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TBS Managing Director Retires and Reflects

April 30, 2013

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Ray Gunn, Managing Director of TBS Building Supplies, is retiring after 30 years. We caught up with him for an interview.

You came to TBS in February 1982. What was your own background?

I left Secondary Modern School at 16 and had no higher education. I got a job in Customs and Excise and became a VAT Inspector. So my background was really in accounts.

TBS had been going for four years when you arrived. How did it look then?

There were two depots with two staff in each, one truck and driver shared between them, and a part-time accountant! Towcester branch was in an old chapel, and Daventry branch shared a warehouse with a health foods wholesaler, with just a roller shutter in between.

You must have seen plenty of developments. Tell us about some.

In 1986, our invoice ledger went computerised, and three years later we introduced an integrated stock system. We were shareholders in the software company and for some years I was a director. That system stayed with us, through many upgrades, until 2012.

We moved to our current Daventry premises in 1987 and in 2009 were able to purchase it and make a lot of changes and improvements to help our customers. We have bought some land in Towcester, where in due course our largest premises of all will be built. In 2010 we opened our third branch in Southam.

We have had to deal with competition, some of it aggressive (like opening a branch next door to us). Each time, the outcome has been a strengthened customer base and a dramatic increase in our turnover!

As a smaller, independent merchant, we have always aimed to offer a more personal service. We’re happy that many of our customers see us as a second family. We’re on first name terms.

TBS is owned by a Christian church, and as the company has grown, we have been able to give up to £300k a year to various charities. So, whether they realise it or not, our customers are helping to support good causes!

A youthful Ray back in 1982

A youthful Ray back in 1982

How have you seen the Builders Merchant market change?

The biggest change has been the buying up of smaller independents by the ‘big boys’. Some newer companies like Grafton and MKM have also risen to become major players.

Also, in a tighter financial climate, customers are much more particular. This has raised the bar considerably for customer service. We have to be efficient and product-aware as never before.

How have you ensured that TBS keeps up with the field?

Through joining buying groups. We have been part of NMBS and Unimer for many years, and more recently of H&B. This has enabled us as a smaller merchant to remain competitive. In fact, we have actually increased our sales in the midst of the recession.

We have tried to stay ahead in Information Technology. Our web page won the national builders merchant website of the year award in 2009. It is now being completely reworked for still greater effectiveness. We have entered the world of Social Media, with Twitter and Facebook pages and an increasingly popular blog.

As you look back, what things give you most satisfaction?

We have become a successful and forward-looking company with healthy profits. As a small independent merchant with only three branches, we punch above our weight!

I value our links with our customers. Many have become friends. We’ve been able to accompany some of them through personal and business crises.

Many of the staff I also count as friends. There is a good sense of team spirit. I’m particularly warmed by the way we have been able to employ certain young men who would have struggled to find openings anywhere else, and to watch them develop and flourish as self-assured team members. I see this, in part at least, as a service to the wider society.

How would you see Builders merchants developing in the years to come?

I can see buying groups growing and becoming more influential, as customers turn from large and impersonal players to smaller companies with a more personal service.

Online selling is going to be big, so merchants need to be planning for this sooner, not later.

As customers become more discerning and internet aware, staff will need to be more product-aware and knowledgeable. Training will be paramount.

We wish you well in your retirement, Ray. Have you got anything planned?

I’m already back at college, doing a computer course. My wife and I have church activities and volunteer in a café in Belfast one day a week. We’re exploring Ireland and loving this beautiful land, and I’m generally learning to relax!

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