With the sector potentially destabilised by the consequences of Brexit, a snap General Election and a great number of threats to established business practices, this year’s BMF-hosted All Industry Conference promised to get to the heart of the issues confronting the merchant industry. PBM reports back from ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ to give the lowdown on the 2017 BMF Conference.
The first BMF Conference to be held in a city location since 2003, this year’s sell-out event saw 430 guests descend upon the Hungarian capital of Budapest in mid-June for a business-focused long weekend. Broadcaster Gethin Jones proved to be an exceptionally popular choice as conference host and set the tone for an event that many argued set a new benchmark for industry gatherings.
Indeed, delegates enjoyed a consistently high level event throughout — the programme had a coherent flow and presentations all hit the mark and were delivered with aplomb, culminating in Olympic Champion Sally Gunnell’s moving and inspirational story of realising your potential and a veritable tour de force from Paddy Ashdown.
Business streams which replicated the BMF’s forums on Marketing, Plumbing & Heating and Young Merchants afforded a more detailed level of discussion whilst a reformatted and energised Merchant/Supplier exchange put forward hundreds of rapid-fire meetings and facilitated essential dialogue between stockists and manufacturers. Even this high watermark was subsequently exceeded by a stellar fundraising effort at the Gala Dinner.
For the formal business sessions, the overarching theme of Change, Challenge & Opportunity provided a robust framework for a captivating line-up of speakers, with messages that neatly dovetailed to reinforce key issues and underline the importance of confronting — and thriving in — a period of undoubted upheaval and transition.
Underpinning the main conference theme, ‘motivational speakers’ Kenton Cool, Floyd Woodrow and (the other) Michael Jackson each addressed the central notion that change should not be feared but embraced as a powerful force, whilst all emphasised the need to be accountable and focused — yet adaptable — in working to achieve your (clearly defined) goals.
Engagement and accountability were recurring messages, especially when related to changes within the business environment. Here, Steve Ingham, CEO of recruitment giant Michael Page used the example of his own company to illustrate a shift in thinking which encompasses a greater need for flexible working, diversity, consultation and personal development in order to get the most out of your people — new recruits and long-serving staff alike.
Receiving feedback from your teams on your own performance was now crucial and an open mind was essential: “I’m learning more this year than ever before,” he said.
An essential element of conference is listening to views from within the industry itself. At one end of the spectrum, RIBA’s Executive Director Adrian Dobson presented an architect’s perspective and discussed the need for greater levels of communication throughout the supply chain. Closer to home, a number of merchant speakers took to the stage to discuss the very specific challenges confronting the sector.
For example, BMF Chairman Peter Hindle MBE drew on his experience at Saint-Gobain to outline what he sees as the industry’s biggest tests. He noted a growth in the adoption of digital technology, increasing price transparency (with more fixed price models being witnessed) and also the need to place more focus on developing the people in the industry — from recruitment and training to staff retention.
Meanwhile Andrew Harrison, Group Commercial and Business Development Director of Travis Perkins, confronted the key issue of how ‘market disruptors’ were challenging the status quo. As a consequence of the housing shortfall in tandem with an industry skills shortage, offsite manufacturing is one such threat to the established model. Equally, merchants must ensure they add value and make a difference for their suppliers, with Andrew asserting — with the examples of Amazon and Uber — that “tech companies have taken on traditional markets and won.”
Andrew said merchants must respond to the fact that customer needs are changing — and they have more knowledge, are better informed and have more choices. Accordingly, they become less loyal and so greater focus needs to be placed on “making it easier, simpler and more convenient for your customers to do business with you”.
Citing Travis Perkins’ own Toolstation, the evolution of Screwfix — which continues to open numerous ‘physical’ branches — and the diverse business models of Selco, Huws Gray and MKM, he noted that “we have our own industry examples of organisations taking advantage of change”.
It is always a challenge to adequately sum up what is often described as the industry’s flagship event, finding meaning and relevance both for those who attended and those who did not. Firstly, it is worth checking out #BMFconf17 on Twitter to see a broad cross-section of comments and discussion points from participating delegates. The BMF must also be commended for delivering a programme that so directly addressed many of the pressing issues facing today’s industry — Change, Challenge & Opportunity could scarcely have been more apposite as a theme.
Overall, in both content and atmosphere, the BMF Conference gave an impression of a sector somewhat at ease with itself — but this confidence should not be mistaken for complacency. There is an acceptance of the considerable change occurring both within the industry itself and from a myriad of external threats. However, there seems a palpable sense of readiness — in these uncertain times, the merchant sector is prepared for whatever is thrown at it and agile enough to accept the challenge.
For more information on the Builders Merchants Federation, visit www.bmf.org.uk
The BMF has confirmed that a record sum of £71,531 was raised for charity during the Gala Dinner that concluded the All Industry Conference. The money will be divided equally between Variety, the Children’s Charity — the charity of the evening’s main sponsor, the Crystal Clear Group — and the Teenage Cancer Trust, the BMF’s charity of the year.
Conference delegates showed their generosity in many different ways throughout the evening, which featured a performance by Variety patron, the impressionist Jon Culshaw. The highlight was a special auction where the star lot, a Fiat Abarth 595 Tourismo donated by Crystal, sold for £19,000 whilst a bid of £3,000 secured lunch at the House of Lords with Paddy Ashdown!
John Newcomb, BMF MD, said: “We hoped to raise an exceptional sum for two very deserving charities and I am unbelievably proud of the industry for achieving even more than we ever imagined. I’m told that this is the highest sum our industry has raised for charity in a single night and I would like to thank everyone who contributed. I must also thank Martin Randall and the Crystal Clear Group whose donation of a limited edition car caught everyone’s imagination and made such a significant contribution to the evening’s overall fundraising.”