Designer outlet: Thistle Trade Group on adapting and thriving in trying times

It’s been a challenging 18 months for this husband and wife-led construction firm

Sean and Lee Cairns
Sean and Lee Cairns

When husband-and-wife team Lee and Sean Cairns started their construction business five years ago, they could have hardly predicted the challenges of the last 18 months.

Thistle Trade Group specialises in home renovations and setting up the company was a natural vehicle for their varied talents.

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Sean’s background is in industrial construction while Lee spent 20 years in the finance sector.

Lanark Road

The couple were experienced in renovation work for their own property portfolio, but now they work for private clients in the residential sector, taking on restorations, extensions and home conversions.

Sean says: “For the last 18 months, it has really been a case of adapt to survive. We have had to plan for only very small groups of tradespeople working together to fit in with Covid rules.

“The logistics have become a lot more complicated. We’ve expanded the office team because we have to do so much more scheduling of the workforce and the materials.

“With shortages and supply chain issues, we are now using different suppliers, many of them more local, which has helped sawmills and small companies as the larger ones struggled to keep up with demand.”

Picture: Contributed

Lee and Sean each have clearly defined roles in the company, something they believe is paramount to a smooth working relationship when it comes to a husband-and-wife team.

Sean says: “I go out to sites, project managing, meeting clients and keeping them up to date. Lee and her team work closer with architects, structural engineers and complete all the paperwork, red tape and planning.”

A large part of the job is to interpret what the client wants. From a sketch, or pictures from the internet or a magazine, the Thistle Trade team aims to source the items needed, cost the job, cover the planning, find the right people to design and build, and source materials, in the right order.

Lee says: “As well as that one-stop shop, we have clients coming to us with plans already in place and we just build the project for them.”

The Cairns both agree that clients have a much more clearly defined vision of what they want nowadays. Sean adds: “It seems everyone has had time to refine their visions. They come armed with mood boards and very precise details.”

The company covers Edinburgh, Fife and the Lothians, and a lot of their work involves adapting older houses for modern life. A typical recent project was a three-storey townhouse in Morningside, with two rooms on the ground floor knocked though to create a spectacular new kitchen and living space.

Sean says: “Projects like that can be quite an undertaking architecturally, but it is also about marrying traditional features –

doric pillars and intricate panelling, for instance – with a very contemporary kitchen style.”

The firm is equally happy matching existing cornicing, renovating period staircases and restoring traditional features, and many projects are a mix of restoration, building and installing contemporary modern comforts.

Of the current climate, Lee says: “We have to be careful what work we take on. In one week, we have had 19 new enquiries and each will require meetings, inspections and preparing quotes. You might get

19 people wanting to go ahead after all that, or none, but that is the nature of the business.”

The firm takes on approximately five large projects a year, with time around those to take on smaller jobs, depending on demand.

Proud of their customer service, Lee says: “Our clients always come to us through word of mouth recommendations.”

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