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‘We are one big family’: Laings in Inverurie looks back on 160 years

Laings team 1930
Laings team pictured outside their office in 1930 at 84 High Street Inverurie. Image: Laings.

One of the north-east’s oldest family-run businesses, Laings of Inverurie, is celebrating its 160th anniversary.

It has stuck to its Garioch roots throughout that time, having been headquartered in the Aberdeenshire town since start-up in 1862.

Originally just a plumbing business, it has developed over the years to now include kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.

For current managing director Darren Walker, the anniversary is a proud occasion for the “one big family” behind the well-known business.

Plumbing roots

James Laing & Sons was established by 24-year-old plumber James Laing in 1862.  At that time, very few people had a plumbed in water supply to their home and much of the work undertaken was installing new water supplies.

James Laing, pictured in 1862.

Early sales ledgers from 1867 still displayed in the business today show the rate for a plumber was five shillings a day – the equivalent of about £17 nowadays.

In the early days plumbers would use rope yarn to tie a toilet to their back and cycle to jobs.

Mr Laing, a member of Inverurie Council, died in 1890, aged 53, and his son, Patrick, took over the running of the company.

Patrick Laing died in 1942, aged 74, leaving the business to his son, Andrew.

L-R Darren and Andy Walker. Picture by Kath Flannery/DCT Thomson

The new boss had served his time as plumber at John Dean, on Queen Street, Aberdeen, before joining the family firm.

Back then, there was less emphasis on large contracts and more attention paid
to the domestic side of plumbing.

In 1930 an office was opened at 84 High Street, Inverurie, and it became a showroom from 1980 to 1994.

An old Laings’ van in Inverurie i bygone days.

In 1968 Andrew Laing hired Andy Walker as a 15-year-old apprentice plumber.

Mr Walker had grown up in a rural home, with no inside toilet until he was 15.

He worked his way up through the ranks at Laings and after Andrew Laing’s death in 1986, the business passed to him as managing director, alongside Mr Laing’s son, Douglas.

Revolutionise bathroom showrooms

It was in the late 1970s that Laings started to specialise in bathrooms.

Darren, 43, son of Andy, said: “In the late 70s my father Andy spotted a gap in the market to offer a complete ‘supply and fit’ service of bathrooms.

“Having a long history as a plumbing contractor purchasing from plumbing merchants, Andrew Laing was hesitant about this new direction, however dad was persistent and one evening Mr Laing agreed to a small area within their offices to become Laings’ first bathroom display.

“My dad wasted no time. He had his supper then came back with a hammer and started knocking down partitions in the office that same evening.

“It quickly became a huge success, and soon after more office space became more showroom space until finally the offices had to move up into the loft area, to maximize bathroom displays”

In the 1980s Laings bought over Alford plumbing business Comfort and also had a plumbing business based in Ellon.

Both were closed down and all staff transferred with the opening of the new showroom in Inverurie.

Expansion in Inverurie

In 1994 the new showroom opened on Oldmeldrum Road in Inverurie.

Laings bought John Dargie Kitchens, and that was the beginning of the kitchen journey.

Darren said: “We feel it’s hugely important to stay loyal to the town where our roots date back to our establishment in 1862.

“The growth of the town has been mirrored in the growth of the company, our successes have always been intertwined and to many people we are known as ‘Laings of Inverurie’.”

Andy Walker, right, and Douglas Laing outside the new showroom in 1994.

It was then Laings became kitchen specialists and by 2019 the kitchen business
had grown to 60% of the company’s turnover.

Andrew Laing retired and passed the business over to Mr Walker and Douglas who were partners before Douglas retired in 2007.

At the start of the year, Mr Walker also announced his plans to retire after 53 years with the business.

Darren, who started a full-time plumbing apprenticeship in 1994, then took over the reins.

He now works alongside family members including his sisters and fellow directors, Kelly Abel and Claire McKay, and brother-in-law Stuart McKay, the firm’s operations director.

L-R Janine Cameron, Mark Strachan, Terry Charles, Darren Walker, Stuart McKay, Claire McKay, Ian Charles and Kelly Abel. Picture by Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Other family members include Terry Charles, Ian Charles, Kevin Charles and Gary Bremner.

Darren said: “We are first and foremost a family business – many of the staff been here over 40 years.

“We are fortunate as a family we all get on well however, we retain a business-minded approach too.

“Laings was more than a job to Dad, he and the excellent team around him put his life into it and that’s what made Laings what it is today

“We are like one big family because there is a lot of staff been here over 40 years.”

Changes down the years

One of the biggest changes Darren has encountered during his time at the company has been the advances in technology.

He said: “There have been immeasurable changes over the past century and a half as you would imagine.

“Apart from anything else the type of work has changed, from traditional plumbing and leadwork, to indoor plumbing in the latter part of the last century and more commercial work with larger developments and hotels.

“In the 90s we saw big changes when we moved to working digitally.

“Quotes used to be handwritten and given to the receptionist to type up but everything is electronic now, in fact we have our hand written sales ledger from the 1860s on display in our showroom.

Laings staff

“The technology change has been massive.

“We’ve now given our 30 installers tablets to reduce carbon emissions with less printing, fuel and paper.”

Fond memories

Looking back on his highlights during his time with the company, he said: “I have so many great memories from my time at Laings from my plumbing apprenticeship to plumbing and heating projects and hotel refurbishments.

“I’m very proud of the customer relationships we’ve built up over the years and, of course, the six national awards we’ve won over the last five years are certainly high on the list too.”

Challenging times

Like every other business there have been challenges, with some harder than others.

However, the company enjoyed a profitable year, according to annual accounts to the year ending August 2021.

Figures revealed turnover increased to £11.1 million, up from £8.7m, while operating profit rose to £760,920 compared to £184,174 in the prior year.

Darren said: “Since the pandemic we’ve been extremely busy but it’s been challenging too.

Laings current showrome. Picture by Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“There are constant price increases every week, resources and material shortages.

“Its went from one challenge to the next, however we have been fortunate to have been busy opposed to some other industries hit hard throughout the pandemic”

Plans to celebrate

Looking to the future, he is confident of the direction he wants Laings to go.

He said: “To continually improve our service and remain at the forefront of new technologies to give customers the best experience.

“We also want to continue to give opportunities to those starting out their careers and reduce our carbon footprint year on year.”

A party is being planned to mark the anniversary in November.