‘Calculated risks’ have paid off for SMS owner Kevin
Amazing career of Southern Maintenance Solutions boss
One of the first things Kevin Tarbox said to me when we caught up over a Zoom call late last year was that he didn’t think his life was interesting enough to do an article on.
By the end of our call, I begged to differ. Trying to condense the experiences Kevin shared with me – from partying on the James Bond Octopussy yacht, to sitting on the thrones of 17th-century French kings – has made this one of the most interesting, but most difficult, business interviews I’ve had to write up.
The 64-year-old father-of-two now runs successful commercial heating and air-conditioning firm Southern Maintenance Solutions UK Ltd (SMS), with friend and business partner Dave Brown, and lives in Upper Bucklebury with his wife Marie and three dogs, but says it has been a lot of chance encounters – and not being scared to take a risk – that has got him there.
“There have been a lot of risks that haven’t paid off for me too,” he adds, “but I didn’t let it put me off and I would throw caution to the wind, particularly in my younger days.
“And without my friends and family, half the things I have done would never have happened.”
Kevin grew up in Lambourn, Winterbourne, Boxford and Thatcham and left school at 15, taking on a few different jobs, before his father became concerned he was becoming a job-hopper and persuaded him to work for him at his transport company.
In 1974 the company secured a contract to deliver goods, by road, from the UK to Iran.
Although describing it as “a very exciting part of my life”, Kevin was robbed at knifepoint and caught up in the troubles that erupted in Iran, which led to him spending a freezing night on a mountain in Eastern Turkey with a group of local monks.
By now the UK recession was biting and Kevin briefly set out on his own transport business adventure, delivering tractors to Dagenham, before setting up Redline Parcels with friends in the early 1980s.
Outside of work, at that same time, Kevin was volunteering at The Gateway Club, working with adults with learning difficulties, after his friend, Ray Childs, introduced him to the project.
“It was a bit of an eye-opener, but I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Kevin says. “We developed the club profile to make it more interesting and exciting, even taking some of the young adults to Spain on holidays.”
Ray, who worked in council-run residential care services, and Kevin decided to open a small private home for young adults on Stroud Green in Newbury; the first of its kind in the area. Soon they had several small care homes for two to three people around Newbury.
In 1986, Kevin headed back into education and completed a two-year full-time Education and Training diploma at King Alfred College, Winchester.
After finishing his diploma, Ray and Kevin decided to go their separate ways and Kevin bought a nine-bedroom country house in a tiny Welsh village and developed it into a care home.
He came up against a host of obstacles, but persevered and the care home became an integral part of the local community, as it still is today.
While living in Wales however Kevin’s then wife, who was German, became homesick and eventually they moved back to be near her family.
A chance conversation there saw him buy into a small holiday home business in the South of France, where he began living throughout the summer, with winters back in Germany.
Another lucky break came when he was delivering bread for his wife’s family bakery to an American service base and stumbled on the idea of hiring out the summer lets to service families.
Life in France was “crazy”, and he found himself partying aboard the famous Octopussy yacht in San Tropez and
arriving home with 70 bottles of Cristal Champagne three days later.
“I ended up with 22 mobile homes of my own, but that came to an abrupt end when, among other things, the US significantly reduced their presence Europe,” Kevin adds.
“In my infinite wisdom I then rented a bar on a campsite just outside San Tropez.”
Then the campsite closed for a year for refurbishment and Kevin was now without an income and his marriage had ended. He returned to the UK, moving in with his sister in Enborne.
Fate intervened again through another friend and Kevin found himself working back in care for Ray Childs. Kevin eventually went into business with Ray again – buying the three-bedroom Hillview Farm, in Ashmore Green, in 1997, which sat on five acres of land.
When Ray had to pull out a few months later, for personal reasons, Kevin managed to find the money to buy him out. Once again he owned his own business.
“I extended the property into an eight-bedroom care home, then went on to build another eight-bedroom residential care home on the site,” he says. “We were asked to develop another six-bedroom specialist residential care home there.
“We ended up with three, first class care homes at Hillview Farm and eventually I retired from care service after 30 years of supporting adults with learning difficulties.”
A further chance chat with his bookkeeper saw his involvement with SMS begin to evolve in 2007.
Her father owned the struggling business and, when “curiosity got the better of me” and ignoring a friend’s advice, he bought into the business.
Now, nearly 15 years later, he has turned the company’s fortunes around.
“My first job when I started was to move SMS from a large maintenance contract and it turned out to the best thing we ever did,” he explains.
“In the first five years we went through a lot of turmoil. It was challenging, but we have a great positive team and between us we made some very quick and very positive moves.”
He moved the company away from general domestic work and into the commercial sector, securing contracts with a large number of schools, government buildings and public buildings, as well as a growing number of local blue-chip businesses and
employing 28 people locally.
Last year they increased turnover by £1m YOY and were ranked 17th on the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce Top 100 SMEs as well as being finalists in the Tomorrow’s Facilities Management awards 2021.
“We have just had our highest turnover in one month,” he says, “which bodes well for where we are as a business.
“We have also just received our MSC certification too, which means we can now work on green energy applications like air source heat pump solutions.
“I don’t feel I really had a personal strategy for a working life apart from perhaps taking a calculated risk. However seeing
something that others perhaps don’t, is sometimes luck so I’m just lucky, I guess.”