In her continuing series, Annemarie Harte, CEO of HAI, visited the headquarters of Irish International Trading Corporation (Cork) plc (IITC) and spoke to the company’s new Managing Director, David Heffernan, about its strong heritage in both steel distribution and in supplying premium plumbing and heating products, as well as its ambitions for the future.
Arriving on a sunny but cold morning in Cork, I was surprised to see that IITC has a showroom and trade counter at its large seven acre site on the Tramore Road. IITC is both a merchant and supplier – a merchant in Cork, and wholesaler to merchants nationwide which is its principal business. Divided into five key diversified areas – plumbing and heating, hardware, steel, wire and salt – IITC has been trading for 95 years and is a public limited company with distribution centres in Tivoli, Cork and Ballymount in Dublin.
David Heffernan has recently taken over as the new Managing Director and one of his main objectives is to overcome preconceptions about the company: “We want to enhance our market profile and inform our customers and the public of the full range of products and services we provide. IITC has been trading for close to 100 years and is a very successful company.
“This success is attributable to our loyal and supportive customers and also the excellent people who work for IITC. We didn’t let one person go during the downturn and that’s something we’re very proud of. We started as a family business and in many respects still operate as a traditional business. However, we are well-geared for the opportunities and challenges that this fast-changing industry presents and we have ambitious expansion plans for the future.”
An area of the company’s business that has expanded dramatically has been its steel
distribution business. Over the past four to five years, IITC has gained substantial market share in this sector and the company foresees further growth opportunities. It stocks an extensive range of steel at its seven-acre site in Cork where its custom-built warehousing is equipped with specialist cranes to facilitate the fast and safe loading and unloading of stock. While the main driver of growth in this sector in the recent past has been in agricultural buildings and dairy farm upgrades, IITC believes that the anticipated upturn in construction over the next two to three years will lead to further increased demand for steel and related products.
Equally, IITC is also focused on the high end of the plumbing and heating market as was evident when David showed me a selection of the showers, radiators, bathroom and sanitary ware on display in the showroom. I always feel that whether your bathroom needs a makeover or not, by the time you come out of a place like this you certainly want one! That led to a discussion about the importance of the female customer in the decision-making process and the unmistakeable division of the trade counter and consumer-oriented sections of the floor. The trade counter may well be perceived as ‘the Berlin Wall’ by women walking in the door, yet many of the products displayed in this section are useful sales add-ons and are just as relevant to the head of the household irrespective of gender (see panel below).
IITC was recently selected as a finalist in the Cork Company of the Year 2016 Award by The Cork Chamber of Commerce. Having gone through a rigorous vetting process, IITC was shortlisted from hundreds of other applicants to be one of the three finalists in the SME category for this prestigious award. The winners were announced at a gala awards night in February hosted by the Cork Chamber of Commerce and attended by more than 1,000 of Cork’s leading businesses.
Although IITC were not successful on the night, David believes the whole process was very beneficial for the company. “Being selected as a finalist in the Cork Company of the Year awards has raised the company’s profile throughout Cork and Munster. We have received very positive and encouraging feedback from the judging panel and we have learned a lot about ourselves and our company during this competition. In particular, we appreciate even more what a good company IITC is, the tremendous people that we have working with us and the potential we have to grow and expand further.”
UK MERCHANTS ALERT TO PROFIT POTENTIAL IN FEMALE CUSTOMER BASE
Historically, the gender bias in the DIY market could be accounted for on a socio-cultural level, with women traditionally delegating DIY projects to their partners, families or professionals. However, Verdict’s research in the UK indicates that male consumers currently make up 55.6% of all DIY shoppers, which is not a particularly strong proportional share, considering that men make up 49% of the total UK population and DIY is thought of as a traditionally male-dominated industry. Moreover, according to Verdict, female DIY shoppers are on the increase to the tune of 1.5 percentage points (between 2013 and 2014). Rather than the female consumer being a new opportunity for the DIY market, what this research actually shows is that retail initiatives taken in the UK to encourage the female DIY shopper are already showing results.
Take, for example, Homebase, which has already cut back significantly on DIY products in order to focus on more home décor merchandise, such as carpets and made-to-measure curtains, as well as Habitat and Laura Ashley concessions. Their new format store in Worcester (opened in 2014) which I visited, has positioned Homebase as a design centre with a focus on inspiration. The Costa café, revamped home offer and clearer signage are all designed to appeal to the female shopper, and the retailer actively encourages influential networking site NetMums to hold meetings in Homebase stores. While there is a movement in this direction by some of the larger retailers here, the Verdict research raises the question as to whether Irish retailers and merchants have sufficiently adapted their presentation over the last number of years to accommodate a variation in customer base?
If you have a story to tell as a supplier or manufacturer in the Irish market, please contact Annemarie on 01 298 0969 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.