The Hart of Blanco
Following his appointment as the new boss of sinks and tap specialist Blanco UK, Simon Hart tells Rebecca Nottingham how he’s committed to providing impeccable customer service and why he believes independent specialist retailers can look forward to a solid future
Taking over the helm of a solid business like Blanco UK probably doesn’t sound like too much of a challenge.
Last year, the Blanco Group grew by around 8% and achieved a turnover of €312 million (£211.4m) through its sinks and taps alone.
The UK division has a network of around 3,000 customers, which is predominantly made up of independent kitchen specialists. It has its own purpose-built HQ, warehouse and distribution centre in Hertfordshire, and is fully supported by its parent company Blanco Germany. Its well-established German roots help to give the brand a certain level of standing and perception of quality among the UK industry.
But, as Simon Hart (pictured) admits, the real test is taking over the role of managing director and the day-to-day running of the business from the man that effectively became Blanco UK, Ron Blount.
However, having spent the past three years at Blanco, and with more than 30 years’ experience of the kitchen industry under his belt, you’d be hard pushed to find a better man for the job.
“Ron is very well known in the industry and has done such a great job with Blanco in the UK so he will be an incredibly difficult act to follow,” Hart says. “He’s set the bar very high, but I’m definitely up for the challenge. I’ve known Ron for over 25 years and have worked closely with him for the past five years – first as a consultant and then under him as Blanco UK sales manager and most recently in the role of sales director.
I’m confident that I understand exactly how he’s managed and directed the business and that, with the help of the great, solid team here, I can continue the momentum and build on the strong foundations that Ron has put in place.”
Q: What’s the strategy for the brand in the UK?
A: We align the UK strategy closely with that of our parent company in Germany. As a brand, Blanco stands for quality, innovation, service and good business values. The business, as a whole, spends a significant proportion of turnover on new product development, €33 million investment in 2014, in order to create an innovative premium product portfolio with an emphasis on design.
Q: How do you aim to take the business forward?
A: My aim in the UK is to have the best and most in-depth product range, so that our customers don’t have to look elsewhere. That has to be backed up by the highest level of service and support we can possibly deliver.
The service we already offer is great, but it can always be better. I want to put a process of continual improvement in place to ensure that we deliver the highest level of service we possibly can to our retailers – this is paramount. I’m looking at making lots of small changes that add together to make a significant ongoing improvement. Customer service for me is the most important thing. If you don’t listen and your customers aren’t happy, you don’t have a business – that’s the bottom line.
Q: How’s business for Blanco in the UK and globally?
A: Last year, we grew by around 8% and the UK division made a profit of around 5%. Performance fluctuates from market to market, depending on how countries are doing economically. We’ve seen good growth in the UK. We’re also doing well in the US, for example, but there are other markets that aren’t performing well, which balances things out. Russia, for instance, has been very difficult because the value of the rouble has dropped against the euro.
Q: What are your thoughts on how the growth of online sales has affected the sinks and taps sector? A lot of retailers say that it’s hard to make a profit out of them these days because of the widespread availability of discounted product on the internet…
A: You can’t argue with the growth of sales on the internet and the UK has the greatest usage in the whole of Europe – I think even more than America. The kitchen buyer is trying to buy a dream and they want someone to be able to deliver that dream to them. In reality, whether a sink or a tap can be bought for 3% or 5% less online makes very little difference to most consumers. I acknowledge that sometimes people will ask about price and there could be some sensitivity if it is available for less online, but really it’s down to the professionalism of the retailer to try to sell the dream and give such a great design and service that customers would not consider going elsewhere.
Q: What has Blanco done to solve this issue?
A: We stay in very close contact with our customers and distribute all of our product ourselves, so we’re not supplying into general distribution and that’s why, as a brand, we don’t have a big problem in terms of internet sales. We deal with every customer personally, and that limits the exposure of the brand and product. Because of that, our specialist retail customers get fewer problems.
Q: You’ve worked in the industry for over 30 years. Is there anything that particularly disappoints you about it?
A: Something that really frustrates me about the kitchen industry is that it’s extremely fragmented in terms of brands and retail environments. Everybody is competing with everybody else. Because of that, we don’t have this collective, big business spending on a constant media presence that puts the kitchen at the forefront of consumers’ minds and makes it the most important thing. As a comparison, if you look at the car or the mobile phone industries, there are several massive organisations that invest heavily in marketing to create this constant media presence of the products they’re selling, so they become instantly important in people’s lives. The consumer is driven by those industries rather than the other way round. I don’t have the answer to how we’d facilitate it, but the kitchen industry would definitely benefit from a similar approach.
Q: According to experts, the rise in ‘localism’ means that there’s no better time to be an independent retailer. Would you agree?
A: Certainly, I would agree. Because of the scale the specialists work with, they are able to make sure their showroom is completely in tune with their local market. Multiple retailers tend to have a more rigid, standard store footprint that they use across the UK, so it’s almost impossible for them to respond in that way. Independents have to focus on selling the dream. They have to have a showroom that is, from a design perspective, a notch ahead of anything else. It should be unique and tailored to the local market and when they deal with their customers, they do it on a level that the nationals just can’t compete with.
Q: What’s the future for kitchen retailing in the UK?
A: I can’t see how the internet or any national retailer will replace the kitchen specialist so, without doubt, they have a solid future in my opinion. The complexity of designing and fitting a kitchen will continue to help the specialist. It will be difficult for that sector to grow in terms of outlets, but all the signs point to the fact that it can, and will, grow in terms of value. We need to raise standards to improve consumer perception of the industry.
Q: What can the industry do to improve standards?
A: Initiatives like the Foundation Degree in kitchen design and the iKBBI’s apprenticeship scheme are a great starting point. People are prepared to invest thousands of pounds in their kitchens, but you don’t need a formal qualification to design or fit them in this country. Because there are no formal standards, the cowboys can mix in with the professionals, and that is wrong. The Government should impose a minimum requirement for installers or designers. Anything that can improve and strengthen the professionalism of the industry will, in the long term, be of great benefit.
- For full interview see January issue of kbbreview magazine (p32-34)