Plumbing the depths. And the heights

If I had my life to live over again, I’d be a plumber.

Back in the olden days – before Covid,  the credit-crunch and the 2008-financial-crash, it was a truth, universally acknowledged, that one of the easiest things to do in this industry was set up a plumber’s merchant.

All you needed was an industrial estate unit with a trade counter out the front, some warehousing, preferably with mezzanine floor, out the back, sufficient parking for customers and visitors, a good working relationship with your suppliers, space for the occasional bacon butty van, a coffee machine by the counter to encourage banter and off you went.

There was none of the onerous searching for enough space to stock bricks and blocks and keep insulation and plasterboard dry that the heavyside merchants had to contend with. Admittedly, if you wanted to add in a bathroom showroom to display your sanitary wares then you would need the extra space to d that, plus the willingness to deal with retail customers, employ designers who can squeeze porcelain quarts into bathroom-shaped pint-pots and find somewhere in that warehouse for 18 different sizes of shower door. Still, when compared to a full-on mixed merchant operation, with its greed for lorry parking space, JCB Teletruks and Combilifts, relatively simple options.

Plumbers, it used to be said – and probably still is, as they haven’t changed their spots – like to be dealt with by plumbers’ merchants. They want to know that the person they are dealing at the merchants knows what they are talking about. A plumber, I’ve been told many many times, isn’t a builder who does a bit of plumbing work, he or she are skilled tradesman and want to be served by equally knowledgeable staff at a ‘proper’ plumbers’ merchants.

All of this is true and probably goes a long way to explaining the growth of the plumbers’ merchant sectors over the years. A sort of ‘if you build it, they will come’, if you like.

So, relatively easy to set up. Not it appears, so easy to make serious day-to-day margins at. Which is presumably why, one after the other, the large national chains have got out of the specialist plumbers’ merchant game. The headline reasons for this mass exit are variations on the theme of ‘in order to focus more closely on our core-businesses’ – in other words, businesses where we know we can more easily  make some decent profit margins.

Grafton, whose entry into the mainland market was via Plumbase – sold that division in October. Travis Perkins, who having stuttered a bit with setting up its own Plumbing and Heating division, then went the acquisition route and swallowed up specialists Jayhard, City Plumbing Supplies and the behemoth PTS, finally off-loaded its Plumbing and Heating division to private equity earlier this year. Around the same time, Ferguson, the US plumbing giant that used to be called Wolseley, got out of the UK market altogether, selling its whole stand-alone UK operation off to private equity

And now Grahams, the plumbers merchant set up in 1936 in Glasgow and acquired in a surprising move by Jewson in 2000, has been hived off. Presumably in a move designed to thwart the attentions of the CMA, some branches are going to Wolseley, the rest is going to UK Plumbing Supplies.

UK Plumbing Supplies, the seemingly deep-pocketed umbrella company for a great many plumbers’ merchants’ businesses now – Plumb City, Plumbase, GB Willbond, Pavis and HPS Heating Plumbing Supplies – is reaping the benefits of the years f expansion of the sector.  HPS, for example, started out 20 years ago when three ex-PTS directors decided they wanted to do things their way and set up, I think, five branches. When they sold out, they had 35+. Come to think of it, it was probably them that said about the relative ease of setting up a new branch – it was all about getting the right branch manager on board.

It obviously is possible to make  decent living and respectable margins out of plumbers’ merchanting – look at the number of independent plumbers’ merchants across the country who are quietly, successfully going about minding their own businesses  – and, presumably these private equity businesses wouldn’t keep buying into the market if it wasn’t. What is it that these guys know, that the big nationals don’t? How are they managing it when Saint Gobain, Travis Perkins and Grafton couldn’t? Plumbers still have to buy their materials from somewhere after all.

Or maybe, in the fullness of time, it will all come full circle and we’ll see the big guys buying back their specialist plumbing arms. Who knows?

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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