Mental health top of the agenda at Young Merchants gathering

11 February 2020
Builders Merchants News Deputy Editor Nicolas Chinardet joined the BMF Young Merchant group for its winter meeting, highlighting the importance of mental health awareness.

BMF Young Merchants meetingThe lower level of a gleaming showroom in London is probably not the place where you would expect to hear heartfelt admissions of suicidal thoughts. It was however in just such a place, on 5 December, that members of the BMF Young Merchants group came together and heard the story of mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin. 

The event was taking place at the Ideal Standard Design and Specification Centre, now the BMF’s 30th Regional Centre of Excellence. The centre is located in Clerkenwell, a creative area of London, on the doorstep of about 8,000 architects. 

Earlier in the morning, about 50 members of the group had gathered in the basement of the showroom, which houses a small auditorium. They were welcomed first by Glenn Paddison, Chair of the group, and then by Dave Laretta, Channel Sales Manager at Ideal Standard.

Laretta introduced the company to the delegates, explaining its 200-year-old history, its position as the leading ceramic manufacturer in the UK, with its £180 million turnover (in the UK), and its 9,500 employees worldwide. The company’s factory in Armitage, Staffordshire, produces 75,000 pieces of ceramic a week and serves the three brands of the company: Ideal Standard, Armitage Shanks, and Sottini.

Laretta was followed at the pulpit by designer and ceramist Robin Levien of Levien Studio, who has been working with Ideal Standard for 35 years. Presenting some of the highlights of his work with the company, he shared his insight into the ways he thinks the industry has changed over those years.

For example, the highly popular 1980’s Studio collection included 15 items, while the equivalent 2012 Concept range was made up of 100.

Technology is having an impact. Levien’s studio has just invested in a 3D printer for the creation of its prototypes, abandoning the Styrofoam models it has used until now. 

Fashion has changed too, as well as people’s preoccupations and needs; from the rise of multi-generational homes, to the increase in the number of obese people, a stronger focus on gender equality, or concerns about space efficiency in homes. Designers have to find new solutions to those problems and adapt the products they work on in consequence.

Next to take up the microphone were representatives of Pimlico Plumbers, Ashley Mullins, grandson of the founder of the company, and John Pierce, its General Manager.

Pierce gave an overview of the company’s history, highlighting the rapid growth it has experienced in the past few years. After some humble beginnings in 1979, Pimlico Plumbers, which limits itself to the confines of the M25, has a turnover of £45 million, with an ambition of reaching £100 million within the next three years. There are now over 400 members of staff and about 75 apprentices. 

While there are currently only four female engineers, 15 of the apprentices are woman; a reflection of the company’s commitment to improve gender balance, which is partly driven by a demand from customers. 

After a break for lunch, which members put to good networking use, the day took a more sombre tone. 

Benjamin, who made the headlines a few years ago when he launched a media campaign to find the man who had prevented him from jumping off Waterloo Bridge, shared his life story, telling of his constant struggle with mental health issues since a very young age. 

Benjamin also highlighted the campaigning work he is engaged in around the world to help raise awareness of mental health and to get the issue included into the curriculum. 

The presentation prompted Paddison to tell the group about his younger sister, who has made several attempts at taking her own life. He thanked Benjamin for his help on the matter, after the pair met at the BMF Conference in Dubrovnik in July, and announced a fundraising initiative for the group, inviting members to join him in an ascension of Kilimanjaro in September 2020. 

Following this, John Newcomb, CEO of the BMF, remarked on how younger generations are becoming more comfortable with discussing mental health, regretting that his generation still needs to be convinced of the importance of the issue. The BMF offers a number of training opportunities on the subject, but Newcomb urged attendants to be evangelists for the cause, to “go back and talk to management”. 

Finally, the participants divided into small groups to discuss issues relevant to the workings of the organisation (age restrictions on membership, outreach to young people, European connections). 

The day concluded with a dinner and more networking and socialising.

This article first appeared in the January 2020 edition of Builders Merchants News
For more information about the BMF Young Merchants click here
For support and useful contacts regarding mental health click here