Kenneth (Ken) Howard Avery Smith, Chairman of EH Smith Builders’ Merchants, has sadly passed away on Tuesday 28 November 2017 at the age of 99, having worked for the Solihull-based company for a remarkable 80 years.
Born in July 1918, as the first World War drew to a close, Mr Smith joined the family firm when he left King Edward’s School (New Street) in 1937. He took charge of EH Smith in 1959 following the death of his father Ernest Howard Smith, known as Howard. Mr E.H. Smith founded the business on 18th November 1922, transforming a business supplying jute sacks and bulk bagged cement from a railway sidings in Small Heath, Birmingham, into a builder’s merchants operation.
During these early years, in the 1920s, Howard would take the young Ken with him on delivery rounds in Birmingham – initially on a horse and cart and then riding pillion on his father’s motorbike.
Ken would often regale visitors to EH Smith’s Head Office with stories of the firm’s early history, seeing off several recessions and surviving the second World War when bombs fell into the company’s Coventry and London depots.
Expanding its range of products and services under Howard and Ken’s leadership during the 1940s and 50s, the business developed its skills and experience in sourcing and selling bricks – a specialism that endures today.
Always looking to spot a new niche in the market to explore, in the second half of the twentieth century the firm became very active in the Civil Engineering field and, in particular, in the development of some of the UK’s largest motorways including the M6 and the M1.
Innovation and growth continues to be in the DNA of the business. One of the most profound recent changes in EH Smith’s 95-year history has happened in the last five years with changes to its collected products strategy, which saw millions of pounds of investment and has helped to transform the performance of the firm’s sales counter branches. As a result, EH Smith today is a multi-award winning, £130 million turnover firm – with fifteen trading locations across the Midlands and the South East.
In recognition of his achievements, Ken was awarded both the Birmingham Post Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 and the Builders Merchants News Lifetime Achievement in 2008.
Throughout his working life at EH Smith, there was always one particular delivery that Ken received personally: the firm’s trucks. He would personally specify, research and buy each truck in the firm’s fleet, and was always there to take delivery of them – something he continued to do until recently.
Under Ken’s leadership, EH Smith became a supporter of many charitable and community activities around the business’ many branches. The EH Smith Charitable Trust exists with the single aim of helping people in need, donating 10% of the firm’s annual profits to good causes, including supplying materials and employee time to community renovation projects. EH Smith is also well known in Birmingham for helping people through residential accommodation: Ken was instrumental in purchasing and managing 50 flats in Acocks Green, assisting people in the local community with affordable rents, a commitment that continues today.
As an active member of the Christadelphian Church, Ken was committed to caring for people in need. In 1976 he bought a 43 seater coach and for 40 years conducted weekly excursions for elderly people living in residential care homes. He continued doing this into his early nineties, when the vast majority of his passengers were younger than he was! Despite his years Ken never thought of himself as old. Until the end, Ken was treasurer, active committee member and supporter for a Christadelphian care home trust, ensuring people were properly cared for in their later years.
Although a keen fell walker, traveller and classic car enthusiast, Ken’s key interest remained the family business, and he declined to retire even through ill-health. His vintage Aston Martin Lagonda could be seen in the firm’s Solihull head office car park most days of the week and he was a well-respected and loved figure among the firm’s 450 employees, personally delivering the Christmas payslips to every single one of them for many decades. The staff always commented on how he was calm and determined, and exuded a quiet air of authority.
The EH Smith leadership team continues to include members of Mr Smith’s extended family. Chief Executive, John Parker, said: “Ken was a remarkable and much loved figurehead, who defined EH Smith’s first century in business. I know I speak for every member of our staff, as well as our family, when I say how much he will be missed.
“One of Ken’s greatest triumphs, and his most important legacy, was his determination to secure the long term future of EH Smith through its people – both by engaging many of the third and fourth generations of the Smith family in the business, including myself, and by encouraging a positive, supportive business culture in which every employee could thrive. To Ken, the staff were always considered an extension of his family – and one built around innovation, a strong entrepreneurial spirit, flexibility and good, old-fashioned customer service.
“In doing so, Ken created a solid foundation for EH Smith, as a family business, and one upon which we are developing robust and exciting plans for the future as we look towards our centenary in 2022 and the start of our second century in business.”
Ken’s wife Connie died in 1988 and they had no children. He is survived by his nieces Jenny and Hazel, his nephew Michael, and their families.
All at PBM would like to extend our condolences to those that knew him.