Always interested in sitting down with influencers within the building products space (especially having worked heavily within the interior finishing market) our Head of Building Products, Mark Goldsmith, jumped at the chance to sit down with Fermacell's GB General Manager (MD), Gary Carter, to discuss various topics affecting the industry.
Mark: Your roles within Richard Burbidge and latterly Fermacell have been broad ranging and integral to the ongoing development of companywide strategies. In today’s building product market which areas are the hardest to predict and plan actions around?
Gary: It very much depends on what sort of product and sales processes are involved. With a company like Richard Burbidge, the route to market was via builders merchants and DIY stores. The keys to success were great trade marketing and relationships with key customers. Fermacell, on the other hand, is very much a specification-led sale, based on large commercial projects and individual sales personnel make a huge difference to the business. At Richard Burbidge it was possible to plan and forecast with a reasonable degree of accuracy as there were hundreds of orders per week and short/long-term trends could be identified, whereas at Fermacell the demand was uneven and unpredictable due to the infrequent but very large orders.
Mark: Certainly within your Countrywide Manager role within Fermacell you have managed major change programmes. In refining a company’s approach, what key areas have you concentrated on and developed?
Gary: There is a difference between management and leadership. Management (at all levels) deals with complexity and the efficient use of resources to achieve business goals. Whereas leadership is all about change. In simple terms, my approach is to clearly state the overall direction of the business, what you might call strategy, and then involve key personnel in shaping the details that are required to deliver that strategy. I believe it’s important to involve people where possible because that achieves a greater “buy-in” and also from a practical point of view, it’s impossible for senior managers to micromanage a major change programme. Delegation is essential. Finally, and this is very important, you have to be consistent and tenacious in implementation. People react to change in many ways, there is a small number who are genuinely positive, there are usually a few sceptics and then there is the majority who are open-minded but apprehensive. It’s very important to win the “hearts and minds” of this group and that is best achieved by adopting a transparent and open but consistent communication style. If the majority of the team are on board any remaining sceptics will be isolated and any issues caused would be minor.
Mark: You are a 'rare breed' within the market. I find myself talking to leaders who either fit distinctly into one route to market or a myriad of markets. At Richard Burbidge, as Head of Marketing, you focussed your attention very much on the merchant sector. Latterly at Fermacell, the company focussed on specification, via architects and main contractors. What are the key differences to both in terms of communication and building relationships?
Gary: With Richard Burbidge and the merchant sector, the relationships with the trade (merchants) are very important. The business model is a reseller one requiring good, solid trading agreements and regular sales calls in branch to reinforce brand/product messages at point of sale and develop knowledge of the branch staff. Marketing would allocate resources to support this sales task but would also promote the brand to the builder and homeowner. Because the product is an infrequent purchase for the homeowner, the best ROI was delivered targeting the builder/installer. With Fermacell, it’s very much a specification-led sale, so the key customer groups for both marketing and sales are architects/main contractors and to a lesser extent sub-contractors. Unlike Richard Burbidge where brand played a large part. Fermacell marketing is very much features/benefits and clearly stating the technical USPs vs other solutions. The specification-led sales process is dealing with highly discerning and informed decision-makers so any sales and marketing messages must always have verifiable (preferably 3rd party) technical supporting evidence. Nevertheless, even with such a “dry” subject as dry-lining, it is possible to create some engaging and impactful marketing material, because the basic communication principles remain the same – people only read the copy if they are attracted by an interesting headline and/or image. The role of the distributor in a specification-led sale is largely one of logistics and credit risk. A necessary and important part of the overall sale, but in marketing terms, relatively unimportant.
Mark: Regarding specification versus trade selling, which would you consider to be the most challenging and how have you overcome these challenges?
Gary: They are both challenging! With a reseller business model, the buyers at the national merchants and the buying groups have a lot of power. In markets where there is genuine competition for identical/very similar products (commodities), the trading agreement negotiations carry risks as well as opportunities. It is possible for a single meeting to have a large impact (positive/negative) on the business so professional key account management is very important. As for specification, you have much more control as generally speaking your sales team is engaged with the decision-makers and head office buyers don’t have anywhere near as much power. However, the sheer complexity of some project-led sales with multiple stakeholders requires a number of things to be successful. Firstly, front-line sales staff who are technically knowledgeable and have the drive and enthusiasm of a sales professional. Secondly, a clear understanding of where the product competes and wins versus other systems – this is vital in order to go after the right projects (see below for a detailed example). Thirdly, a CRM system that supports a specification sales process allowing team members to collaborate on major projects and management to have a clear view of the sales pipeline. Finally, a great team spirit with the will to compete and win. Fermacell is a demanding product to sell against established alternative systems and I always prioritised getting the very best sales personnel available.
Mark: With all due respect to the market, Fermacell operates (at large) within a me-too market. Firms like British Gypsum, Siniat and Knauf are all vying largely for the same business, offering similar core products. With most of the corporate marketing messaging coming from HQ in Germany, how have you helped the business recognise their niche and USPs in the UK market?
Gary: For Fermacell, the strategy was to identify segments where the product not only offers performance benefits but commercial benefits too. This meant going way beyond general market segmentation into new build/RMI residential/commercial but right down into specific applications and performance requirements. For example, within the educational sector, there are clear acoustic requirements as set out in a document called BB93 and combined with the fire requirements of BB100 and the robustness details of BS5234 pt2, I put together a matrix of educational wall types and then benchmarked what Fermacell systems met those requirements versus competitive plasterboard solutions. What this analysis clearly showed was that because educational buildings require partitions with “severe” robustness performance, Fermacell can deliver this with a single layer solution versus double layers of plasterboard. In addition, when looking at the five levels of acoustic performance required, in all but the first (lowest) category double layers of plasterboard are required versus single layers with Fermacell. Thus for the majority of partitions in education, Fermacell offers 50% less material and almost 50% less labour, easily overcoming the price differential. Understanding the market in this level of detail is one of the key elements of the successful segmentation strategy I implemented at Fermacell.