The true meaning of European union  

by John Newcomb, BMF Chief Executive
30 May 2018

John NewcombLast month I was honoured to be nominated for the position of President of Ufemat – the European Association of National Builders Merchants Associations and Manufacturers.  I will be taking over this role in October, the same month that the withdrawal treaty governing the UK’s departure from the EU is due to be finalised.  

There is more than a little irony in the timing as Ufemat’s 60-year history is bound up with that of the EU.  Anticipating new regulations that could affect their business following the Treaty of Rome, national merchant trade bodies from the original six members of the European Economic Community came together to form Ufemat as a lobby group to promote their interests.  Today it represents 19 national trade bodies as well as some of Europe’s largest building materials manufacturers and is respected by European legislators for its representation of building materials supply throughout Europe.  

Trading post Brexit  

Whatever Brexit brings, it is more important than ever for the BMF to have a voice in Europe.  At least 20% of our building materials are imported from Europe, many of our members are part of European-owned businesses and the BMF’s Irish members will still be operating as part of the EU.  And, of course, the UK also exports products to Europe.  We are well and truly meshed together. A great many products will continue to cross our borders and, needless to say, our European colleagues share our concerns as to what will replace the current customs union.  

The impact of Brexit will be high on the agenda at Ufemat’s annual conference in Lisbon in October, where John Sinfield, MD of Knauf Insulation, will present a materials producer’s view.  The BMF has taken a small group of UK merchants to the last two annual conferences.  With Brexit to the fore this year, we anticipate larger numbers from the UK attending and it is a great opportunity to speak with their opposite numbers around Europe.  

The merchant mix  

The way merchants operate across the 19 member countries varies greatly.  Several are comparable to the UK with a mix of national and regional groups as well as smaller independents.  Others, like Italy, are almost entirely served by small family-owned businesses.  Similarly, large buying groups play an important role in some countries, while merchants purchase directly from materials producers in others.  

Perhaps because of this diversity, no-one has yet undertaken a study into the total size of the building materials market in Europe.  I will be prioritising this during my term as President, as defining the extent and financial power of the market will undoubtedly have a positive impact on Ufemat’s central lobbying role.

Like the BMF, Ufemat promotes networking and learning from each other.  It is particularly keen to broaden the experience and horizons of young people in our industry.  The BMF’s Young Merchant group has taken advantage of this with overseas trips to Ufemat members in Berlin and Milan where they visited manufacturing facilities and merchants to learn more about the markets in those countries.  

Common challenges  

Over the last ten years the building materials market throughout Europe has experienced similar cycles bringing common challenges.  While price rises linked to currency fluctuations may affect the UK more than others, virtually all markets are experiencing shortages of certain building materials and their customers face a shortage of qualified labour. Poor quality counterfeit products reaching the market through non-merchant channels is another issue facing the whole of Europe, and we are all seeking to differentiate the merchant’s specialist service from often unreliable, online market places.  

What also remains the same in every country is the partnership between merchants and marterials’ producers and the added value service merchants provide for their contractor customers.   

How they deliver that service will undoubtedly change over the coming decade and Ufemat is a useful forum to share best practice, for example in digitising sales systems or creating an omnichannel customer experience.  Ufemat is also looking at blue sky ideas such as large scale consolidation and distribution centres to optimise logistics in large cities and reduce CO2 emissions. This would obviously require a new kind of partnership between merchants and others in the building chain, but it is clear that the current system is unsustainable in the medium to long term.   Becoming President is both an honour and a challenge, but I am looking forward to supporting and guiding Ufemat as we enter a further period of change and development.  

For more information on Ufemat visit  

This article appeared in the May edition of Builders' Merchants News (BMN)