PBM considers a number of the business essentials shared by experts in their fields at a pair of BMF events – the most recent Branch Managers Forum and the London/South East Regional Meeting.
The breadth of knowledge required of those working in the builders’ merchants sector is considerable. With a high level of product understanding as a baseline, those with operational responsibilities must also be fully appraised on a variety of topics, from health & safety and loss prevention to staffing and HR issues, along with branch security and running a variety of vehicles.
Working with a number of specialist consultancy firms, the BMF continues to develop its ‘Membership Plus Services’, allowing merchants access to firms engaged in fields such as employment law, cyber security, credit insurance and transport. Members can download a wide selection of business guides, whilst many of these specialists also offer advice by speaking at a number of the Federation’s events throughout the year.
More than 60 BMF events are now held each year, across both a broad range of categories and designed to meet the specific job-role needs of those attending. For example, the BMF runs two bespoke ‘Forums’ for branch managers each year — one in spring and a second in the autumn. The content is tailored specifically to address key areas for those running branches, and topics typically include leadership and management, traditional and digital marketing, increasing sales margins, diversity and equality in employment, environmental efficiency, health and safety, as well as product masterclasses from key suppliers.
The last event took place on October 31 – November 1 at the BMF’s head office in Coventry, whilst dates for the first Branch Managers Forum for the New Year have recently been confirmed as 24-25 March.
Regional Meetings attended by principals and senior staff from BMF members are another key platform. The recent London / South East event, for instance, attracted a record 108 delegates to Tottenham Hotspur’s newly-reconstructed White Hart Lane ground to take in a packed agenda covering recruitment, employment law, apprenticeships, mental health awareness and an update on the BMF itself.
Referencing the most recent Branch Managers Forum and the London / South East regional meeting, PBM offers a snapshot of the key business topics up for discussion.
Health & Safety
The health & safety specialist provides the BMF’s Safety Plus service and addressed delegates at both the London / SE meeting and the Branch Managers Forum. The importance of implementing and maintaining effective procedures was central to both presentations, with Southalls’ Andy Hall at the latter event outlining the legal, moral and financial obligations affecting merchants in terms of ensuring good health & safety practices in yard areas relating to vehicles and FLTs.
Andy acknowledged that, with managers facing particular pressures on maintaining sales and margins, merchants ‘can find health & safety a bit of a hassle’, so his well-pitched discussion outlined practical measures that can be deployed to not only keep people safe but also protect businesses and individuals from falling foul of enforcement action.
Training and in-branch communication are two key areas to ensure standards are maintained, whilst ensuring that the relevant checks are regularly carried out and documentation is kept up-to-date are essential — both to prevent incidents from happening and minimising liability in the event of an incident.
TT Training Academy
With the importance of mental health support growing as an issue within the sector, the BMF has recently assigned TT Training Academy to deliver two, one-day courses — First Aid Mental Health Training, and a Mental Health Awareness and Wellbeing day — to ensure that merchants can take a proactive approach to their mental health provisions.
Having spoken at the London / SE event, TT’s Managing Director Suzanne Skeete said: “We are thrilled to be working with the BMF and its members to provide professional mental health training and support. We are passionate about organisations getting proactive to increase their mental health awareness and put the necessary support in place to ensure that those struggling get all the help that they need.”
Representatives from Halborns, the law firm partner for the BMF’s ‘Intelligent Employment Plus’ service, was another to address the latest Branch Managers Forum and the London / SE regional meeting. Delegates were informed that the number of tribunal claims across all industries has increased over the last year and the “climate for litigation is at a high”.
Further topics covered included the potential for harassment claims to be instigated as a consequence of ‘workplace banter’ and of disciplinary problems occurring as a result of both (prolonged) sickness absence or (poorly-defined) performance expectations. Once again, the argument was presented that it is essential to have the correct training and documentation in place.
Taking up the point, Paul Sexton cautioned that it was important to get these processes right as once you are taken to a tribunal, even if you win, “you have basically already lost due to the associated costs.”
‘The Shrink Academy’
A session at the Branch Managers Forum from Travis Perkins’ Paul Winstanley discussed loss reduction and stated that 66% of all losses are process-related, rather than the consequence of theft or fraud. By addressing this, losses will be quickly reduced and margins will instantly improve.
Simple fixes such as ensuring more accurate stock counting procedures, limiting excessive damages (by fixing handling and stockholding issues) and just checking that alarms, sensors and CCTV systems are switched on and operating correctly can make a huge difference, all through better oversight, training and working practices. Once these are addressed, Paul argued, issues such as theft — from both customers and employees — and fraud become easier to identify and then tackle.
At the London / SE meeting, delegates were informed of a new approach to solving the merchant sector’s recruitment challenge — taking on former services personnel. Lynda Vowles, Chief Operating Officer of the charity Building Heroes, explained that there are approximately 120,000 military veterans of working age in Britain today and that her organisation helps to provides skills training to support them into employment.
Having been established in 2013 with a focus on the construction sector and the building trades, the charity is now widening its remit to explore employment opportunities for veterans within the merchant sector. Lynda said that Building Heroes “aims to tackle unemployment amongst those who have kept us safe by offering them a seamless transition to a new career” whilst London / SE Regional Chairman, Lawson’s MD Paul Sexton, endorsed the idea by adding: “The merchant sector is facing a massive recruitment challenge and these guys are skilled, trained and disciplined in their working life.”
Addressing digital strategy at the Branch Managers Forum, Amy Hobson outlined the need for merchants to set SMART objectives for their use of websites and social media marketing — make them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic & Timely.
Whilst conceding that it is difficult to deliver ‘fast fixes’ and that, with digital, there are no definitive ‘right’ answers, she urged delegates to “wear their customers’ shoes” and approach online marketing in a ‘consistent’ manner by not just trying to ‘sell’ to customers but to engage with them and respond to their needs.
For websites, she outlined seven key requirements — Good design; a clear call to action; regularly updated and engaging content; ease of navigation; ‘Credibility & Reviews’ (eg: customer testimonials and membership of industry bodies); mobile / tablet friendly, as 60% of all searches are now made on a mobile device; the inclusion of social media buttons.