Something to shout about

Published:  26 January, 2012

In an industry where it’s all about people, mutual respect and the sharing of knowledge, the ability to identify with both merchants’ and suppliers’ issues is an added bonus. Lisa Arcangeli reports.

Robin Beal, Unimer’s trading director has worked on both sides of the business. He began his career in sales with architectural ironmongery firm
Henderson Hardware in 1988 and in 1991, was appointed as its sales director.

His next move continued this career path as sales director of Hunter Plastics, a role he occupied until 2005. Then, he switched sides and joined Wigan-based independent, Ainscough Building Supplies, as that merchant’s managing director.

“I wanted a change and working for a merchant gave me more of an insight into the business. Of course, as a supplier you get to know merchants, but when you are one of them, you become a ‘brother’ as well as a colleague,” he says.

Mr Beal was instrumental in introducing Ainscough to Unimer as well
as getting the merchant to become a member of NBG.

“It was an interesting process and it got me involved with buying groups,” he says, although during his time at Hunter Mr Beal had also made sure that the plumbing and drainage systems company signed up as a Unimer member.

“This work and my view of both sides of the business has certainly helped me in my current role,” he says, “because Unimer partners with both merchants and suppliers. When I talk to either side, I can empathise with where they are coming from because I have been there myself,” he explains.

Mr Beal joined Unimer in 2007, initially as the organisation’s supply chain director. In 2008 there were some changes made, due partly to retirements and also to the downturn. It was decided to restructure, so Mr Beal stepped into a dual role which made best use of his background to head Unimer’s new department, covering the entire industry.

Within the team of four, three key account managers are member-facing. Ian Young covers the North and Jim Dore the South. Both men’s brief requires them to be out and about visiting members who require face-to-face dialogue.

“This makes sense,” says Mr Beal,“because it means that we target the companies that need to be seen, rather than paying visits in a haphazard way.”

Does that mean that some merchants get missed out? “It means that we go where we can make a difference,” he replies.

Trading co-ordinator Andrew Zeglovskis follows up those members who prefer to speak to someone over the phone. “More merchants and suppliers are choosing to use the phone and emails to communicate with us,” Mr Beal says. “They prefer to have the flexibility to send us their emails after hours, for example.”

Steve French joined last year and is Unimer’s supply chain manager. He and Mr Beal share supplier responsibility.  

This has worked well with both those large and small ‘partners’ who are time poor, but still in need of service and advice, he adds. “We may have a smaller team, than before, but I would argue that we are more efficient and more effective,” he comments.

The results bear testimony to this. For the year ended 30 April 2011, Unimer processed £876m of trans-
actional value in the 12-month period, an all-time record for the organisation.

The turnover represented a 14% year-on-year growth and this performance can be compared to an overall market growth in turnover of around 7%, much of which had been generated by material price growth.
In processing the record level of turnover and a record volume of 1.3 million incoming transactions, Unimer generated £18.5m of added value for its merchant members, a 14.9% year-on-year increase in what Unimer has added to its members’ profits.

There was also growth in membership with 47 new companies recruited in the last 12 months along with
continued growth in new supplier agreements that saw 41 new suppliers added to Unimer’s portfolio.

“We are definitely working smarter and, by also providing our trading teams with the wealth of information we have here, we can ensure our members get much more from a meeting with us,” he says.
While using what is available is certainly paying off, Unimer, says Mr Beal, is also demanding more from its systems to create more information and data.

With the recent board approval of major investment in IT, focused on a project which over the next few months will replace 90% of all of the major IT systems run within Unimer, the new system will be fully integrated and will set the business up with a reliable,  supportable and flexible system that should be good for the next 10 years, Mr Beal explains.

Looking at the bigger picture – ‘Grow Your Business with Unimer’ – the first Unimer Supplier Conference held in October was a huge success.

Over 140 delegates, representing a wide variety of supplier companies, joined the organisation at the National Homebuilding & Renovating Centre for a day’s event to explore in-depth how they could grow their business with United Merchants.

Suppliers were reminded of the benefits Unimer can offer with Unimer On-Line – an exclusive members-only a portal to help merchants and suppliers to streamline the ledger processes.

The day also explained the many different ways suppliers could expand their existing marketing communications plans by integrating Unimer’s cost-effective offerings.

Benefits derived from other business opportunities such as eBuildingSupplies and Green Energy Centre were also explored in detail.

“Procurement for Housing came to us and started the ball rolling. It made us think that there could be many other areas where we could add value to our merchant members,” he says. “Unimer is successful because we are very good at managing the relationships with our suppliers and our members. The art is to ensure we always keep in front of them.

“The Unimer Supplier Conference was important because it enabled us to reach out to over 140 of our 500 supplier members,” he says.

Some have a trading agreement with Unimer, but many did not know all the things it can do for them. With business in the merchant marketplace still very mixed, it is difficult sometimes to gauge whether there is light at the end of the tunnel. “When you talk to merchants, not many people are breaking records,” Mr Beal says.

“When you ask someone how they are doing, their answer depends on what their expectation is, rather than their results. Price inflation for construction products is higher than it is for other sectors, Mr Beal points out. “It’s unusual for us to have this kind of problem in such a depressed market. But, in theory, it brings top-line growth for everybody.

“I was talking to some merchants the other day and they said their sales were above what they had achieved last year, but when you subtracted price inflation, they were going backwards.

“That’s because merchants can’t measure volume very easily, unlike, say, a pipe manufacturer who can measure the quantities and lengths of his products.

“If a merchant made £5m last year and £5.1 this year, did they sell more products or less? The merchant has to make a judgement based on what level of inflation is. If inflation is running at 6% to 8% and you are only 1% or 2% up, you have to assume that you are actually down in volume.

“Price inflation creates an expectation and even the industry bodies can’t agree on what the real figure is,
although some of the industry bodies are setting it at between 6-8%.”
What about the future?

“If different industry bodies offered different things to their members, it adds tremendous value to the member and to the industry. Moving forward, we are looking at a number of ways to break new ground for our members with their wholehearted participation.

“After all, the biggest threat to business are the transactions that go direct from the merchant to the manufacturer. It’s like the two bus companies that each think the other is their main threat when in fact their mutual threat is the train!”

Unimer is moving forward and will continue to find ways to add further value for its member and supplier partners.

This article first appeared in the November 2011 edition of Builders' Merchants News.

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