Set up in the early 1980s, Key Building Supplies is an independent builders’ merchant with strong values about its place in the local community. BMN’s Nichola Farrugia spoke to the company as it prepares to open a new store called Key DIY next month.

Since 1983, Key Building Supplies has been making a name for itself in its hometown of Boughton, near Newark in Nottinghamshire. With just one lorry and a small yard, Trevor Bilby started the company by selling a small selection of basic building materials such as sand, gravel, cement and blocks.

The builders’ merchant, which has been a member of NMBS for more than a decade, has gone from strength to strength over the past 30 years by expanding the type of products it stocks, and by growing its team with the addition of Mr Bilby’s wife and children joining the business along the way.

Now semi-retired, Mr Bilby has passed the day-to-day running of Key Building Supplies over to his daughter, Stephanie Blacknell, who has been working at the business since she was a teenager.

“At first I wasn’t particularly interested in working at the company, despite my parents wanting me to,” recalled Mrs Blacknell. “However, that soon changed when during the six-week summer holidays, I decided to help out for some extra money. I enjoyed working on the trade counter so much that I decided to leave college and work here full time. That was 20 years ago and I’ve never looked back since. It’s even where I met my husband, Jay, who is in charge of managing the yard.”

Knowledge is key

According to Mrs Blacknell, starting out at the bottom and learning all aspects of the job has enabled her to gain a wealth of experience – something that has put her in good stead for the role she is doing now. “In March 2014, my Mum retired and handed over her half of the business to me, while at the same time my Dad retired from Key Building Supplies to concentrate on new business opportunities within the company,” she acknowledged.

“So, within a short amount of time, the business was handed over to my husband and I. While it has been challenging and stressful at times, it has been rewarding.”

Employing a close-knit team of 15 people, Key Building Supplies values people from different backgrounds, and is proud of the fact that it employs a number of women in various different roles throughout its business. Mrs Blacknell said: “We employ five women, including myself, at our Boughton branch – Sandra Challands who is the office manager, Becky Hodgson who works in payroll and accounts, and Jemma Burton and Amanda White who are sales assistants. I believe that a balance of all types of people makes for a healthy and successful workplace.”

Despite now working ‘behind the scenes’ in the office, Mrs Blacknell still enjoys interacting with customers. “The merchant sector is a people business, and I really enjoy building a rapport with customers and gaining their trust,” she said.

Adapting to ideas

Not afraid to broaden its horizons, Key Building Supplies has diversified over the years to keep up with demand from its customers. In 2001, the company opened a showroom to display its decorative paving, gravels, ornaments and garden furniture. Despite the showroom being a success for a number of years, when the recession struck, Key Building Supplies noticed a change in the market as customers were no longer spending their money on decorative products.

In response, the company closed the showroom and opened a brick cutting service, offering customers brick slips, bonding, cutting, arches and decorative designs.

A national business with major contracts throughout the country, Key Brick Cutting has been a success ever since, according to Mrs Blacknell, who said: “We’re very good at adapting to what works and what doesn’t work, and we’re not afraid to try new things. For instance, two years ago we expanded the product range in our branch to include plumbing and electrical products, paints, adhesives, tools and fixings. Since we introduced these products to our customers, business has really taken off.”

With a strong local economy, Key Building Supplies has done extremely well for itself so far – a trend that looks set to continue, as the company is due to open a new store called Key DIY in Ollerton in June.

Overseen by directors Mrs Blacknell, Mr Bilby and Ray Shilling, Key DIY is an extension of the Boughton branch and will stock a selection of paints and wallpapers, as well as a range of home improvement and home furnishing products.

“Key Building Supplies will continue to focus on heavyside products, which is what we are strong at, while Key DIY will enable us to enter new markets and offer customers something different, as there isn’t anything like this offering in Ollerton,” said Mrs Blacknell.

So, what’s next for the company? According to Mrs Blacknell, the builders’ merchant will continue to focus on being proactive and driving business forward. “We will continue to keep on pushing and striving for growth in the future, and plan to do so through Key DIY,” she acknowledged.

“Having gone through some tough times during previous recessions, we have come out stronger from them. We will continue to be a merchant with a dedicated team of staff who are committed to delivering excellent levels of service to customers.”

This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of Builders' Merchants News.