Following their presentations, both Tommy Walsh and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen took part in a Q&A session, chaired by conference host Sharron Davies. This gave delegates the opportunity to ask for their thoughts on the industry and the challenges it faces.
Q: How do you get people to be proud to be British?
LLB: “I think we already market the concept of being British very well, but we just don’t see the results of it in this country as it’s all focused on sending that message abroad. It’s getting easier to get emerging markets excited about what the British offer. The big thing is to start getting people to see that we’re part of something very special in Britain.”
SD: “Per Capita, we’re the most successful country in the world in the Olympics.”
TW: “British brands are seen around the world as the height of luxury and quality – we should be far prouder of that and bang the drum about it. I think people would be prepared to pay more for quality if they better understood the benefits. Our customers are very literate, and like to know everything about what goes into our houses.”
Q: Do you use the internet to buy goods?
TW: “The internet is really important for builders’ merchants, but I think it all comes down to brand loyalty. You have to build up a relationship with your customers regardless of whether they’re cash customers or buy on account. You have to give your customers more than just the basics if you want brand loyalty.
“I use the internet to source and research products but I still then go to a builders’ merchant to order it. But you can’t afford to get complacent. Having a good customer base is great, but keeping them is much harder.”
LLB: “The internet is all about communication. It’s a good way of keeping in touch with people, but not necessarily as a point of purchase. I saw that in the home furnishings market – for a while everyone wanted to buy their sofas online, but eventually that changed and people went back to buying from a store because they wanted to touch and feel the sofa before they bought it.”
TW: “You can use the net as a tool to inform your customers about what you’re doing. Time is crucial for builders – they don’t want to waste time going round to lots of builders’ merchants searching for a product that’s not in stock.”
Q: How do we attract more young people to the industry?
LLB: “I actually think we need to start by re-educating their parents. They have pre-conceptions that they want their child to go to university. There’s no such thing as a career for life anymore, but people want their children to go to university even if it doesn’t necessarily give them a real advantage any more. I would be delighted if my children wanted to learn a trade. Parents need to encourage people to study vocational skills if that’s where their interests lie.”
TW: “We need to make people proud of their vocational careers and, I would say, above all, whatever you choose to do, enjoy it.”
Q: How do we get architects and builders working together?
TW: “That’s half the problem. It’s amazing what you can achieve if you’re all working in one direction, but designers want to be individual and be recognised – if you try to get them to make something uniform you’re going to have problems.”
LLB: “I think architecture is being taught in a biased way that’s too caught up with 20th century preconceptions. Many architect courses are all just based on computers and spreadsheets, whereas on some other courses, people have to spend half a term of the course learning a trade. That makes their involvement in the building process a very practical one. If we encourage the customer to expect more, that will have a knock-on impact on developers and architects. The change has to be market driven.