This month, unLTD’s Ash Birch heads to city centre Szechuan specialists China Red to grab lunch with Daniel Lowe, Managing Director of Sheffield-based office fit-out firm, The DL Company, to discuss his 25-years as the third generation at the helm of the family business…

Hi Dan, so you began working at The DL Company in 1999 – was it always the plan to join the family business?
Yes and no. Through the retirement of somebody else at the company, I was given the opportunity to go into the business.

We’d never actually had a conversation about it as a family. It was always open, and I’d done things like van driving when I was 18 and 19, in the summer holidays to subsidise the usual student lifestyle, but actually working in the business full time was a different conversation.

I suppose I’d always had it in the back of my mind and it was a bit of a no brainer when the question came up because I still had family in the business, and if I hadn’t stepped up, it would have changed the direction of the business.

Daniel Lowe

Did you feel a sense of responsibility then?
Not as much as I do now, because I was young and didn’t think about it in the same way. Now I’m older, and as I’ve gone through it, I’ve had thoughts on whether I’m doing this for myself or for somebody else? and the answer is, a bit of both.

We’re coming into 50 years as a business – so I’ve worked half the lifespan of the company – and I do feel responsible for that and everybody that works there, because it’s the people that make it great. I’m really pleased to be able to say that we’ve managed to survive another 25 years and I’ve not ruined the place! Hopefully, it’s around for another 50 years, but I don’t think I’ll be fit enough to be around then.

Could there be a fourth generation taking over then?
Possibly. Again, like with me, that conversation hasn’t been had. There’s no master plan. It’s a challenge for anybody who’s in a family business. Does the business define you, or do you define the business? When you’re working, you want to have achievements, so it’s important you put your own stamp on it and create your own version of it.

What was your focus when you first came into the business?
I was doing the job I’m doing now, which is lots of different things; It can be salesperson, project manager, designer, sometime accountant. I would hesitate to say builder because the lads would laugh at me, as I’m not a practical person in the way they are.

I think at the time it was more a case of, this is the way you do it, you carry it on. Over the years, you’re trying to grow yourself and grow in your knowledge to be able to offer more and move forwards.

“Before you know it, you’re delivering a full office fit out, supplying the furniture, and you’re office designers. From British Steel to BOC and from SBD to Simoda, we’ve worked for multi-nationals and local start-ups, forming relationships that have lasted for decades.”

You mentioned your dad, who was one of the founders, how did the business come into being?
It was started by my mum’s dad, so my grandfather, and my dad. People think that the DL in the name is Daniel Lowe, but it’s Dobson and Lowe. They started it together in 1974.

They worked at the same firm, which was a shelving and racking company called Wakefield’s, in Nottingham, and they decided to have a go themselves.

How did the business develop from shelving and racking to include full office fit outs?
Shelving and racking was how they became known in Sheffield and the area was obviously a major manufacturing city then. It’s interesting because we play a big part in a lot of company’s history.

If you think about it, we were organising and designing the engine room of the business. That carried on until the mid-80s, when we started to supply steel partitions, which would create a free-standing room with a lid on it that could be used as an office for a storeman.

Once we could do that, then you get into the more conventional stud and plaster board partitioning that you see now in the modern office. We’ve done miles of that over the years.

Over the last 20 years, there hasn’t been as many jobs where there’s lots of solely partitioning jobs, so you’ve got to do everything. Before you know it, you’re delivering a full office fit out, supplying the furniture, and you’re office designers. From British Steel to BOC and from SBD to Simoda, we’ve worked for multi-nationals and local start-ups, forming relationships that have lasted for decades.

How has the world of office fit outs changed over your time with the company?
The demands on the modern office are so different to what they were, even four years ago. If you’d asked people then, what’s an office space? Most people are giving you a single answer. But now there’s a myriad of options and opinions.

Daniel Rowe

There’s a staff retention question that comes into play now. People want choice and are trying to attract younger people who are used to having that choice. You’re trying to get them out of the house, to get them into the office, so you’ve got to make it attractive.

Covid accelerated about 20-years of change in those four years. Working from home was always going to happen but it very much influences what people want from a workspace. It’s not simply about fitting 60-people into a small office space anymore. We had to be flexible and adapt, but if my dad read that, he would say, well we had to be flexible and adapt too, or we’d still be doing shelving and racking.

We’ve always tried to stay one step ahead and give people what they want.

Looking back over your 25 years, what are you most proud of?
The thing I’m most proud of is the people and what the business stands for. Both the people who work in the company and the people that we deal with as customers in the area. We’re a local company with access to all the market has to offer and we know the kind of challenges that people face locally and their outlook, because it isn’t too different to ours.

We had a Joiner, Ian, who worked for us for 39 years; Steve, who worked for us for 40 years; and now Martin, who’s retiring after 40 years with us next month. We call them the DL Legends. They started in 1978 and 1979 so they grew up on the tools with us and I take great pride in them having been able to work with us for that period of time.

That kind of contribution to a firm is priceless and I want people to feel they can be with us for as long as they want to. It’s like any family, which probably sounds a bit cliched, but I view it as everyone being part of the family.

Especially for the lads on site, because they have to trust each other with power tools. Fortunately, they don’t have to trust me with that!

Take yourself back to 1999, would you do it all again?
I’d be daft to say no! But yeah, absolutely I would.

Where we ate:

China Red
China Red’s braised aubergine in sourly sauce

As this month marks the changing of the Chinese New Year to the Year of the Dragon, we headed down to authentic Szechaun specialists, China Red, for a spicy spot of lunch.

Just off The Moor, on Rockingham Gate, China Red has a reputation for being one of the best Chinese restaurants anywhere in the city, and having already visited a couple of times in recent years, I was very excited at the prospect of both my chat with the ever-good company, Daniel Lowe, and some Sezchaun-inspired spice.

As it’s lunch, we skipped the starters, and dived straight into the mains. Covering the veggie and vegan bases, I opted for the braised aubergine in sourly sauce, accompanied by steamed rice and stir-fried flat bean and chilli. Daniel opted for duck with pepper and pickled chill, again accompanied by steamed rice, and we washed it down with traditional Chinese tea.

The food arrives in no time at all, which means Daniel is left with unenviable task of answering my questions while trying to enjoy the delicious food on offer. He bravely soldiers on and makes light work of his succulent looking duck.

My braised aubergine dish is fast becoming one of my favourite dishes to be found anywhere; the kick of spice and the hint of bitterness from the sourly sauce is a perfect way to treat an aubergine, in my humble opinion, and I could eat buckets of it.

For a hearty lunch, that makes a change from your standard café or supermarket fare, China Red is a fantastic alternative and one we highly recommend.

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