Conference: a solution at last 2/2

Published:  19 August, 2011

“I worry for the suppliers,” said Paul Bence, managing director of George Bence & Sons. “It’s the first conference in three years and they were being pulled in different directions.

“We are members of NMBS and will be attending that conference. The national merchants go to the ‘all-industry’ conference and I have no interest in speaking with them,” Mr Bence said. “It provides a great platform for our company to discuss current opportunities and issues with fellow independent merchants from across the UK in relaxed, informal surroundings.”

Ken Pepperrell is adamant: “I think it is too early to have one conference, never mind two.” The managing director of PA Seccombe & Son doesn’t see the sense in attending conference “when we have at least another year of hardship in front of the industry”, he said. “Although we are recovering a little bit, it’s not like business is flying along. We’re only experiencing a recovery because the recession was so awful.

“I think it crazy that the two organisations could not get together and reach an agreement. The merchant sector is so close to gaining recognition as a unified industry, why drive a wedge into it now?” he asked.

“Now is the time we all need to be united, as we emerge from a terrible recession. One conference would help enormously, but with a ‘one voice’ theme. I would have trouble supporting one conference as things stand, but there was no-way that I could support two.”

“Great news to hear there’s to be just one conference,” said Peter Buttle, managing director of Buttle plc. “But, I think it’s time for the nationals to speak up and tell us why they would attend this event.

“Anyone organising the conference needs to examine what its content will be about. It needs to apply to independents and nationals – there are enough topics where we have common needs,” Mr Buttle said.

“If the nationals attend, we want to see their decision-makers there. If they are only sending their acquisitions teams, there is no point to them going to the conference.

“I am really pleased to see that there has again been a coming together of the membership organisations. Let’s hope for an interesting and useful agenda and that business continues to improve so that attendance is high.”

Andrew Cope, the managing director of Chandlers, was concerned that: “there are clearly personalities involved,” he said.

In his opinion, “the old NMBS conference was a much more businesslike one than the BMF’s. With too broad a spread of people, the agenda becomes compromised as to what you can talk about.

“You end up with a more generalised dialogue. We are all one industry and there has to be a benefit for us to all get together.”

Mr Cope says that since there are no longer any strong regional BMF meetings, with regional management from national merchants, this lack of interfacing means that the industry is missing the “opportunity for useful regular dialogue that would take place.”

“We will not attend a NMBS conference if it does not co-operate with the BMF,” said Simon Blaxill, managing director of the long-established independent. “I don’t understand why a separate conference is required. Even if people are not BMF members, I don’t see why they have to canvass against the Federation.

“I have attended a number of conferences and have never felt intimidated by the nationals,” he said. “They have a huge market share and naturally the manufacturers value the opportunity to get alongside the nationals as well as the independents at such an event.”

Mr Blaxill is concerned that some independents may view the conference as just an opportunity for a nice holiday. “I’m not knocking that, but let’s not confuse that with the business element,” he said.

“It ought to be about all of us pulling together as an industry and taking advantage of opportunities to influence the Government on initiatives like the Green Deal.

“Conference should be inclusive,” he stated. “I cannot see the benefits of fragmenting the industry at this point.”

David Kilburn, chief executive of MKM, also sits on the board of NMBS. The NMBS 2012 Conference was unanimously agreed, he said, on the basis that nothing else was happening next year.

“Two conferences just make the industry look foolish,” Mr Kilburn stated. “There is a massive issue surrounding the Green Deal and our market could be savaged by the likes of Sainsbury, Tesco and Marks & Spencer,” he said.

“The industry has no collective voice and the BMF is crumbling. At present, it represents too small a percentage of the merchant industry,” he believes.

He is also concerned about the “friction” that exists between Unimer, NMBS and the BMF. “This is ridiculous,” he said, especially since as subscribers, we subscribe to them all.”

Mr Kilburn said the industry should be setting the agenda as to where BMF and NMBS should be moving, and not the other way around. “There are lots of changes that need to be made,” he said.

He proposed that anyone who is a member of NMBS or of Unimer, rather than paying a fee to each organisation, should instead use some of the residual to confer automatic membership of the BMF.

“That way, the Federation could rightly say that it truly represents the entire industry,” he said. “Then we will try and persuade Travis Perkins and Wolseley to come back into the fold, making the BMF the collective voice of the industry.”

One conference is essential, Mr Kilburn said. But the content is of the utmost importance. “It cannot be the same old stuff. I’m not interested in listening to presentations on transport or renewables. I want something that will excite me to grow and develop my business,” he stated.

There must be strong element of entrepreneurism at the conference, he argued. “There could be plenary sessions for delegates as options – but not as the main content of conference,” he said.

“I want to learn from people,” Mr Kilburn said. “I also want to network with the people from Travis Perkins, Jewson, Grafton and Wolseley, they're nice people.”

At one time the conference was a social event as well as a business one, “These days, companies cannot justify taking their partners, so they send two company representatives instead who are not often their key people, thus diluting the benefits to the delegates,” Mr Kilburn said.

The NMBS All-Industry Conference 2012 is on June 21-24 at the Hotel Don Carlos, Marbella, Spain.

This article was first published in the June issue of Builders' Merchants News.


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