sell fencing materials. Specialist agricultural contractors often carry out work like stock fencing for farmers and other landowners.

If possible, try to find out how much your competitors charge for certain services. Look at some of your competitors' advertising material, including their website if they have one:

  • what range of services do they offer
  • do they advertise any special features - for example British Standards compliance, membership of a reputable trade association, local authority approval, a freephone telephone number, insurance backed guarantees and so on
  • what sort of impression does their advertisement give you (for example, does the firm come across as small and friendly, large and businesslike, good value, high quality)

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Decide which services to offer

There are various different fencing and boundary services that you might decide to offer your customers. Below are some examples:

  • wooden fencing such as post and rail, stockade, closeboarding and larch lap panel
  • wire and mesh fencing including welded mesh, chainlink and post and wire
  • steel and wrought iron railings, hoardings and vertical bar fencing
  • concrete sectional fencing
  • special security fencing, for example steel palisade and anti-climb barriers
  • noise reduction barriers
  • ornamental trellising
  • temporary fencing for building sites, outdoor events and so on
  • hedge planting, cutting and laying
  • stone walling
  • gates and gate posts
  • woven hazel and willow hurdles and fences

You might decide to specialise in a particular type of boundary product - for example livestock fencing, motorway barriers or anti-intruder products.

As well as carrying out new installations, you may decide to offer a fencing repair and maintenance service. This type of work can include reinstating damaged boundaries, renewing sections of fencing that are beyond repair and treating wooden and metal fencing to prolong their life. There may be demand for a 24 hour emergency service to repair storm and accident damage to certain types of fencing.

Other services

You could offer your clients a complete package of landscaping, gardening and estate management services. Some examples of related services that you might decide to offer in addition to fencing work include:

  • general landscaping, excavation and horticultural services
  • decking and other outdoor timberwork
  • sheds and outdoor buildings
  • agricultural equipment and plant hire

Some customers may want to buy fencing materials and products like treated timber on a supply-only basis for their own DIY projects.

Added value services

You may want to offer your customers a range of attractive 'added value' services and features. These might include, for example:

  • free surveys and estimates
  • a design service
  • a guarantee on all work - this could be insurance backed for extra peace of mind
  • recognised quality standards, for example all work done to BS 1722. You can find out more about BS 1722 on the BSI website
  • a freephone telephone line
  • a 'no job too small', 'fast turnaround' or 'distance no object' promise

Consider your work rate

Give some thought to your working hours, how much work you expect to get done in a typical day, and reasons why some of your working days may be less productive than others.

Working hours

Assuming that you get a fairly steady stream of work, the amount you can earn depends partly on the number of days you work and the length of your working day.

You may decide to stick to normal business hours, for example 8.30 am until 5.30 pm Monday to Friday and perhaps Saturdays too. Or you may decide to work longer hours - perhaps an earlier start. Remember that very bad weather can sometimes disrupt your work schedules. Perhaps you are prepared to work longer hours when the weather is good and your services are in demand, taking some time off during quieter periods. Bear in mind though that you risk causing a disturbance if you start using plant and machinery very early in the morning or carry on late into the evening.

Some fencing specialists offer a 24 hour emergency service for reinstating storm and accident damage. If you intend to offer a reliable emergency service you will need to make sure that you can provide cover at all times, particularly during the autumn and winter. You might decide to team up with another fencing business to share responsibility for emergency calls.

Work rate

You should have a good idea of how long certain types of jobs will take you. It is very important when quoting for a job that you can make an accurate estimate of how long it will take. It's no good basing your quote on two days work if it ends up taking you four!

The speed at which you work depends on your own skills and experience and on the type and standard of the work that you do. Your charges should reflect all of these things.

Non-productive time

Unfortunately, not all of every working day will be spent earning money. Here are a few examples of reasons why you may sometimes find yourself working hard but earning nothing:

  • visiting sites to cost new work and give quotes (if you make no charge for this service)
  • finishing off jobs that take you longer than you had thought - perhaps because of unforeseen problems like very rocky ground that is difficult to excavate
  • re-doing faulty work
  • travelling to and from jobs, or to get tools and materials from a supplier
  • repairing tools or vehicles

Sometimes you may find that you are unable to work at all, because:

  • a vital tool or piece of equipment is broken
  • the weather is too bad to work
  • you are waiting for materials to be delivered
  • you are ill

Take all of these factors into account when you are estimating the maximum number of productive hours that you can work each month. Be realistic! When you plan your working schedules, try to minimise the amount of time that will be wasted.

Price your services

First decide how you will charge for the work you do. There are different ways of charging, often depending on the type of work done. Here are some examples:

  • charging for your services (and those of any employees) on an hourly or daily basis, adding to this the cost of any goods and materials you supply
  • charging for fencing and boundary work at a standard inclusive price per metre that you have worked out. This price will probably vary depending on the type of fencing to be installed
  • charging for other services at a standard rate that you have worked out. For example, you might hire out certain items of machinery and equipment at a set daily or weekly rate

Think about the things that your prices will include, and the things that will be charged for as extras. For example, will you charge your customers for dismantling and removing any old fencing, or will this be included in your standard price?

Commercial customers may expect you to offer them a special 'trade rate'. Large organisations like local authorities that invite firms such as yours to tender for contract work will expect your rates to be very competitive. Insurance companies will also expect very competitive prices. You might decide to offer special discounts to certain types of customers, for example pensioners.

You may decide to use different methods of costing for different jobs, depending on who the customer is and what type of work you will be doing.

It is very important that you set your charges carefully. You must make sure when deciding on what to charge that, assuming you get enough work, you will earn enough to cover all of your operating costs including your own drawings. Also consider the following points when setting your charges:

  • what do your competitors charge for similar services? Do they calculate their prices in the same way as you do
  • do you aim to win business away from your competitors with attractive pricing
  • will you vary your rate depending on the type and complexity of the work involved
  • will you make a profit on fencing materials and other goods that you supply or will you pass these on 'at cost'? If you decide to add a mark-up, decide how much this will be
  • will you make a delivery charge for goods and materials that you sell on a 'supply only' basis
  • what will you include in your prices, and what will you charge for as an extra? Make it clear to the customer what your prices do and do not include

You will often be asked to give a quote or an estimate for a particular job. Be clear about which you are giving:

  • if you give a quote for a job, that's a fixed price. Once it's been accepted by the customer the price can't be changed, even if there is a lot more work to do than you realised when you prepared the quote. Your quotes should therefore give precise detail of what is covered and make it quite clear that any variations or extras not covered by the quote will be charged for as extras
  • an estimate is not a fixed price, it is just your best guess of what the job is likely to cost. You are not bound by it. It is perfectly acceptable to provide several estimates, each taking into account different circumstances from best to worst case scenario

Many customers will want to agree a price before a job is started and will expect you to stick to this.

Be aware that many of your clients will get quotes from several firms, so you need to be able to quote accurately and competitively. However, don't cut your own throat. Many clients value good quality workmanship and efficient service and are prepared to pay a realistic price for it. Above all, make sure that you don't end up working at a loss because your quote was too low!

Promote your business

It is important to advertise your business effectively, to let potential customers know who you are, where you are and what you can do for them.

Print directories

An entry in local print directories can be an effective way of advertising your business. However, many of your competitors will have done the same. Some firms spend a lot of money on large, eye-catching display advertisements, using names like "000123AAA Fencing Services" to try and ensure that their advertisement appears first in the classification.

You will have to decide whether to compete head on with these firms, or to look for a different way of attracting customers. You could, for example, focus on your own 'unique selling point' (USP) in your advertising material. This might be "30 years experience" or "Family run firm".

Be aware that although print directories can still be a very useful means of advertising, people are using them less and less, often turning instead to the web for information, customer reviews and contact details.

Using the web

A good business website and/or blog are very valuable marketing tools. Make sure it's easy to use, accurate, informative and up to date.

There are various online business directories too, some of which are free to advertise in and some of which charge businesses (perhaps for an enhanced listing). Trade associations like the Association of Fencing Industries (AFI) often have searchable member's directories on their websites too.

Think about other ways of marketing your services to the online community. You could consider using social media and specialist forums to get your name known and publicise things like special offers and so on. And you could use job tendering websites like Mybuilder.com to find jobs and pitch for work.

Other ways of advertising and marketing

Think about other ways of promoting your business. For example, you could distribute a brochure, paper flyer, plastic card or sticker with your business name and telephone number on it as part of a mail-shot that you do. You might also consider:

  • advertising in the local newspaper
  • advertising in trade magazines aimed at businesses like building contractors, farmers and event organisers
  • joining a reputable trade association. The Fencing Contractors Association, for example, promotes and markets its members' businesses and has a database of member contractors
  • networking with local architects, property developers and builders. Some of these might use your services on a regular basis. Others might be prepared to pass on the name of your business to potential clients
  • contacting the people responsible for estate management in organisations like the local authority, the National Trust and so on with the aim of getting onto their 'approved supplier' list

Try to tell people as many of the good things about your business as possible in your advertisements, particularly things that distinguish your business from its competitors.

Remember that your vehicle can be a very effective means of advertising if you have it sign-written and keep it clean and presentable. You might consider having a large sign made that you can display outside places where you are working - but make sure that your customer has no objections before putting it up. If you hire out temporary fencing you could include your business name and contact details on your hire equipment.

Word of mouth

Word of mouth recommendations are very valuable to your business. Everyone has heard horror stories about 'cowboy' tradesmen who bodge jobs and swindle their customers - and they want to be sure that you're not going to do the same to them. You will have to earn your reputation through good, reliable workmanship - but even small things like politeness and considerateness can pay big dividends. Make sure that any staff you employ are good ambassadors for your business too. You want to be sure that if a neighbour of a site where you were working approached one of your staff with a sales enquiry they would be dealt with politely and helpfully.

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