Leading by example 2
Published: 21 May, 2010
The BMF acted quickly to address this problem, but it found that it could not get merchants onboard straightaway. “We are finally making considerable headway with some merchant-based schemes with suppliers,” he says.
“That was one of the reasons so many people turned up for our renewables conference,” he believes. “It was the most over-subscribed of anything we have done in recent years.”
Merchants need to develop a partnership with their suppliers, Mr Parker says. “Some of these suppliers will be new to them or even new to our industry. A supplier who has developed a new product needs for it to be visible. They also need it to be stocked somewhere and to be displayed and if merchants won’t do it they will find someone else who will or will sell direct. They also need people who can talk about it. Merchants must do their bit about promoting new products. We can help them with staff training.”
The BMF has also been busy liaising with the trade association of building inspectors to ensure that they are not enforcing regulations too quickly and make sure members know what is coming. “There is no point in insisting that a wall is built to a certain U value if there are no materials available that will enable it to be achieved,” he explains.
To ensure that members are kept up-to-date at all times, the BMF recently mailed out its first ‘activity sheet’. This gives members an update of what the BMF is doing. “That way, if a merchant has strong views about some issues and they don’t see us pursuing them, they can email us the issue they would like us to follow up.”
He admits that a great deal of the benefits of work the BMF does spills over to merchants who are not members. “There is the temptation for some merchants to say everything that the BMF does can be obtained elsewhere or by default.
“However, if everyone took that attitude, we would disappear and the industry would become chaotic. Who would speak up about issues then?”
The internet, he says, will play an increasingly bigger part in the merchants’ world. It certainly saves the customer shoe leather.
“The internet, however, is not receiving the amount of interest that the renewables conference did,” he says. Merchants can see orders slipping through their fingers and into the hands of the energy companies very clearly, whereas online trading is still perceived as an intangible.
“Very few merchants are successfully trading on the internet,” Mr Parker comments. “Some products like power tools lend themselves to online trading. It gets more difficult when it comes to bricks, blocks, sand and cement, but it is not impossible.
“However, merchants need to be aware of the internet. They need to have their systems set up and ready to roll so that if their competitor suddenly goes online and their customers suddenly start to move their business, the merchant can switch on quickly.” Websites are not a ‘fit and forget product’. They need to be updated.
“All our members have different computer systems and they will have to talk to their computer systems suppliers if they want an integrated system. We can highlight the opportunities, but it is up to the merchant to take the final step for themselves,” he says.
Half of the Federation’s resources go into running the apprenticeship scheme. “Where a merchant qualifies for the scheme they can get something for nothing. It is amazing that more merchants don’t take them up,” he comments.
The scheme is free of charge for employers in England. For BMF members in Scotland and Wales, matched funding is often available through the BMTT.
“The BMF apprenticeship scheme provides the ideal way to encourage staff members to learn new skills and to enhance the ones they already have through a structured programme that provides a nationally recognised qualification.”
The scheme is open to staff of all ages, particularly 16-18 and 18-21; over 25 numbers are rationed by the Government. Its flexible format means that staff continue to work while they learn, minimising any disruption to company responsibilities.
One of the most important features of the BMF apprenticeship scheme, he points out, is that it has been designed specifically for the builders’ merchant industry and offers appropriate and relevant benefits for your type of business.
“Merchants who have the best trained staff will be the winners when business comes back,” Mr Parker says. “If you think it is expensive to train, you will be amazed out how expensive it is not to,” he warns.
OFSTED, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills recently audited the BMF. It reported that the BMF had improved vastly and that most of the apprentices and employers involved with its training were happy with the end result.
The recession may be over, but this is as good as it is going to get for some time, Mr Parker believes.
“That is why we have to make the most of things. Those who train, those that are innovative and who have partnerships with suppliers and who have new products to show to their customers and end-users will be the ones who succeed.”
This feature first appeared in the March edition of Builders' Merchants News.