The blind builder with a big vision

James King

An expanse of smooth concrete, neatly piled bricks and barely a speck of dust in sight - this is not your average building site.

James King, founder of Oliver James Garden Rooms, has just arrived at his latest project in Milton Keynes.

When the build is completed in May it will house a kitchen and additional living space in an open plan format. Yet, surveying the spick and span surroundings, James doesn't look happy.

"It's a bit of a mess," he frowns.

James is a stickler for tidiness. But there's a very practical reason behind his insistence on perfection.

"I'm registered blind, it's a condition called retinitis pigmentosa," he says. "I basically have 10% sight but with no peripheral vision.

"It's like looking through a letterbox or a viewfinder in a camera. Because my sight is so poor there can't be anything lying around for me to trip over."

James King Everything has to be in its place on James's building sites
Getting slower and slower

James, 48, has worked in construction since he was 18. He first noticed a problem with his sight in his early 20s.

"I tried to get on with my job on a building site, but my eyes kept getting worse. At night I couldn't see at all.

James King James has 10% sight, with no peripheral vision

"I tried to ignore it but it started to impact on my work. When I was on sites as part of a team, we were paid by how many bricks we laid and I was getting slower and slower because I couldn't see properly. It was hampering my colleagues."

He was forced to rethink his direction within the industry and in the end he managed to turn a negative into a positive.

"Because my sight was so bad, my organisation had to be good. I thought ahead, tried to anticipate problems."

James made the transition from hands-on building to project managing, eventually starting his own firm, contracting out construction workers to other jobs.

Then in 2007, came his Eureka moment.

"I was sitting at home in my conservatory, shivering. It was expensive but inefficient. In the winter it was freezing and in the summer, when the sun hit the windows it was like having a magnifying glass on the back of the house.

"I thought I could do better and that's where the idea for my business came in. I designed a conservatory with no thermal break - it's not a separate space and is integrated into the house which allows it to retain heat."

Unlike a traditional conservatory which has a glass roof and walls, his garden rooms have a solid roof and walls.

Garden room Most garden rooms the company builds do not need planning permission

He adds: "We use specially made glass with a gas field and it's often triple glazed."

Growing market

The builds aren't cheap, starting at around £40,000 and going up to more than £100,000 for bespoke versions.

Most customers come to James because they either want to stay in their current properties or cannot afford to move somewhere bigger.

And this kind of market is expanding. In 2014 the company expects to turn over £500,000, doubling in 2015 and again in 2016.

Garden room The cost of a bespoke extension can run into six figures

As the business has grown and James's sight has deteriorated, he's had to constantly adapt the way he works.

Start Quote

Customers don't care whether I have a disability or not, as long as we get the job done”

End Quote James King

Since 2013, he has employed an old friend Paul Allen to act as "his eyes" on site.

"I drive James to sites, help him check over work, pick up building materials from the merchants and so on," says Paul. "If a ladder hasn't been propped up properly, or if there's scaffolding around, I need to warn him.

"If he goes off sick we're all in trouble!"

Paul also supports James in ways not related to his sight: "We trust each other and he bounces ideas off me for a second opinion."

Para-entrepreneur

In the next couple of years James wants to expand the business but is not going down the conventional banking route.

Instead he's using existing capital in the business, as well as £50,000 he was awarded for winning the 2013 Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs.

James King and his children receive cheque from Sir Stelios James picked up his prize from Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, accompanied by his children Oliver and Liberty

Yet James says he prefers to describe himself in another way.

"I think of myself as a para-entrepreneur - different rather than disabled. When you're in London, the chap standing on the tallest column in Trafalgar Square has got one arm and one eye but we don't ever think of Lord Nelson as being disabled, he's just Lord Nelson."

In 2012 one of the company's projects was shortlisted for the International Design and Architecture Awards. The competition was open to entrants from across the industry and did not take into account James's sight problems.

And James believes that when customers are parting with thousands of pounds, they're not going to take into account the fact that he's got a disability.

"We're selling our product in the mainstream and asking customers to spend their taxed income. They don't get a grant for buying from us," he says.

"Customers don't care whether I have a disability or not, as long as we get the job done."

For more on this story, listen to On the Money on BBC Radio 5 live on Sunday, 23 March at 19:30 GMT, or catch up on the BBC iPlayer.

More Business stories

RSS

BBC Business Live

  1.  
    LABOUR CONFERENCE 06:24: Radio 5 live

    British Chambers of Commerce boss John Longworth says Ed Balls' speech at the Labour party conference yesterday marked a "paradigm shift" in Labour's approach to business. He tells Wake Up to Money a slew of policy plans including cuts to business rates, infrastructure plans and a decision on Heathrow expansion are all good news. Suggestions that Labour is anti-business, he says, are "behind the curve".

     
  2.  
    RATES RISE? 06:18: Radio 5 live

    The Bank of England should raise interest rates straight away according to Jim O'Neill, the economist and former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. He tells Wake Up to Money: "there's no reason not to move right now", and more "conventional" rates will be appropriate for the recovering economy.

     
  3.  
    BARCLAYS FINE 06:10:
    A Barclays sign hangs outside a branch of the bank in the City of London

    Ahead of its trading statement later this morning Barclays Bank appears to have found itself in some regulatory hot water again. the Financial Times reports the bank will later today be fined £38m for failing to keep client's money separate from its own at its investment arm. The fine, levied by the Financial Conduct Authority, would be a record for this type of misconduct.

     
  4.  
    TESCO IN SOUTH KOREA 06:03: Radio 5 live

    Tesco's troubles follow it to South Korea, the BBC's Steven Evans in Seoul tells Wake Up to Money. Regulators there have opened an investigation into Home Plus - a local Tesco subsidiary with 400 stores. Allegations include the selling of customer data, and the suggestion that a BMW car, meant as a customer lottery prize ended up in the hands of a friend of the staff - so not related to Tesco's current UK problems.

     
  5.  
    06:00: Edwin Lane Business reporter, BBC News

    There's also more on the Labour party conference, which continues today. Get in touch with us throughout the morning on bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or on Twitter @BBCBusiness.

     
  6.  
    06:00: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Morning folks. This morning we have a trading update from Barclays bank as well as one from Punch Taverns. We also learned of 1,700 job losses at Phones 4U overnight. There are the latest set of public sector finances to examine later on. And there's bound to be more on Tesco's accounting irregularities. Stay with us.

     

Features

  • Peaky Blinders publicity shotBrum do

    Why is the Birmingham accent so difficult to mimic?


  • Oliver CromwellA brief history

    The 900 year story behind the creation of a UK parliament


  • Image of Ankor Wat using lidarJungle Atlantis

    How lasers have revealed an ancient city beneath the forest


  • TheatreBard taste? Watch

    Are trailer videos on social media spoiling theatre?


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.