Politics, people and prospects  

by John Newcomb, BMF CEO
26 June 2018

John NewcombWith housing high on the political agenda, the BMF has increased its political advocacy over the last 18 months, promoting the interests of its members and ensuring that politicians from all parties understand how materials get from the quarry or factory gate to building sites. 

Visits to merchants’ premises are an important part of this strategy and already this year we have welcomed Liberal Democrat Leader Vince Cable to Alsford Timber in Twickenham and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to Lords Builders Merchants in west London.  

BMF Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Brett Amphlett works closely with political representatives in Westminster and the English regions, and he is supported in Wales by a specialist public affairs consultant.  We recently added a second specialist consultancy to increase our profile and campaigning work in Scotland and Northern Ireland .  

Fostering relationships with parliamentarians and their advisers is an important aspect of our work, requiring constant attention. The Housing brief at Westminster, for example, has been held by 17 ministers in the past 20 years – a higher churn rate than the manager of the England football team!  It is something of an achievement that two of the last three Housing ministers have spoken at BMF events. Alok Sharma addressed Members’ Day last September shortly before he moved on. Sajid Javid who took over the housing brief was then promoted to Home Secretary a few months later, just weeks after speaking at the BMF’s Parliamentary Reception in April.  

It was extremely pleasing to hear Mr Javid, in his role as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, praise the builders merchant industry for initiatives such as the BMF Apprenticeships Plus service which is helping to attract more apprentices into the sector.  Under the scheme 50 new apprentices are already in place and we anticipate a further 200 new apprenticeship roles by the end of the year.  

Women in merchanting  

Increasing the number of apprentices is essential, but we also want to increase the gender diversity of young people coming into merchanting. The current ratio of men to women in our industry stands at 85:15 and while the balance is slightly better amongst the 50 apprentices employed to date (78:22) there is still a long way to go.  

The BMF exhibited at a number of national and regional Apprenticeship events this Spring attended by large numbers of school and college leavers, their careers advisers and their parents.  We are making it clear that merchanting offers a wide range of careers and the new Trade Supplier Apprenticeship – designed by merchants for merchants - is a great stepping stone to learn the business basics which will enable them to progress quickly up their chosen career ladder, whether that is within branch management or in other areas such as finance, marketing, HR or health & safety.  

The formalisation of this new entry level qualification and its assessment by a third party is proving very appealing, attracting candidates who might not previously have considered the industry but to encourage more young women to join, we need to raise the profile of those who are already working here.  

Last month we held our first Women in Merchanting Forum in conjunction with Builders Merchants News. It was a great event and underlined both the opportunities for women, the contribution they make to their businesses. We have the success stories, now we need to shine a light on them.  

Future prospects  

Over the last few weeks I have been visiting merchants in various regions and hearing anecdotal evidence about the market.  Naturally there are some concerns about the slow start to the year – and the BMF’s Builders Merchants Building Index (BMBI) for Q1 reflects this, with absolute growth at just +0.4% – but most experienced a far better April, which has continued into May.  Hopefully this bodes well for the rest of the year.  

Merchant sales in Q1 outperformed the construction figures from the Office of National Statistics – which fell -2.7% on the previous quarter.  Price inflation may be a factor in the BMBI sales value figures but continued growth into Q2 will give us more clarity on the direction of travel.   

While we may not see the market grow at the same levels as 2017, we remain confident that that the upward trend will continue throughout 2018.  

This article appeared in the June edition of Builders Merchants News