An interview with North East businesswoman, Sara Halman Thompson, founder of BuyMetalOnline.
What inspired you to move to the metal industry? What was your path to become the BMO director?
Our family business is sheet metal. My father, Eddie Halman, founded his company, Amerex Ltd, on the day I was born on the 25th April 1980. Since I was 14, I have worked in the sales office of the now Amerex Group during school and university holidays, so I have over twenty years of knowledge of sheet metal.
You didn’t start trading metals straight after the university, did you?
No. After studying German at Liverpool University, I was initially drawn to online advertising, and also wanted to experience life in London. In 2005 I got a job with Zenithoptimedia in central London, in the then-online department, Zed media, and learned very quickly that online would be an integral element for the majority of business in the future. I have always wanted to run my own company, and after six years online experience at Zenithoptimedia, it seemed obvious to me to marry my online and steel sales knowledge, so I set up Online Metal Ltd and the website www.buymetalonline.co.uk in 2013 with my business partner and brother, Ross Halman.
Where did you get the idea of selling metals online?
At that time there was a huge gap in the market for online steel trading companies. After conducting lots of market research, we realised there were many people who only needed a small piece of metal to make repairs to their car body or house. They would buy a full sheet from their local steel stockholder, store the remainder and possibly never use it. We wanted to develop a website that could save our customers time and money and which offered sheet metal cut to size quickly and easily and with no minimum order. We would then deliver it direct to our customer’s door.
Now more companies are offering similar solutions, but we were one of the first to market, and our unique selling proposition is that we specialise in sheet metal, and have, as a group, over 35 years experience in the industry.
When did you realise that moving online was a must?
I knew that online would be the way of the future in 2005 when I joined Zed Media. So, when I set up Online Metal Ltd in 2013, I knew that it would be the online arm of the Amerex Group.
Social media has also changed the business. Which tools and channels did you find most effective in terms of building the brand, and which one in terms of sales and conversion?
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest are all great platforms for brand building. As well as Adwords remarketing. In terms of ROI (Return on Investment), Adwords is king. I love the ability to track through Adwords and analytics. My background is direct response marketing, and I love how you can track and analyse data in order to pinpoint the most profitable key words/sales channels. It is amazing how you can use this data to manipulate a campaign over time to produce the best results. Google Analytics is one of my favourite tools.
What challenges do you face as a director, and how do you overcome them?
In the early stages, the focus is on building the business and investing money back into it in order to grow it. I didn’t take a pay cheque for the first three years, and that put me under a lot of pressure financially. I would also take my work with me if I ever went on holiday, as there was nobody else to answer customer enquiries. It was tough, especially when you have young children who you want to enjoy spending time with on holiday. However, Online Metal Ltd is now five years old, and we have a great team of people working with us who I trust, so I can take small breaks now and not worry.
Sheet metal is a male-dominated industry. What is it like to work in this industry as a woman?
I think being a woman in a male-dominated industry, whatever it is, does set you apart. Sometimes this a good thing as it can make you more memorable to a buyer. However today there are more and more female sales managers and also buyers coming into the industry, which is brilliant.
In almost every industry, female directors need to work harder to gain respect of the older, male workers. What is your approach to managing people?
I work long hours and put every effort into my business and expect our staff to work hard too, which they do. I am very lucky that we have a great team. My business has almost doubled in turnover every year since I founded it, and I think the significance of this gains respect among male and female staff alike.
Can you tell us about any habits you have/things you do to set up success every day?
I truly believe in the power of positivity – eight out of ten times you will get the sale if you put 100% effort in thinking you are going to win it.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
The early days of setting up a company are difficult, but if you work hard and stay positive, no matter how hard it can feel sometimes, you will stay on the right track.
What was the most courageous thing you’ve ever done as a businesswoman?
Resigning from my salary job and setting up my company, knowing I would not have a pay cheque for at least the first couple of years is definitely the most courageous thing I have ever done.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Probably a list of negotiating techniques from my manager Nick Burcher at Zenithoptimedia. They have been extremely useful over the years.
You mentioned you would take your phone and answer customers’ queries on holiday. How did you manage to achieve work-life balance?
I didn’t at first. I had my second child in 2014, and only managed to take two days maternity leave as I had just founded the company, so initially there was no balance. However, we have a great team now, and I am able to turn my phone off at 7pm in the evening and at weekends, most of the time, as long as the customer is answered the next working day. I believe the work-life balance is very important, and I want to enjoy spending time with my children, especially while they are young.