Growth and Stability

The HPC Group is constantly expanding its family of stores, with 13 branches nationwide to-date. The Hardware Journal spoke to Managing Director Dennis O’Connor about diversity in the industry, AMBA, and the key to developing staff.

The HPC Group is one of Ireland’s largest privately-owned independent builders merchants groups, with thirteen branches currently operating nationwide. Eight of these trade as TJ O’Mahony, including the latest Timber and Panel Products division just recently opened. The other locations are Ballymount, Kilshane, Glasnevin, Navan, Arklow, Cahir, Gort and Oranmore. The network also consists of a PH Ross’s Plumbing and Heating division at Hanlon’s Corner, Cabra, and the newly- opened Plumbing and Heating store in JFK Drive, Bluebell. The ensemble is then completed by C+D Providers, Wexford, and McCarthy’s Hardware in Prosperous, Kildare. Expansion is the plat du jour, with little sign of the group’s appetite being satisfied anytime soon.

The HPC Team

In total, HPC employs over 260 full-time and part-time staff, and the goal of not only attracting but developing and retaining the best staff is a fundamental part of HPC’s approach to business. For Dennis, one of the key implementations since taking over as MD was the establishing of the HPC Academy, with the objective of nurturing existing talent into a learning environment where the current staff have ongoing opportunities of upskilling, and where new recruits plug into a continuous program of learning which will provide them with necessary learning tools, from helpful tips to a more formal program of learning. Dennis stresses that the academy carries significant importance if the group wishes to sustain its future growth plans. “The key objectives of the academy are simple,” explains Dennis. “Identify any skills shortage in the group and then focus on the upskilling of both existing and newer additions to the team to address that shortage.”

It’s clear that HPC value its staff as their most important asset, and Dennis speaks passionately about the progressive approach demonstrated by the group. “Traditionally, our industry was seen very much as a male dominated one, and so it was particularly encouraging to see such strong female leadership at our recent management conference in Galway, notably from the contribution of our Head of Marketing Cath Orr, our Group Stock Manager Karen Kendrick, and our most recent addition Aine Mulvey (Store Manager in PH Ross).”

Customer Experience

When presented with the typical run-of-the-mill questions on the traditional breakdown between trade/DIY, cash and credit, Dennis brushes away the question with steely confidence. Rather than focus on the boring nuts and bolts, he indicates a preference to discuss HPC’s confidence in promoting the best product for the job – not necessarily the best price.

“In HPC we put a huge emphasis on trying to understand our customers’ needs and wants, from products to services. It is hugely important that we have the agility to best serve what the customer wants,” he states.

“The tradesperson by-and-large takes huge pride in the quality of work they are delivering for their clients. Sometimes, as merchants, we mistake what the customers want as only being a cheap price and rue the opportunity to showcase a better product, a better way of delivering a better finish, all because we thought the tradesperson or the DIY customer wanted a cheaper price. I feel the onus is upon us as a merchant to at least present the better option and deliver the understanding and conviction as to why the better product should be considered for the project. If we deliver on this, we will play our part in ensuring what is built today will be sustainable for many years to come.”

When it comes to current customer trends, few are better placed to comment than a group with such a broad branch network spanning a near-full spectrum of building supplies and hardware products.

Dennis has observed solid growth in engineered or solid flooring. That said, laminate flooring in general – and the better quality laminates in particular – remain hugely important. “Now that there’s a little more in the budget, people are starting to look for the better floor in the so called ‘good room’,” he offers. “Sustainability, certification, and the environment are all hugely influential in the customer’s decision-making process.”

In the Trade sector, the group has witnessed a big swing away from the cheaper alternatives in the plywood market, with Dennis stating that their sales team is equipped with a swatch of plywood and Smartply options that they can show the customer at point of sale. “And when the customers get to see the quality variation, they tend to go with the better option,” he explains.

The recent fine weather has been responsible in no small part to increased performance in certain product categories, such as external paint sales, decking, and hard landscaping products such as paving, fencing, and mulch among others.

AMBA

Dennis sees the group’s affiliation with Allied Merchants Buying Association (AMBA) as among the most important decisions taken by HPC.

HPC’s Managing Director is also one of the founding members of AMBA, with HPC joining Graham’s of Monaghan, Ganley’s of Athlone, Morris’s of Waterford and Joyce’s of Galway to create the association. Dennis is currently the association’s Chairperson. AMBA has 15 members with an annual spend of over €250m in building materials, plumbing and heating goods, and timber products.

“We see our association with Allied Merchants as being one of the best decisions we made in the Group. The Group is set up for what a member needs in these highly competitive times, with a great sense of comradery amongst the members,” enthuses Dennis.

“It’s the members that make the buying decisions, each member is represented on the category management team and, as a result, the suppliers selected are right for the group – not only in financial terms but also in a growing sustainable manner.”

Social Media

Dennis describes the group’s social media platform as being decent, with weekly developments being implemented to help progress their social and online platforms. With 13 branches each displaying their own identity and product ranges, the company has thus far opted against a unified HPC social media brand. The branches do have their own respective accounts, with TJ O’Mahony’s in Arklow having accumulated and impressive 3,000 plus likes. However, the social media frontier is a little further down the list of priorities for the time being. “One of the frailties I currently see – not only in our industry but also in other industries – is too much of an effort from companies to be too many things to too many people. Companies are straddling themselves across so many platforms and yet are failing to answer the phone, listen, engage with the customer, and follow-up afterwards.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Dennis continues, “it is something that cannot be ignored. It is and will be a huge driver of business, but our philosophy is quite simple: Until we can do something great, let’s not do it.”

On the theme of engaging with customers, the HPC Group’s philosophy expands further into the local communities where their stores are located. They sponsor several sporting clubs, along with a number of school’s teams right across the country through their branch network.

Last year, the group announced a two-year partnership with Focus Ireland, during which the company aims to support the charity in challenging the root causes of homelessness and changing the lives of those with whom they work. The group’s extensive branch network is seen as a key tool in the efforts to raise as much money as possible to donate to such a worthy cause.

What the future holds

HPC has a continuous group development program incorporating upgrades to existing stores along with the constant and targeted opening of new ones. Recent activity to this end includes the opening of a new PH Ross Plumbing & Heating store on JFK drive off the Naas Road, Dublin. The company also completed a remodelling of their Cahir store in Tipperary, with the planning process currently underway regarding their Ballymount store.

When talk shifts to the outlook for hardware retailing in general, Dennis solidifies his upbeat tone.

“I think the outlook has to be hugely positive for our industry, notwithstanding there could be a few external factors that could disrupt momentum. Within HPC we try and focus on the parts that we can control, continuing to build an even more sustainable business model, picking our steps carefully and delivering on the bottom line, and always with room for a little fun along the way!”

While HPC have good cause for optimism, however, others are feeling the strain of a two-tier economic recovery. When it comes to the key to survival in a challenging industry, Dennis offers: “I think the key is being interested in your customer’s projects and being agile enough to change should the need arise. I am in the industry over 28 years and in that time, I’ve come to feel that those two traits are key to surviving the downs – not just in the past but also in the future.”