Future 50: Portable Space expanding as business bounces back
- Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND
New products and predicting demand fuels growth in the pandemic.
“The day after the pandemic announcement in March last year, 60-70% of our hire customers called to say, ‘We’re going home. We’re not paying our hire charges.’ That was quite a stressful day,” says Portable Space MD Mark Dolman.
Despite that – or perhaps because of it – the Suffolk-based firm that supplies portable cabins, modular buildings, shipping containers and steel storage containers has grown strongly through the pandemic. “By at least 25% - and that’s a very conservative number,” Mr Dolman says.
The first step was to get customers to accept that while cabins were on site, it was a partnership so Portable Space would take 50% of the cost, but 50% of fees would still have to be paid. “We've actually won quite a lot of business from companies whose usual suppliers perhaps didn't take that approach,” says Mr Dolman.
While Portable Space did furlough some of the team, it wasn’t for long – as enquiries were soon coming in thick and fast. “For a while, everything was Covid related,” Mr Dolman explains. “We were getting lots of calls from people that wanted to put testing facilities in place.
“We made the decision that we couldn't afford to supply too much of our equipment to Covid-related projects... We supported local schools and doctors, but decided to leave the bigger national firms to fight over the larger, government-type contracts.
“There was definitely an opportunity to make a quick buck, but actually we took the longer-term view and we thought if we hired everything out to them, when our construction customers - the people that are our bread and butter - came back online we'd have nothing to hire to them.”
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Instead, the Stowmarket firm had everyone in, working on the hire fleet to make sure it was in peak condition ready for when its customers returned. “We had a feeling that hire products in particular were going to be in high demand,” Mr Dolman says. That was the right call – and, again, Portable Space picked up clients whose usual suppliers couldn’t help them as all the stock had gone out on Covid-related contracts.
However, cabin and storage hire is only one part of the Portable Space business – and the other elements have also been growing strongly, again in part thanks to opportunities created by the pandemic.
Spotting a need to support the hospitality industry, Portable Space launched a flat-pack catering kiosk last year. “They went to a lot of pubs and helped them reopen, because they were able to serve food and drink outside,” Mr Dolman explains.
It wasn’t only businesses finding more use for the company’s products. “Our range of flatpack products are a hybrid of a garage and a garden shed,” Mr Dolman explains. “We’ve sold loads of those over the pandemic.”
Further flatpack products are being prepared for launch – including bike storage and a 20ft product offering the capacity of a shipping container but for less cost. This will help some customers as the price of shipping containers has nearly doubled in the past 18 months.
Supply of shipping containers is another key part of the business, but Portable Space has managed that with careful planning. "They are at a premium because there’s a shortage. We did some good purchasing deals pre-pandemic so we have a good supply,” Mr Dolman says. “It’s a big turnover area for us.”
It means the business is well set for the next stage of its growth. “We have a new headquarters being built which we hope to deliver by the end of the year,” says Mr Dolman. “Our plan is to open a second depot somewhere else in the country within the next five years.”
“We are a pretty unique business,” he concludes. "Lots of people do site accommodation, lots supply containers or do container conversions. Lots of people supply modular buildings. However, I believe we're the only one that does all of it. And we do it all ourselves.”
For further information see www.portablespace.co.uk