Obituary: Kenneth Howard Avery Smith, EH Smith Builders Merchants

Published:  29 November, 2017

Kenneth (Ken) Howard Avery Smith, Chairman of EH Smith Builders Merchants, has sadly passed away at the age of 99.

Having worked for the Solihull-based company for 80 years, Ken joined the family-run builders’ merchant when he left King Edward’s School (New Street) in 1937. He took charge of EH Smith in 1959 following the death of his father, Ernest Howard Smith, known as Howard.

Mr E.H. Smith founded the business on 18 November, 1922, transforming a business supplying jute sacks and bulk bagged cement from railway sidings in Small Heath, Birmingham, into a builders’ merchant operation.

During these early years, in the 1920s, Howard would take the young Ken with him on delivery rounds in Birmingham - initially on a horse and cart and then riding pillion on his father’s motorbike.

Ken would often regale visitors to EH Smith’s head office with stories of the firm’s early history, seeing off several recessions, and surviving the Second World War when bombs fell into the company’s Coventry and London depots.

Expanding its range of products and services under Howard and Ken’s leadership during the 1940s and 1950s, the company developed its skills and experience in sourcing and selling bricks.

In recognition of his achievements, Ken was awarded both the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 at the Builders’ Merchants News Awards, and the Birmingham Post Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.

Throughout his working life at EH Smith, there was one particular delivery that Ken received personally: the firm’s trucks. He would specify, research, and buy each truck in the firm’s fleet, and was always there to take delivery of them – something he continued to do until recently.

Under Ken’s leadership, EH Smith became a supporter of many charitable and community activities around the business’ many branches. The EH Smith Charitable Trust exists with the single aim of helping people in need, donating 10% of the firm’s annual profits to good causes, including supplying materials and employee time to community renovation projects.

The builders’ merchant is also well-known in Birmingham for helping people through residential accommodation. Ken was instrumental in purchasing and managing 50 flats in Acocks Green, assisting people in the local community with affordable rents, a commitment that continues today.

As an active member of the Christadelphian Church, Ken was committed to caring for people in need. In 1976, he bought a 43-seater coach, and for 40 years, conducted weekly excursions for elderly people living in residential care homes. He continued doing this into his early 90s, when the vast majority of his passengers were younger than he was!

Despite his years, Ken never thought of himself as old. Until the end, he was treasurer and an active committee member and supporter for a Christadelphian care home trust, ensuring people were properly cared for in their later years.

Although a keen fell walker, traveller and classic car enthusiast, Ken’s key interest remained the family business, and he declined to retire. He was a well-respected and loved figure among the company’s 450 employees, personally delivering the Christmas payslips to every single one of them for many decades.

The EH Smith leadership team continues to include members of Ken’s extended family. Chief Executive, John Parker, said: “Ken was a remarkable and much loved figurehead, who defined EH Smith’s first century in business. I know I speak for every member of our staff, as well as our family, when I say how much he will be missed.

“One of Ken’s greatest triumphs, and his most important legacy, was his determination to secure the long-term future of EH Smith through its people - both by engaging many of the third and fourth generations of the Smith family in the business, including myself, and by encouraging a positive, supportive business culture in which every employee could thrive. To Ken, the staff were always considered an extension of his family – and one built around innovation, a strong entrepreneurial spirit, flexibility and good, old-fashioned customer service.”

John concluded: “In doing so, Ken created a solid foundation for EH Smith, as a family business, and one upon which we are developing robust and exciting plans for the future as we look towards our centenary in 2022 and the start of our second century in business.”

Picture caption: Kenneth Howard Avery Smith, Chairman of EH Smith Builders Merchants, sadly passed away, aged 99.

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