And now for the serious stuff

Condemn the fault and not the actor of it

In an otherwise exemplary performance at the BMN Awards lunch a couple of weeks ago, John Inverdale – the sports presenter chappie – inadvertently upset rather a large number of his audience.

Referring to the national merchant awards as ‘the serious’ stuff did, I’m afraid, put a few independent backs up, as you might expect. It wasn’t his fault, and certainly not that of the organizers(one of whom told me he was mortified by the gaffe); it was a throwaway line, delivered after a jolly good lunch to an audience that had likewise partaken but it highlighted one of the perennial problems this industry has with perception.

Merchanting is the hidden hero of the construction industry. Architects have high profiles because everyone knows buildings need to be designed. Builders have high profile because everyone knows that buildings need to be built and, well, you can actually see them doing the building. Manufacturers, too, because everyone understands that buildings need to be built of something. But merchants…well, not really.

The great unwashed have heard of Jewson, Travis Perkins – probably Wolseley if you break it down into its Center parts. They see lorries, they might even see branches if they happen to pass them. But unless they actually have cause to visit their local builders merchant, they probably don’t really know what it is that merchant does.

So here, Mr Inverdale, is the case for the independent. And apologies for the sweeping generalizations I’m about to make.

Independents are the backbone of this industry. They understand their customers, they live and breathe their businesses, they’ve usually been running them for years, if not generations. They can be flexible in their approach to business in a way that larger plc companies usually can’t be.

They can be innovative and ground-breaking, again in ways that national chains, due to their size, might find it hard to be. They offer an alternative source of supply – and credit – for builders, plumbers and other tradesmen; they are an alternative route to market for manufacturers. The passion and commitment to this industry that I have seen from some independents blows me away sometimes.

And of course, without a healthy crop of independent businesses willing to sell up, Travis Perkins, Grafton, Jewson and Wolseley wouldn’t be the size they are now.

Clearly there is also some amazing talent, entreprenurial spirit and innovation in national business as well or again, they wouldn’t be the size they are.

A healthy industry needs a good spread of businesses from the big to the small and everything in between. Why else would SGBD UK buy independent businesses and then keep them in their own independent-club? Because they recognize the quality of those businesses, and the wisdom of keeping the goodwill and talent that goes along with them.

The merchants in this industry range from turnovers of less than £1m, to over £2bn. It’s ALL the serious stuff.

PS: If you agree or think I’m talking rubbish, please use the comment facility below and let me know; it’s what it’s there for.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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