Andy Walker was instrumental in transforming the business, first established by James Laing in 1862, from a plumbing and heating installation business into a multifaceted kitchen, bathroom and bedroom retailer with an impressive showroom boasting around 120 displays and a thriving contracts department. He was in partnership with the Laing family until 1992, joint MD with Douglas Laing who introduced IT to the company until 2007 when Mr Laing retired. Today Laings employs 87 people locally from designers and office staff to tradespeople.
Laings is a finalist for the kbbreview Retail & Design Awards 2022 in three categories – Kitchen Showroom of the Year, Kitchen Retailer of the Year and Bathroom Retailer of the Year. It also won Bathroom Retailer of the Year in 2020 and 2018 and Bathroom Showroom of the Year in 2020 and 2017.
With Andy Walker now set to retire, Laings will continue under the stewardship of son Darren, who will be stepping into the MD role, and daughters Kelly Abel and Claire McKay. Three new directors have also been appointed – Stuart McKay as operations director, Janine Cameron as finance director, Mark Strachan as creative director. The new directors have a combined service of 37 years. The company has many long-serving employees, some of whom have worked there for over 40 years since they left school.
Kbbreview spoke to Andy Walker about his decision to retire and his long career with the company. He emphasised that his decision to retire was not spur-of-the-moment.
“It was quite a lengthy process,” he explained. “The first phase of it started in 2016 and it was earmarked for the final phase to take place in 2020, but Covid obviously pushed that out a bit and we just completed that in August. The focus was on succession planning, taking good advice and doing it properly. Because the paperwork for the transition is quite a job on its own, but the focus was on getting everybody ready.
Son Darren and daughter Claire McKay – have been working in the company since they left school and my son-in-law Stuart McKay has also been with us for some years and is now operations director. Kelly joined in 2016.
“I sat on the sidelines, attended all the board meetings, but I was very conscious that I wasn’t making the decisions, they were, as they have been for the past few years. So I feel very confident that everybody is on track and knows exactly what they are doing.”
“The new Board of Directors is very strong, with a diverse range of skills and strengths. I am looking forward to seeing where they take the company now.”
Andy Walker joined Laings in 1968 as an apprentice at the age of 15. He recalled: “I was brought up in the country and it was local tradesman, Bill Mellis, who was a cousin of my mother, who made an introduction for me to Mr Andrew Laing. And my mother came with me. I remember it very clearly. Laings was a very old, established company and I was very fortunate to get the chance to pick up an apprenticeship.” I remember my first day well. I cycled down Inverurie High Street with my piece bag over my shoulder and my welly boots strung over my bicycle handlebars early in the morning. Passing what used to be Benzies shop I got distracted by some shiny new Raleigh bikes they had in the window. Before I knew what was happening my wellies got caught in the spokes of my wheels and I went over my handlebars. I turned up in the Laings yard a sorry sight, with skinned knees and a broken flask. One of the older Plumbers greeted me with a quiet comment “aye a new nipper i’day”. My first job that day was up at Mackies of Westerton and I was fortunate that my Journeyman shared his flask of tea with me.”
And a few years later, Andy Walker was instrumental in persuading Laings to move into selling bathrooms, which they did in 1980. “We did do a lot of bathroom work and we would send our customers to the local merchant we used, who had a showroom 16 miles away in Aberdeen. They did a cash sale to our customers and then delivered the bits and pieces to our workshop and we would install it. So we had no margin on the products.” He continued: “I thought this was a bit strange and said I thought we needed to do something about it. So that’s when I approached a national distributor for an account and the buying terms were far better. It took me about two years to persuade Mr Laing to give me some space for this and eventually I put in four small bathroom displays. Demand was pretty instant and straightaway I started going out in the evenings to do surveys.” And it wasn’t long before Andy Walker persuaded his boss to move the offices in the old high-street showroom into the attic to make way for more displays and to start selling luxury products. He said: “I put in more displays and started getting involved with some of the German suppliers and prices were higher, and although there was some concern about that, it immediately started to work.”
Andy Walker was also ahead of his time in creating a try-before-you-buy area for jacuzzi baths, power showers, whirlpool baths, steam rooms and saunas. “I had been at an exhibition in London and I had seen displays of all this stuff and I thought we needed to display it and let people see it working. So I made it a place where they could come in, bring their own towels, lock the door and use all of these hot tubs or steam rooms or saunas.” And to that end, he even managed to buy from one of his suppliers the hot tub used by Grace Jones in the James Bond film A View to a Kill, which he put on display.
Looking back on that time, Andy Walker commented: “You know, I was fortunate that Mr Laing had the confidence to give me that scope and it took a lot of hard work to get there. I got on very well with him.” Asked what he regarded as the biggest milestones for the Laings business, he said: “The move into the new premises here. It was a huge thing. I never really felt it was anything other than a real step forward. It was a very exciting time and I got my family involved early and they came in to work at an early age and one of the proudest things I suppose is that they have been a huge help. I feel very lucky with the way that it has developed. Darren is very conscious of customer care and he puts that way above everything.”
Andy Walker added that he still proposes to keep his hand in and that “his door is always open for anybody who wants to have a chat about anything”. Commenting on Laings being a finalist in three categories of the kbbreview Retail & Design Awards 2022, he said: “I thought that was amazing and this is down to the combined efforts of everyone in the team. It is a very proud moment and I am delighted with that.”
Summing up his career at Laings and life’s work in the KBB industry, he said: ‘It’s a great industry and it’s been a great life!’