PBM’s editor Paul Davies offers his view on the Builders Merchants Federation’s recent All Industry Conference in Malta.
The theme of this year’s BMF Conference was ‘Building Momentum and Focus’, an appropriate acronym when first proposed yet the sentiment expressed by many of the delegates I spoke to in Malta was one of maintaining momentum. In all aspects, this was a confident event, with positivity in full effect.
In terms of the formal business sessions, the overall quality of the speakers was exceptional. Amongst a number of celebrated athletes and television personalities, I was unfamiliar with Geoff Ramm, however, his speech on OMG Marketing — that’s Observational Marketing Greats and seeing the opportunities to take your business forward — was the perfect example of style and substance; a presentation on marketing which itself stood out from the many ostensibly similar presentations we’ve all doubtless heard in the past to deliver something different.
Allowing Kriss Akabusi to take the last leg of the event and bring the baton home was a masterclass in scheduling. His energetic tour de force ensured that the formal proceedings finished on a palpable high.
Headline speaker Alastair Campbell was as enlightening and accomplished as one could have hoped. In two performances at the event, he provided inspirational insight into what it takes to be a winner in the fields of politics, sport and business, focusing on the all-prevailing importance of ‘teamship’ in delivering success, supported by the effective use of data to enable incremental benefits rather than simply confirm what was already known.
Despite the fact he was plugging his latest book (literally available to purchase in the foyer…), he was perhaps more humble than many might have anticipated and there was also terrific humour — in answering an audience question about his response to Liam Byrne in the wake of his infamous ‘there is no money’ note, Campbell’s final words to the event were that he gave Byrne the full “Malcolm Tucker”!
Allowing Kriss Akabusi to take the last leg of the event and bring the baton home was a masterclass in scheduling. His energetic tour de force ensured that the formal proceedings finished on a palpable high; the excitement generated by his commentary over the video of the GBR 4 x 400m relay team’s triumph at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo was the perfect showcase of the need to think differently to achieve ever-more impressive results.
“The past is for reference,” explained Kriss, “and not for residence” as he revealed the tactical switch of moving the team’s best runner, Roger Black, from anchor to opening leg. Defying the conventional wisdom in athletics at the time, the decision enabled the team to triumph over the much-fancied Americans and set a new British record in the process.
If there’s one criticism, a litany of motivational / inspirational speakers perhaps left too little time to hear more on the industry itself — whether in the detail and specifics of the merchant sector, or even the wider context of the economy or post-election government policy.
The CBI’s Laura Smith had an all-too brief session, sharing the stage with Alastair Campbell, to provide some context. Additionally, the merchant / supplier panel session worked well with many pertinent points made throughout including Ron Walker’s demonstration of how staff involvement has been key to the growth of HPS reinforcing Aco’s Richard Hill’s statement that developing your brand is not just responsibility of the marketing department.
Getting over the merchant sector’s fear of the word ‘retail’ through the implementation of modern merchandising techniques, clear pricing, a more logical layout to stores and improving customer communication where the steps on a challenging journey.
It was a point made explicit by Stephen Thompstone, formerly a director with the Grafton Group, challenging whether your business would pass the ‘forklift truck driver test’ — that is, are the aims and service aspirations of the company communicated clearly enough throughout to ensure that all frontline staff understand them and can articulate them?
Moreover, a standout presentation was also given by EH Smith’s Marketing Director, Mark Mallinder. It’s a story we’ve reported on before, with the merchant acknowledging the issues behind the ‘broken’ collection business at its flagship branch in Shirley, Solihull. Central to its resurgence was the need to strip away all preconceptions, ultimately building up a better understanding of their customers and recognising that builders are not the ‘hairy bottomed builder’ stereotype, but everyday brand consumers.
Approaching 460 delegates was the most present at a BMF Conference since 2008 whilst the 68 tables set out for a high-intensity ‘Meet the Merchant’ session was a clear demonstration of the event’s business focus.
Getting over the merchant sector’s fear of the word ‘retail’ through the implementation of modern merchandising techniques, clear pricing, a more logical layout to stores and improving customer communication where the steps on a challenging journey. The results are beyond question — a 30% increase in footfall, a 32% increase in collected sales and a 22% increase in profit — and the model is being rolled out to other branches in its network.
On the topic of embracing modernity, it is interesting to note the influence and impact of social media in the context of Conference. Many took to Twitter to get discussion rolling ahead of the event, whilst above the glow of ubiquitous smartphones and tablets, a variety of Tweets added to the debate during the sessions themselves using #BMFmalta. Often including photographs or links to items referenced during the speeches, the intention certainly seemed to broaden the debate to include a wider industry audience as opposed to just serving those already in the room.
And on the subject of inclusivity, it would be remiss not to mention the numbers in attendance. Approaching 460 delegates was the most present at a BMF Conference since 2008 whilst the 68 tables set out for a high-intensity ‘Meet the Merchant’ session was a clear demonstration of the event’s business focus. Beyond all this, around one third were conference ‘first timers’ — with representation from all corners of this sector, this is yet more evidence of a re-invigorated, dynamic and forward-thinking industry.
As ever, the time spent away from the business sessions is imbued with meaning. It was impossible to move around the Westin Dragonara hotel without bumping into fellow delegates or seeing discussions — formal and informal alike — take place. Even a cursory “how’s business…?” can be enough to generate a conversation that will provide an all-important ‘take home’ message.
The significance of the social programme equally cannot be overlooked — whether that was the traditional prologue of a golf tournament, the PBM-sponsored Merchants vs Suppliers football match (6-2 to the merchants!) or the awe-inspiring Gala Dinner at the stunning Sacra Infermeria in Valletta. What this gives is yet more time to bond; improving existing business friendships and developing new ones. How can that be criticised?
So, to return to the BMF’s over-arching theme for the Conference, I’d like to suggest an alternative. With marketing innovation, the advocacy of technology, the need to embrace more contemporary customer engagement and the influx of proactive new voices, the merchant sector is already well on its journey towards a Bold Modern Future.