In our Meet the Maker series, we interview the amazing people and brands we collaborate with and who help us create, install and promote our connected technology. This time, we talk to building contractor and master electrician Russell Hewes on how fostering a culture of emotional intelligence at work has helped his business thrive and led him to partner with Equippd.
Russell Hewes is chatting to me on a very hot day in July from his car. I’m worried he’s going to overheat but he assures me that the AC is on and he’s chilling at a comfortable 19 degrees. Russell is kindly taking the time out of his busy day to talk to me about his flourishing business, his relationship with the Equippd team and why he launched his podcast, The Journey.
Russell was an electrical contractor for 10 years before he decided to set up his eponymous business in 2016, which encompasses electricals, development and plumbing services.
‘I was subcontracting for 40 different builders and I was fed up with it, so I decided to pivot and become a building contractor,’ he explains. ‘We are firmly still an electrical company but we’ve pivoted into transforming people’s homes through our services, through electrics, builders and plumbers.’
So far, so normal. But what sets Russell’s brand apart is that he is on a mission, not just to get the job done, but to improve people’s lives along the way, from his employees to his clients. ‘My passion is trying to improve other people’s lives, which to my mind is a key part of my core values. I truly believe that we will transform people’s lives, firstly by giving people who work for us purpose in what they do and secondly through people’s homes.
‘We provide light through our electricians, space through our builders and warmth through our plumbers. Our culture and values that we talk about all the time are empathy, integrity, honesty, loyalty. In the middle market, there is anxiety about the builder you pick, so I feel like I’m selling trust. I’m still not perfect, I can’t pick up every single detail, but as a company we try to remove all the anxieties involved – you know, everyone’s heard of somebody being ripped off, the builder leaving. We would never leave. We never give up. That’s something I learned through my 10 years as an electrician. It’s an arduous journey.’
This journey has shaped so much for Russell, from his attitude to life, his relationship with his employees and his reputation with clients. Part of this is truly understanding that, for his customers, home is where the heart is. ‘The home is a sacred place and most contractors don’t understand that. They just go there to get the money and don’t understand the concept that you’re going into someone’s house.
‘I understand it because I was born in Kenya and moved over here when I was 12. I unfortunately lost my dad at that time so, for me, my home was somewhere I missed so much and I remember what that means to me. So, I train my guys and give them insight and understanding that we’re not just going into someone’s house and building, we are transforming what is a sacred space. If we can make that better – and this is the third element that I think I bring in – the people who live there are going to be happy and that will transcend into other people’s lives, too.’
Drive and ambition
Russell knows that a company is only as good as its people, so he takes time, energy and money to invest in his apprentices, giving young people a leg up into the notoriously cut-throat building industry. He reflects on his past and the challenges he faced to explain why he wants to give back.
‘My journey to becoming a master electrician was filled with so many obstacles. I know a lot of people don’t make it because they lack the passion and perseverance required to get you through. Being a young mixed-race man – you know, I’ve got dreadlocks and stuff – I found that there were even more obstacles to get over to get to the success that I have. So I always remember thinking, I’d love to help other people to make their life a bit easier. For example, when I was an apprentice, it was a similar time to now, in that people weren’t taking on apprentices, so I had to go and become a labourer on a building site for almost two years. I would wait for this electrical company to turn up on site so I could prove my worth. Lo and behold, a job came up and I grasped that opportunity with both hands. They hired me instantly.’
Russell fizzes with energy – I can feel it coming through the screen on our Zoom call. He’s friendly, honest and clearly passionate about helping people. I want to know where he gets his drive from.
‘I want to help as many people as I can on my own journey to success. I’d be lying if I said my primary focus is helping other people first – my end goal is being respected and having success but attached to that, my primary goal is to help people. I hire people to give them purpose. I don’t just immediately hire the best, I have an ability to see potential. I’ve been hurt by this many times! I mean, you can see someone’s true potential when you meet them, but it doesn’t ever mean they’ll realise it or they’ll even want to reach it themselves. That’s a big lesson I’m learning right now. The way I’ve built my company is that I meet someone like me, and think what environment would I have thrived in, and then create that for them. I still think that people can achieve and it’s giving them purpose while earning money. My ambitions are so big. I say this to everyone in my company: whatever your ambitions are, you should be able to achieve them because I am going to the north star. Whether you want to drive Ferraris or have a relaxed home life or travel the world, you should be able to really achieve it. All I ask is eight hours of hard work and I’ll do the rest.’
Such emotional intelligence is rare in the building trade. I wonder how on earth Russell manages to stick to his guns in a notoriously flaky industry. ‘The building industry is built on subcontractors who are there just to do a job and don’t care about the client. It’s a race to the bottom in terms of prices. If you’re not strong enough to own your own value – I mean, no one ever puts you on a course telling you how to run a business and price yourself – so you’ve got these amazing tradesmen suddenly going into the big bad world and there are a lot of wolves and sharks and their business model is preying on people like them and making discrepancies about prices. You become so frustrated that you either become like them or you give up and quit. I was like, it can’t just be sheep and wolves, there’s got to be an inbetween somewhere.’
Reputation is everything
So, how does he embody those bedrock values of empathy, integrity and honesty? ‘I created a reputation. You know, most electricians turn up late, they are untidy, by 3 o’clock they’re gone. I just flipped it all on its head. We would work 8am-5pm, then we’d stay late on site which was really important for team bonding, as it was such a busy and intense atmosphere from 8am-5pm. From 5pm-8.30pm, when you have the site to yourself, you can really bond, you can get a lot of work done. So I started building this culture of hard work, going above and beyond. All these building contractors started taking notice, and I started getting really nice projects, which is where I met [Equippd co-founder] Matt.’
Russell tells me about his first project with the Equippd team on Earlsfield Road in London, and why their continued collaboration is so successful. ‘It was an amazing project, an unbelievable one, where the client had a lot of attention to detail and really wanted to make the place her own. And it was the first time I’d met another subcontractor that had the same passion and drive for trying to constantly improve. We stayed in touch and helped each other on some sizable projects. It’s been a great partnership and the company trajectories have always been side by side in alignment and growth. It’s great to see other companies striving to do the same thing.’
What does Russell do when he’s not on site, managing his growing team or relaxing with his family and friends? Reading self-help books. ‘I’ve been doing a lot of work on myself – my friends call me Mr Self-Help because I read a lot of self-help books – so I guess I’ve covered all my own things that had happened to me in the past.
He also records a podcast, The Journey, in which he interviews ordinary people about the trials and tribulations of their journey to success. ‘I bought my house, I have a really nice car, before Covid I was going on five holidays a year, I’ve got a beautiful family and friends but I was like, is this it? Is this all we work for? This can’t be it. I still wanted to give back but how can I leverage my very little time? So, I thought of the podcast.
‘You know, I’ve read every book, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, all of the successful people, and what I notice with them is that you get a bit of the reality, a bit of the hardships, but you never get that much of how difficult and how tough it actually is. I thought, I’m going to document my journey so far because I wanted to get to know the lives of people. The everyday person who I work with is just as – if not more – interesting than these celebrities or people who are placed in front of us as heroes. I truly believe that, because I work with and am friends with so many amazing successful people or who are on their journey to success. You can pick and listen, everyone has nuggets of wisdom to offer.’
And with that, we say our goodbyes and I thank Russell again for sitting in his car to talk to me on such a hot day. He grins cheekily and says, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m in a Tesla,’ before signing off. Passion, honesty, grit and a sense of humour: I’m fascinated to see where Russell takes his business and what projects RH x EQ dream up next.
Read more about the Earlsfield Road project here
Listen to all episodes of the Journey podcast here