5 Minutes with Robin Appleby
Mark Goldsmith catches up with Robin Appleby at Polypipe Group to discuss how his role has evolved and changes in the industry
Robin Appleby got in touch with Collingwood's Head of Building Products, Mark Goldsmith, following his return from leading Polypipe Middle East for nearly 10 years. Having previously recruited for Robin some 12 years previously, Mark was keen to meet up. Here’s what they spoke about:
Mark: A lot has changed since progressing from your last role as Commercial Director in 2007/8 when you supported the acquisition and transition of the Terrain business from Geberit into the Polypipe Group. How has your role evolved?
Robin: During the transition period, there was collective energy, collaboration and a good deal of creativity. This proved really rewarding for Polypipe, and for me personally, provided me with essential grounding for the next decade. Amongst other tasks, I was presented with a dwindling $5m export business and asked to determine a fresh strategy, which ultimately resulted in being trusted with significant responsibility and the necessary corporate authority to do, obviously within reason, whatever it took to establish a business in Dubai.
We soon secured many major commercial, residential and infrastructure projects, which allowed my role as Managing Director and the business to evolve quickly, so in this particular case, we achieved an impressive average year-on-year growth of 25%+ over the next 8 years. Not without its challenges or a need to consistently maintain a realistic perspective, this required a number of key strategies: careful fine-tuning of business plans for 11 diverse regions, adaptation of multiple niche product ranges relevant to each market sector, capacity management, tight cost control, establishing of several regional offices, legal frameworks and partnerships, local manufacturing and, not least, building and supporting an exciting multicultural team of 60 staff from 12 countries.
Naturally, working in a region renowned for rapid urban expansion, volatility and economic uncertainty required incredible patience!
Mark: So, a lot of your early role in the Middle East involved taking ownership of wholesale cultural change across the business you inherited. Aren’t businesses located in the Middle East typically made up of numerous nationalities? How hard was it to instill the changes you required and how on earth did you go about doing it?
Robin: The UAE alone is home to over 200 nationalities, with Emiratis constituting only c. 20% of the population. This statistic naturally varies across Qatar, Saudi, Kuwait etc., but did allow a privileged insight into rich cultures, beliefs and practices. You may appreciate that respect and humility played a huge role in the Middle East and a key learning point was recognising that simply being British wasn’t always helpful. Therefore, listening to, and learning from a motivated multicultural team - collectively fluent in 18 different languages - clients and distributors, did remove many hurdles and contribute greatly to success, trusting them to help guide and influence the business.
Getting to know these individuals - and often their families - proved fascinating and in turn inspired me: building valuable life-long relationships - learning about their countries, their cultures, their dreams and ambitions and often fabulous local sayings - too many to mention here.
Mark: Many UK manufacturers within the construction material sector are increasingly looking to drive revenues from exporting their products. Much of your work has involved setting up distribution partners and agents into diverse countries. What is your best advice for any leadership team looking to drive this strategy?
Robin: Having the right business partners is critical to driving revenues and strategy at home, or overseas, ensuring each one is positioned, connected and incentivised to achieve mutually beneficial objectives. If you have a strong British brand in the Middle East, everyone wants to be your friend, agent, distributor or sponsor, all promising results to dream of in return for exclusivity rights in nominated territories. Certainly, there is a place for exclusivity agreements, but the law will always protect locals, and if they go wrong, unwinding these contracts can prove extremely difficult and costly, or even debilitating.
From my experience, success can be achieved without falling into this trap, and genuine relationships based on regular communication and professional integrity proved more valuable and effective. My advice for any leadership teams considering export would be to listen to and engage patiently with the market, the people, the key players and local UKTi, whilst simultaneously building up a picture of competitors, local law and how business is done differently in that city, region or country before making any knee-jerk commitments. Obviously, the rewards can be significant if you have an appetite for patience.
Mark: Although your role was one of a full-blown MD in the Middle East, throughout this position and previous ones you have fronted marketing activity. How have you had to adapt marketing strategies in the Middle East compared to the UK?
Robin: Marketing strategies may be built around basic fundamental principles and adapted for specific products or services but being in the Middle East challenged us to think differently with limited financial budgets and resources, yet additionally, required a need to seriously technically differentiate our range offering across multiple regions, demonstrating added value and to ultimately create demand.
In terms of connecting with people, we were faced with the constant frustration of the transient nature of the region, with people continually moving in, out and around the territory. So, it was beneficial to embrace digital strategies that would locally engage - with a degree of market leading authority - with any body, wherever they worked or lived, or in whatever language they understood, whilst at the same time remaining culturally and religiously sensitive and respectful. Some of the supporting region-specific, brand-building activities included hundreds of low-cost trade and training events, which were surprisingly well-attended by knowledge-hungry engineers seeking know-how and the latest product development and innovations. These enabled our experts to influence future projects with British-engineered solutions and establish essential personal relationships.
Mark: I’m interested to hear your view on what digital marketing meant to you and Polypipe, Robin. Especially prevalent over the past couple of years, I have been involved with a good number of manufacturers in building products who, if I’m to be honest, haven’t had an assured approach to how they drive their brand and products online. Where have you focused your attention and are there any useful titbits you can provide?
Robin: Expanding further on the marketing strategies I’ve just mentioned, I would say that digital marketing proved time after time to provide the biggest bang for our buck. We had the support of an excellent marketing agency; this meant that campaigns were Middle East-specific, targeted, measured and controllable, and led to multi-lingual engaging content across multiple platforms. Since everyone is ‘connected’ with at least one smart-phone in the Middle East, this gave us access to the market 24/7, irrespective of time zone or working day differences across trading regions and vice versa. Useful also, was the ability to analyse the resulting real-time data which showed the regional effectiveness of each campaign, relative to each individual brand.
Mark: I’m working with a light-side manufacturer at the moment who invested in a CRM system some two years ago and it has laid redundant ever since. Listening to some of your previous experience it sounds like you have led CRM implementation projects on more than one occasion. How tricky has it been to gain mass adoption across the business and how have you ensured the company has gained maximum value from the investment?
Robin: Adoption is everything, but it can prove tricky. One approach which I’ve found genuinely effective in overcoming some of these difficulties has been to engage fully with staff and focus primarily on simple dashboard graphs and correctly structured reports. For example, focus on the output initially, as opposed to simply the input. These elements give real-time information about the business, which staff are quick to contest if they notice any inaccuracies. That said, with an intuitive system, motivated CRM-competent staff will quickly address these issues themselves if they see the output as positively beneficial to their job function, and in fact, begin to proactively seek even more from the system to improve their own performance.
I found that more immediate and maximum value can be realised if this scenario can evolve, with the system becoming standard company culture for three key areas: proactively tracking business opportunities, monitoring of customer interaction, and critically, fine tuning future business strategy.