John Newcomb (left) with BMF director, Stewart Pierce, of Parker Building Supplies.

A leader with big ideas

Published:  20 November, 2012

John Newcomb, the BMF’s new managing director, is passionate about the role that trade federations play in their markets. In this exclusive Q&A for Builders’ Merchants News, he explains his vision for the Federation and how that will help all merchants’ businesses.

What clinched the deal for you to take this job?

I was looking for a fresh challenge in a new industry, which is exactly what this role offers. The board has a clear vision for the BMF, which requires both commercial acumen and first-hand experience within a trade association. My background, working in marketing, commercial and senior management positions with household brands (in the DIY and housewares industry), coupled with 15 years of active involvement with the British Home Enhancement Trade Association (BHETA), as president for the last two years, enables me to bring a blend of commercial and trade association experience to the role.

What are your plans for BMF?

The BMF board, led by chairman, Terry Parker, has already laid out the strategy to grow membership by concentrating on business-critical services, including training, lobbying, and expert business and legal support. My role is to implement that strategy and by doing so, to make BMF the ‘go to’ organisation for merchants, their suppliers and key influencers – both in the wider construction industry and in national and local government.

I want the BMF to be regarded as ‘the voice of the industry’, but to get there it has to be much more inclusive. BMF membership must become an essential element for builders’ merchants of any size, and also for their suppliers.

How will you go about implementing these plans?

At this stage, I am in listening and discovery mode. I want to find out as much as possible about the industry and how BMF is viewed within it. It is important to fully understand the strengths and opportunities open to the organisation, as well as any threats and weaknesses facing it, before making major decisions. For the first few weeks in post, I’m dividing my time between head office, where I’m getting to know the team, and travelling around the country to meet a cross-section of members and hear their views.

What obstacles are in the way of moving this forward?

Ultimately, none! There is always a way to overcome challenges.

What strategies from other industry sectors can be successfully adapted for the merchant sector?

I am sure there are many examples we can draw on, and there were certainly similarities at BHETA. When I became president, that organisation was going through turbulent times and they also had to make structural changes and take cost out of the business. We applied commercial principles and focused our effort on delivering the services that members most valued, which we found out simply by asking them. One of my proudest achievements was to build BHETA’s reputation with the membership and to deliver its two most profitable years in the last decade.

What skills and processes must BMF excel at?

I think BMF already demonstrates excellence in training and business support services, and it is fast becoming a real force in government lobbying. But we really must be better at marketing ourselves. It is a British trait – we do not like to blow our own trumpet. But the BMF has got a great story to tell, and we must make sure that the whole industry knows exactly what we can offer them to help improve their business, and what we are doing in the wider political sphere to influence policy and ease red tape.

How must BMF appear to its members?

As a strong, inclusive organisation supporting our members. One of the things that stood out at the London Olympics was the belief the medal winners had in their own ability. They knew they had natural skill and that they had put in years of training to get to reach their peak performance at the right time. But they hadn’t done it alone. Every one of them paid tribute to their backroom teams – the coaches, trainers, sports psychologists and others who helped them to reach the pinnacle of success. And that is what the BMF excels at. We are beavering away behind the scenes to find out what our members need and develop the right training courses for every level of employee and manager; to find experts in employment, transport and safety to support our members’ businesses and to present members’ views to government to influence policy in their favour.

Do you have the right people for the job?

We are fortunate to have some highly capable and experienced people currently in-post who have an essential role to play over the next 12 months, and beyond. Everyone knows we are moving most activities out of London, with the exception of our lobbying work. The new HQ will be different in every respect to Soho Square and I need to manage that cultural change and blend the existing team with new positions that we will recruit to build the organisation and serve the best interests of our members.

What needs to be improved?

I think we should be better at communicating. Both listening to what the market wants, and making sure that our members and potential members know exactly what we offer, and just how good that offer is in terms of helping their business to succeed. With any organisation, you get to a point where you are so familiar with your products and services you think that potential customers are just as clued up. But they are not. It may be an old marketing adage, but telling people about something once, twice, three times – and then again, and again – is proven to work.

What actions are needed to increase BMF’s reach into the existing marketplace?

We need to be more inclusive. There is real opportunity for BMF to represent the whole industry, but we need to get to a stage where BMF membership is viewed as an essential element by builders’ merchants of any size.

What changes need to be made to the way BMF operates in order to implement these strategies?

There may be a degree of repositioning required, but it is also up to us to demonstrate clarity on what BMF does and the services we offer, so that our members value what they are getting for their money.

What new products or services do you believe BMF should be providing?

I do not think it is a question of providing new services. At this stage I would rather find out which of our services are most valued by members and potential members and concentrate on delivering those to the best of our ability.

How will you develop BMF’s role within the wider construction industry?

The fact that I have worked on the supply side for many years may help here. BMF membership is for merchants and their suppliers, but I am not sure that supplier members are fully appreciated.

Suppliers are critically important to this sector – without their products merchants would not have a business – so we need to make sure their needs are included in our overall strategy.

This article first appeared in the September issue of Builders' Merchants News.

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