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Aberdeenshire couple on how they started with nothing and grew firm with 50 staff

Kenny and Nicola Robertson started their business from a spare room in their Old Aberdeen flat.

Kenny Robertson & Nicola Fraser started their business from spare room of Aberdeen flat. Image: KR Group
Kenny Robertson & Nicola Fraser started their business from spare room of Aberdeen flat. Image: KR Group

When Kenny Robertson and Nicola Fraser first started their business, KR Group, it was based in the spare room of their Old Aberdeen flat.

Fast forward 20 years and the husband and wife team’s Newburgh-based business has a turnover of £10 million and 51 employees.

The steel and cladding company is described as a “first generation business” by Nicola.

The vision to start KR Group started after Kenny, 45, had spent several years working in the steel industry and decided at the age of 24 he wanted to do things “quicker and better”.

KR Group started with one van and tools

The couple borrowed £10,000 which allowed them to buy a van and some tools.

Nicola, 46, said: “Kenny didn’t thrive at school. He was always a hands on person when it came to work.

“He’d grown up in a farm environment and on construction sites and took a job when he left school working in the steel industry.

Kenny with sons Jack and Ethan in the early days of KR Group. Image: KR Group

“When he was 24 he decided to set up on his own.

“He had big ideas and thought at the time he could do things quicker and better.

“He wanted people to be treated better than construction workers were at that time.”

‘We didn’t have any money’

Nicola, who was working as a trainee social worker at the time, admits she had her reservations.

But she also knew it was best thing for Kenny.

The business director said: “My dad had been self-employed and I knew how tough it was. I didn’t want to go down that road.

KR Group is celebrating 20 years in business. Image: KR Group

“But I knew for him to be happy and successful it was what we had to do.

“We lived in a flat in Aberdeen. We didn’t have any savings and we had no investors.

“We didn’t come from old money so we borrowed £10,000 from an online lending company which allowed us to buy a van and a bunch of hand tools.”

Business started to grow

Kenny started carrying out odd jobs and a few weeks later landed his first steel contract.

Nicola, who married Kenny in 2005, said: “I was doing paperwork for the business in the evenings and Kenny was out working during the day trying to make ends meet.

“His first ever job was to fix a broken toilet at a hairdressers in Stonehaven.

Kenny & Nicola pictured in 1999. Image: KR Group

“At the start he picked up odd jobs. But within a few weeks he got his first steel contract and it took off from there.

“We were really just erecting steel. There wasn’t a huge amount of outgoings for us. We were just providing labour only.

“As we grew in confidence and the demand was there we started to take on bigger contracts.”

Expansion to Newburgh site

The couple, parents to Jack, 17, Ethan, 15 and Kate, 12, then moved to a new house in Grandholm and again set up an office in their house before then moving the business to Mill House in Grandholm.

Nicola said: “When we moved to Grandholm we has a couple of staff working for us.

KR Group premises in Newburgh. Image: KR Group

“The day we moved in with furniture to our new home we also moved in with staff and they worked downstairs until we moved to Mill House.”

In 2010 the couple took on the lease of small industrial unit in Newburgh.

But quickly the business grew and eventually they bought the estate which sits on about an acre and half of land and holds six workshops.

‘First generation business’

In 2017 Nicola made the decision to leave her job working for NHS Grampian and join the business full-time.

She said: “Before then it was late nights and weekends.

“The business had grown quite a bit since then and it was getting increasingly difficult to spin all the plates with the kids.

“I worked as a mental heath clinician so it wasn’t an easy job to have anyhow in terms of mental capacity.

Kenny & Nicola pictured at Turriff Show. Image: KR Group

“I decided it was time to step away. I never really meant to stay away but the more I got my teeth into the job on a full-time basis and the more I realised we could put so much social work into construction the more satisfying it became.

“Although I moved away from my job in 2017 I’d been involved in the business since 2003.

“If you told me years ago I’d have ended up working full-time in construction I wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are and it’s a good place to be.

“We are a first generation business.

“We make a good partnership. What I don’t have in technical knowledge I do have in business knowledge.”

Perfect partnership

Reflecting on the remarkable business journey for the parents of three, Kenny said: “I’ve never really thought too much about our business journey because in the middle of all that we’ve had children.

“Nicola played a combined role really well which allowed me more time, in the traditional model, to work as much as possible.

“Albeit we always agreed we’d work hard to get to a point where I can have time at home as well and be more of a team.

“I feel like we’ve done that and split our time evenly with the children.

“As tough as it is we’ve managed to model the business around it.

“It’s incredible that we can have such opposite attributes but between the two of us everything that’s needed is there to go in to one pot.

“I’d have never managed on my own in all honesty.”

Positive future outlook

The family business which was founded as KR Steel, secured many notable projects last year.

This included work on the new Ford showroom in West Tullos and a new gin distillery set to open in Turriff next year.

Nicola said: “We have a full order book for this year which is a very good position to be in given the state of the housing market. It’s nice to see Aberdeen doing a bit better commercially again.

“Last year we dipped down a lot bit because there was a lot of challenges on the go. But we are on track for a positive year. We’ve got lots of exciting projects.

“We’ve got numerous vacancies just now for site operatives, skilled and semi-skilled steel erectors and cladders.

The team from KR Group delighted with their Community Award from FSB Scotland Business Awards. Supplied by FSB

“We also have about four or five apprenticeship positions coming up as well across office and site.”

The business recruited an additional 13 employees in 2023 with 20% of the workforce in ‘earn while you learn’ roles which includes apprenticeships, traineeships, and graduate placements.

KR Group has invested more than £500,000 on new machinery which will allow the business to expand their current service offering and continue the growth and success experienced in 2023.

Nicola decided to encompass their youth initiatives into a dedicated division of the business and launched the ‘KRedit Project’ back in March.

The group’s efforts were recognised in the 2023 Scottish FSB Awards, where they scooped the community award.

Last year, the company fundraised more than £8,000 for the charity Hamish Dear’s Warm Hugs and donated a further £20,000 to other local causes and charities.

Nicola said: “We are a company with a big heart and do things for the right reason. We aren’t a tick box company.

“We’ve a fantastic team who are extremely hard working.”