Staying ahead of the curve

As Murdock Builders Merchants continue their expansion into the ROI region, The Hardware Journal caught up with CEO Ann Morgan to talk business, Brexit, and women in the industry.

Ann, we’re sitting here in Murdock’s brand-new store in Kilbarrack – the company’s third such store in the Dublin area. What statement of intent does this send out to the builders merchants industry regarding Murdock’s plans in the Republic of Ireland?

The Kilbarrack store is open little over eight weeks now and – in terms of intent – I think what it says is we are hugely committed to the ROI region. We’re very strong in Northern Ireland in terms of network, location, and brand. We’re much less strong in the Republic of Ireland / Dublin region. Our branch in Balbriggan has been there for ten years and is a very strong, thriving branch. Ballymount is two years old, and now our Kilbarrack store too. We plan to have other branches over the next two years, depending on finding locations and people, of course. At present, we are a very solid, established company, and our expansion in Dublin – aside from growing our brand and driving sales – is primarily born out of our commitment to customer service, to provide a facility for customers to come in and collect, as well as an improved delivery service.

Murdock’s new store is in the heart of the Kilbarrack community.

In relation to sourcing your staff in particular, could you tell us how many people the company employs?

The company, at present, employs 375 people across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – the most recent of these being the appointment of our new Managing Director for our ROI operation. This is a brand new role, created to drive Murdock’s expansion and development in Dublin, together with the 50 or so people already employed in the Dublin region. We’re quite fortunate in the sense that our employees have displayed longevity with the company, with 143 having accumulated more than ten years’ service. Forty-one of those employees have crossed the twenty-year threshold, and three have racked up thirty years or more of service, with another three to reach that same substantial milestone in 2018. I do genuinely believe that Murdock’s staff is what differentiates us from other businesses in this sector. And I think when people stay with you as long as our staff has, we must be doing something right.

What have been the headline product trends at your stores in the past 12 months? What do you predict will be key categories of consumer demand in 2018?

We track our product categories very diligently, and what we have found is in the Dublin area specifically, we are selling a lot of roof trusses and space joists – a very modern development in timber roofing that can be used in place of more traditional rafters. The metal-web element offers increased structural stability, and they’re quick to install too, with minimal waste involved. You can also run services through them more easily than traditional rafters which would require additional, drilled notches, and they can be constructed to a variety of custom dimensions too. One of the key reasons for such strong sales in this area is our ability to manufacture them ourselves, through our timber division, giving us control over them. That, combined with the fact that they’re a time-critical element in terms of the roof going on to a development, has definitely provided a real spike for us. We’ve also recently branched out into the Civils area, namely underground drainage and waterproofing on an industrial level, for commercial and industrial buildings.

How significant is this new store south of the border, given the increasingly large shadow being cast by Brexit?

The reality for Murdocks – in relation to Brexit – is business as usual. Yes, there’s uncertainty in the market, and yes, that does sometimes impact on what people are prepared to spend their money on, but we’re expanding in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – certainly in Dublin – for the very foreseeable future. And that expansion has nothing to do with Brexit. Rather than stop or stall, and wonder “Should we? Shouldn’t we?” we’ve taken a decision at board level to stay the course that has served us so well until now. When we know what is going to happen, modify our systems and our operations accordingly then. At the moment, no one knows what will happen, but if you waited around for certainty, you might never do anything. Our own company hold annual meetings where a 5-year business strategy is constantly adapted, amended and implemented. Plans for our expansion in Dublin date back to 2014, long before the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The North has stagnated more than a little bit due to the government impasse, but Dublin is where most of the growth and action is, meaning it makes perfect sense to come in and service those customers in the Dublin area that now find themselves so busy.

Some industry experts have lamented the perpetual threat of negative currency fluctuations for businesses just south of the border. With a healthy presence on both sides of the border, how does Murdock deal with the potential challenges that currency fluctuation can have on businesses operating on the island of Ireland?

Well it’s certainly not the first time it’s happened to this extent. It hasn’t come out of the blue either, and is constantly happening and evolving. As a group, we’re very pragmatic, whether dealing with currency fluctuations or other challenges in the market place. For a long time, we’ve traded north and south, and so it’s always been our overall strategy to hedge against movements in currency by matching our Euro receivables and our Euro payables. We’re also very careful to retain the flexibility to switch the currency denomination of suppliers. Be it a need to move to more Euro suppliers or fewer, we will move as the business needs us to move. With our three stores in the Dublin area, we can enjoy very limited exposure too.

You were on the board of directors of Murdock for many years, before becoming CEO. Can you describe the main challenges encountered on your journey upward through such a traditionally male-dominated industry?

It has been a fairly uneventful rise, if I’m being honest – and thankfully so, certainly in relation to the various scandals developing in the media at the moment. I began work in a civil engineering company, in their human resources/training department, and after 10 years with them, my quest for progression in the industry led me to the Murdock Group (as they were known at the time), recruited as their Group HR Manager. From there, through various opportunities seized upon, I ended up becoming Chief Executive. Funnily enough, I never think of myself as being a female in work. I’d be very certain as well that none of my senior team or any other employees with whom I come into contact see me in those terms either.

In actual fact, it always seems to be people outside of Murdocks that are interested in the female aspect of it, as opposed to inside Murdocks. I’ve been with Murdocks for almost 18 years, and I’m just an employee like any other employee, here to do a job.

Nevertheless, women have been described as “seriously under-represented when it comes to the boards of management of Ireland’s top businesses, making up just 13.2% of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland, significantly below the EU average of 21.2%.” (source: EU Commission, Database on Women and Men in Decision Making). How do Murdocks view the representation of women in the builders merchants sector?

With regard to Murdocks, I can’t give you an exact number of female employees because I genuinely don’t have that figure. The reason for that is quite simple – I don’t look at the employees in terms of “Have we enough women? Have we too many men?”. We’ve a very strong culture of promoting from within, and we will look to the best men and women every time for the position. It might be an extremely boring answer but it’s also extremely genuine. Neither my management team nor I subscribe to a culture of box ticking. At the end of the day, it can be viewed as a rather unattractive industry for both women and men, owing to long hours, weekends, exposure to the elements, etc. You will find men who, for family reasons, are unwilling to take the next step up, and equally so for women. And the same applies to men and women hungry for progression within the industry. To each their own. But one point worth noting is that, at a recent industry awards ceremony in London, a category for “Best Trainee” boasted a shortlist of 3 candidates, of which 2 were female. So it might well be a sign of more positive things to come.

Murdock’s social media presence is considerable, with over 8k likes on your Facebook page. Twitter and Instagram enjoy considerably less attention, however. Could you talk a bit about your social media strategy, and just how important you consider it to increasing profile and driving sales?

I am very familiar with our own strategy, as I’m part of writing and formulating it. A little over 3 years ago, we hired a full-time digital marketing executive, because we understood the intrinsic link between digital marketing and social media, and the key role they have to play in the future. That particular recruitment was to ensure delivery of our digital strategy, incorporating every conceivable element, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, online campaigns, text and e-mail campaigns, flyers, and hard advertising in branches with regard to pushing the brand. We specifically target the builders and self-builders of the future, who are engaging more and more with smart phones and tablets in their day-to-day dealings. With regard to social media, the builders merchants sector is hardly the most interesting for casual bystanders, and so we do endeavour to bridge that interest gap with some light-heartedness too. We’re also working incredibly hard behind the scenes to upgrade our website in order to stay with the ever-changing, ever-growing digital market, as well as online retail demands.

What are your primary objectives for the group over the next two years? What do you envisage being the main factors in driving your growth over this period?

Our main objective is really to remain keenly aware of where the market is going, and working hard to keep up with that continuous evolution. Aside from that, we’re determined to identify suitable locations for expansion. But that is obviously closely linked to our other main goal of attracting, retaining and developing good staff. If we can achieve that, it will definitely help drive our business growth.