By November 6, 2014 0 Comments Read More →

Electrical distributors have a new champion

MargThis summer, the Electrical Distributors’ Association (EDA) celebrated its centenary with a fantastic industry lunch at Kensington Palace and in April, MARGARET FITZSIMONS took over as EDA Director from Ray Evans (who this year, received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the first ever Electrical Wholesaler Awards). Editor, DEBBIE EALES met Margaret – six months into her new role – at the Association’s Tunbridge Wells offices, to find out what’s on her agenda.

The Electrical Distributors’ Association is the glue that binds the electrical wholesaling industry together, bringing knowledge, training and debate to the table and, importantly, linking like-minded professionals.

Some 80% of electrical wholesalers are EDA members and with a new Director in place, there are plans to build upon this strong base. Top priority is to promote education and training and there are plans to work more closely with other organisations to develop a sector strategy.

Margaret Fitzsimons told me: “We are in the very early stages of discussion with BEAMA about involvement in a sector strategy. BEAMA is leading the way on the topic of working together to raise the profile of the electrical installation supply channel, particularly with regard to smart buildings.

“Many organisations in the channel do some excellent work on making their voices heard by Government: the ECA (Electrical Contractors Association, Lighting Industry Association (LIA), BEAMA and the BCA (British Cable Association) for example. However, the EDA has not been as active in this area in the past and it is important that we get involved to ensure that the concerns of the wholesaler are understood when legislation is being discussed.”

“Another industry partner we would like to work even more closely with is the ECA. We have had dialogue with the ECA for almost 100 years – they are one of our closest kindred Associations and are invited to all our events – but we feel there is room for closer cooperation – particularly in relation to education and training and encouraging ECA members to adopt new technologies. We’ve already had some informal meetings with the President and Director of the ECA with a view to trying to put more practical steps in place as to how our two organisations can work together.”

Tackling the counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods are not such a major problem in the UK, but UK brands are prestigious and often targeted by counterfeiters. BEAMA has an excellent initiative called ‘Counterfeit-Kills’ which tries to identify these counterfeits at source and ensure they never make it into the supply channel in the first instance. The EDA is a supporter of this campaign and is a signatory of the Industry Charter.

The EDA already works with other organisations on safety initiatives, including the BCA’s Approved Cable initiative.

Continues Margaret: “We are currently in discussion with LIA about their new testing and compliance scheme for LED lamps, which we believe is a good initiative and of benefit to all market players. There is a lot of misinformation in the market about the performance of LEDs and is it important that we get transparency through some sort of common and recognisable series of tests and a stamp of approval.”

Margaret acknowledges that changing legislation is something that the whole industry needs to be aware of. “We use EDA events like our Regional Business Forums, to let our members know about latest legislation changes and new product and technology innovations,” she adds.

At the EDA’s recent Regional Business Forum, nPower explained the Smart Meter roll-out programme and its implications for the electrical installation supply channel. There will be opportunities for electrical wholesalers to sell lighting and heating controls and myriad other energy saving products and systems equipment on the back of that.

Continues Margaret: “When people start to see clearly the cost of energy used by their radiators, hot water systems and lighting, then there will be opportunities for us as an industry to jump in and say now it’s time for lighting and heating control systems, thermostatic radiator valves, voltage optimisation units, etc. With the intelligence that the Internet of Things can add to the equation linking all the systems and devices in the home wirelessly then we can see that the electrical wholesaler will soon be selling intelligent devices.”

Margaret warns, however: “What we have to be very careful about as an industry is that if the utilities start selling this technology, we will lose out.”

Continues Margaret: “At our recent Regional Business Forum we also addressed the topic of Electric Vehicle Infrastructure. I think we are close to the tipping point of take-up of electric vehicles, with opportunities for contractors and wholesalers.”

I remark that Margaret had some big shoes to fill when she took over from Ray Evans. “Yes, Ray Evans was an institution in the industry and he left the Association in a very good state,” she tells me. “He is a very nice man to work with; very experienced, very professional and very helpful to me in the handover. He is known and loved in the industry and in this office.”

Although Margaret was given no formal brief by the EDA, she is “definitely seen as an instrument of change”.

Identifying the threats 

“The Association cannot be commercial – we don’t want to interfere in people’s businesses – but we do want to make sure that those businesses are still here in 100 years.

“The Association is constantly looking to see what’s on the horizon. We are looking for threats and looking for opportunities for electrical wholesalers and trying to make sure that they are aware of these.”

Education is extremely important to the EDA. “We have three different offerings in our Education and Training portfolio. The first – which is so appreciated and has been running for quite a long time – is our ‘Product Knowledge Programme’,” says Margaret. “There are 10 Product Knowledge Modules on the key product groups that are sold throughout electrical wholesalers.

“We are pushing very hard to encourage all our members to make the Product Modules an integral part of the induction programme of every new employee. Each of these is City & Guilds-certified and each counts as 40 hours of training. It provides great background product knowledge and it is transferable across the industry,” comments Margaret.

“The second type of training programme is our Apprenticeship Programme and the third is Vocational Training for existing employees. There’s a nationally recognised qualification at the end of both of these programmes and Joanna Key from our office is a great case study for our Vocational Training for existing employees having successfully completed an NVQ in Business Administration.”

Margaret is keen to increase the take up of EDA training by members. “The growth in the take-up of Product Knowledge modules has been impressive over the past two years. In 2014 the monthly take-up is almost double that of 2012. However, we would like to increase the number of companies investing in training. We have 97 wholesaler members – and we find that it’s the same companies who take them over and over again. One aim is to target the companies who are not currently investing in training and try to encourage them to do so. We think that lack of awareness is the main reason for not doing so.

“As for Apprenticeships and Vocational Training, here too, numbers in 2014 are double those in 2013 but the base is much lower. We will be trying to get out the message that we can secure up to £6,000 of government funding for each learner.”

With some massive players, with multiple branches in the industry, I question how the independents can survive and thrive.

“The practical step they have taken is to form themselves into buying groups and this seems to work very well,” comments Margaret. “There are six buying groups operating in the UK today and three are EDA members. They still operate independently and often locally but their purchasing power is greater and they can offer premium brands at competitive prices.”

“The ‘pub’ of the industry”

What of the Internet and the electrical wholesaler? “Most wholesalers do have an ecommerce capability of some sort but the visit to the trade counter continues to attract. Someone once described the electrical wholesale trade counter as the ‘pub of the industry’.”

The comment alludes to the fact that many contractors do not have their own office. “Their office is that trade counter in the morning,” continues Margaret, “and if they have a good relationship with the trade counter staff who can advise them and keep them up to speed on new products, technology and legislation as well as share a cup of coffee and have a chat then they will continue to come back. They won’t want to swap that personal and professional service for buying from the internet when they go home in the evening.”

EDA membership is the best it has ever been. But how is the Association going to attract new members?

Says Margaret: “The 20% we don’t have are mostly small wholesalers and we believe that giving access to EDA training programmes for your employees – which are incredibly cheap – is a definite benefit that would appeal.

“The big target for us is to engage more with our existing members making sure that they come to our social events, to our forums and taking our training.”

As Margaret joined the EDA, plans were well underway for this year’s centenary celebrations.

“It was a great time to join as I got involved in researching the 100 year history of the Association. In our Centenary celebrations, we tried to emphasise the links between the past and the present, to acknowledge the relationships we have with companies and organisations that go back to 1914. Those relationships are still thriving today. It’s made me realise what a fantastic history we have and has given me a sense of responsibility too. I want to ensure that the EDA only gets better during my watch.”