Roger Cooper: Looking back, and looking ahead

Having just retired as chairman of Bathroom Brands and following a career of over 50 years, Roger Cooper reflects on his legacy and offers his insight on the road ahead. How does today’s market compare to other economic woes that he’s seen, and what’s next?

Q: Looking back, is there a specific highlight for you, or a moment that you’d pick out and say: “that’s where I really felt like I made a difference?”

A: I think when we put Armitage Shanks and Ideal Standard together, that was probably the biggest challenge. Very often, when you merge two companies in the same industry, one and one don’t make two, but we were lucky with the heritage of those two companies. Armitage Shanks was very strong in the contract and specialist area, and Ideal Standard was stronger in the retail environment. Looking back over my time, if I was proud of anything, it was that we put two companies together and one and one made more than two.

Q: There’s a lot of turmoil and uncertainty going on, but surely that’s nothing new to you after 50 years. What’s your assessment of the bathroom market right now?

A: I think the numbers tell their own story. The biggest number I look at is the moving annual total of all of the industry. In terms of the actual value of the market, we’re actually flat to where we were in I reckon there have been price increases of anywhere between 15-20% over the last few years, so the very simple message is that the volume of products being moved is obviously down by the percentage jump of the price increases. And that’s across branded and unbranded, and through all industry sources. It feels of the size of the 2007/2008 crash, especially with the recession that’s coming, and all this talk about a soft landing.

Q: From a big bathroom company point of view, where do you think the real fear would be? Is it the contract market? Builders? Retail?

A: The bathroom market isn’t a single thing, but if you split it into three major sections, you’ve got the retail market – which is the biggest you’ve got housebuilding, and you’ve got the contract market, which covers a host of submarkets. Of the three, the two that are going to be hit hardest are the retail and housebuilding markets. The contract market is reasonably buoyant because there is still government expenditure on hospitals, schools, and a lot of commercial buildings. For kbbreview’s readers though, I’m afraid that the retail market is going to be the one that’s going to be hit over the next two years.

Q: What can the big brand suppliers do to ease or help that?

A: I think there will be further interest rate rises, because the financial markets think that the UK was weak on reacting to all of this. In response, if I was a manufacturer or a brand, I would be looking to minimise what we’re doing, focus on what we do all the time, and do it better. I would then look at how we can support our customers with promotions, marketing activity, and if necessary, helping them with price – particularly to win contracts or to help give important business to them.

Q: Is there scope for prices to get back to normal?

A: I think it would be a brave company in this industry – and at this time – to be pushing through any further price increases this year. The market is delicate, and customer confidence is at its lowest point, and potentially could go lower over the next 12 months. I think that certain brands need to reinforce the support they give to retailers by saying: “well the days of heavy price increases are gone.” Then we should certainly see some price stability.

Q: What do you think about the sustainability agenda, and do you think it might lead to us seeing a return of UK manufacturing?

A: Within manufacturing, as well as the wider industry, sustainability is the order of the day, and consumers are now always asking about our credentials in that area. Our core products – particularly ceramic and brassware – will go on for a long, long time. They may go out of fashion, there might be a return to colour, but with the appropriate spare parts, bathroom products can last a lifetime. A return to UK manufacturing would frankly require significant new investment. It’s probably going to happen in brass fittings, but given the investment cost and also the people shortages for some of these industries, many of these skills have gone now. You would be starting from scratch to start building ceramic factories in the UK, so I personally don’t see it. I think at this moment, the consumer is far more concerned with surviving the next couple of years. After that, I hope these things may go back higher up the agenda.

Q: If you were still in a boardroom, what steps would you be planning to take right now?

Cover artwork for podcast episode with Roger Cooper

A: At the moment, I’d basically want to batten down the hatches and work through the next two years, bringing out new products to excite the market and bringing out promotions and activities to try and keep bathrooms on the list for the consumer. Also supporting the retailer while they manage their own businesses through this. Then you need a plan for how to continue to prosper beyond this difficult period. The positive is that there are lots of things happening: the bathroom market is changing, colour has come into brass fittings and shower enclosures, and may come back into ceramics. All of which will continue to entice the market and hopefully make consumers think about replacing their bathroom.

You can listen to the full interview in the first episode of Season Nine of the kbbreview Podcast. Click here to see all the episodes.

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