Divide and conquer

The rapid expansion of Ardale Property’s team of builders merchants and hardware stores is taking the Dublin region by storm. The Hardware Journal visited the company’s inaugural store in Clondalkin – Clondalkin Builders Providers Limited – where General Manager Gareth O’Hare and Director Emma Maye discussed their progress so far.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that Dublin City is encircled by a vast amount of large radial towns and smaller villages. The commuter belt is being continuously loosened as property developers become increasingly more imaginative in upselling the so-called convenience of whatever distance their particular development lies from the capital. Maps of the Greater Dublin Area almost resemble battle plans of a besieged city with its back to the sea, marauders at the gates, decked in steeltoe-capped boots and safety passes. As the boom continues unabated in the Leinster region, local builders merchants and hardware retailers continue to capitalise on the incessant surge in construction projects.

The image of marauders implanted itself in my mind as I drive past the medieval round tower in Clondalkin Village, 10 kilometres west of Dublin. Built in the 7th century to protect against Viking raids, it reminds everyone who passes of the immense history
in the area. A little further down the road I turn into a cul de sac where the new kid on the block has integrated itself seamlessly, becoming a popular addition in a very short space of time.

Since April 2016, Clondalkin Builders Providers Limited has been the go-to spot for locals and those from further afield for large-scale construction needs as well as smaller-scale home DIY projects. The site itself was first used for the hardware retail industry back in 1983, undergoing several gradual expansions throughout the intervening years, and currently measuring approximately four acres. Belonging to a trio of stores sheltered under the umbrella of the Ardale Property Group, CBPL is in fact the eldest sibling, with the other two only opening in the past 18 months – Newtown in January 2017 (NBPL), and Blackrock in May 2017 (BBPL).

The Clondalkin store floor itself measures 4,500 sq. ft, with a further six external sheds spread throughout a substantial outdoor yard, which also houses a large timber holding as well as a dedicated paving area too.

Within only six months of taking over the site, senior management identified a pressing need to rearticulate how the store functioned. The first floor was previously a floor and door showroom, but as Emma explains, nobody was venturing upstairs. Staff locations were also split between two areas, and a decision to centralise all staff to the newly renovated upstairs area resulted in improved communications. It also helped the team refine their shop floor, into which the door and floor ranges are now neatly integrated. Indeed, the displays of various products are all immaculately arranged and maintained, with an eye-catching miniaturised bathroom display adding an extra sheen as one walks through the doors.

The outdoor yard is a little more hectic, but that’s due mainly to an ongoing process of overhauling one of the warehouses, with a focus on improving the overall layout, installing new racking as factors such as the change in pallet sizes necessitates certain upgrades. As Gareth explains: “Traditionally the plywood would have been spread around the whole warehouse, but now we have it centred in one location. It’s a similar case with all the insulation products.” Convenience is the buzz word as all efforts focus on streamlining the yard experience for the trades-person who simply wants to swing by and collect their product with minimal fuss.

Emma describes how the team have worked hard on the presentability of the store, introducing newer lines like the sanitary and tile ranges to soften the overall perception of Clondalkin BPL. “More than anything, it’s so that a housewife can now come in and not feel as intimidated as they perhaps used to,” she explains. “It’s all well and good when the construction industry is booming, but you’ll always have your day-to-day DIY trade and you’ll always need that,” adds Gareth.

In such a notoriously tough industry, the CBPL team seem to understand the fine balance between hunting success while covering all bases in the process. The store is very strongly associated with and involved in the residential site business through their expansive network of trade customers. However, a heavy dependency on trade results inevitably in more exposure to credit risk. Words certainly aren’t minced when talking about how focused they are on staying on top of their debt books.

“It’s a tough industry that’s gotten even tougher,” observes Gareth. While trading and credit are intrinsically linked, the team are aware of their good fortune in having the stable backing to allow them target involvement in the larger construction projects in the area. The evolution of lead times once measuring two weeks now stretching to two months has somewhat forced more strategic forward planning, along with closer communication with the customer to help stay organised and on track throughout the entire lifecycle of a project. It has also fostered closer communication throughout the company’s own network, liaising frequently with CBPL’s sister stores in Newtown and Blackrock to help meet demand.

The division in CBPL’s business is quite pronounced, with an estimated 80% coming from trade, with only approximately 20% originating in home DIY. Nevertheless, one of the more recent developments has seen the company’s Build4Less website grow in its capacity to cater for online sales to both groups.

According to Emma, online sales are going very well, with further big plans for its expansion down the line. There has been a lot of investment in marketing and branding, both in terms of time and money. Two full-time employees based in Clondalkin are exclusively dedicated to the running and maintenance of the site. “People don’t want to talk on the phone,” muses Emma. “They want to do it all online, and at the end of the day it’s convenience for the customers that counts.”

With impressive commitments to nationwide delivery of product purchased online, the company has established a network of strategic partners scattered across the country to help fulfill said commitments. For the Greater Dublin and Leinster region, the company boasts its own fleet of trucks, to which four new vehicles were added within the past 18 months – a statement of intent concerning constant investment in the group.

In Clondalkin and the other stores, a Click-and-Collect service is operated, further underlining the drive to maximise convenience for the customer. But Emma and Gareth are keen to stress that – should any customer require further advice – there will always be somebody to talk to.

As for the main trends that CBPL are witnessing emerge, airtightness and insulation are the two main players on the larger construction sites. For smaller-scale customers, composite decking is starting to take off as Spring/Summer comes into view. But according to Gareth, the biggest thing is insulation, with the near omnipresence of certified surveyors on all sites signing off on ratings which affect the value of a house. Metac insulation and insulation liners have gone from infrequently appearing on the radar only five years ago to becoming the proverbial bread and butter stuff of today. At CBPL, I-joists are becoming more popular too, due to their convenience for the tradesman either plumbing and/or wiring through them. For CBPL specifically, the challenge is to draw awareness to the availability of related products on their shelves.

To this end, one of the avenues to which they look is social media, with Facebook being their main port of call. There’s a certain pride among the team at their innovative use of Facebook Live videos in particular, something not overly common in this particular industry. Frequent competitions are held, and an ongoing collaboration with marketing partners iZest has seen a steady production of videos stockpiled, to be strategically released along a predetermined timeline. The company adheres to a 12-month social media plan that’s under constant revision. Like any and every company, its staff are key. While the network of stores is still quite fledgling, plans to expand are constantly at the forefront of senior management’s thoughts. At present, there are 32 staff in Clondalkin, 15 in Newtown, and 11 in Blackrock. Impressively, the company has only experienced one staff departure in the last year. Morale is among the chief motivations.

Once a quarter, birthday cakes for all staff celebrating their birthdays within that quarter are sliced up and handed out. More recent initiatives include “Fruit Day” once a month, which the staff “howled laughing at when it first came in but is a huge success now,” explains Emma. There are also staff competitions on Valentine’s Day, where they encourage fancy dress, as well as providing free Valentine’s Day cards to help put a few romantic cats among the pigeons.

But it’s not all fun and games. The company takes very seriously those seeking to either begin or advance their careers, with a preference for promoting internally when relevant. There have also been successful cases of brand new, green-behind-thegills staff coming in and training up from scratch, eventually establishing themselves as permanent staff members. They have even gone so far as to assist with staff members seeking to finish school and progress to college, all the while working at CBPL.

Mindful of their place in the local community, the company provide a charity donation every year, the recipient of which is decided by the staff. The Clondalkin store also sponsor Booth Road Celtic, as well as hoardings at the Round Towers GAA club. “It’s Imperative that we’re ingrained in the local community,” declares Gareth, who draws specific attention to the work carried out by CBPL in relation to the local Clondalkin Mens Sheds. Both Gareth and Emma are far coyer when asked about upcoming developments. “Watch this space!” was the unanimous response, although the less said, the more heard by their competitors in the industry.

With regard to upcoming challenges facing not only CBPL but the industry as a whole, the sourcing of product is identified as the single biggest issue. For CBPL, 95% of their business is found in Dublin and the surrounding areas. A certain portion of product comes from the UK, and so Brexit’s eventual impact will inevitably trickle down. That, plus an unwavering desire to stay ahead of the competition, has the group constantly looking at new product lines where feasible.

As we near the end of my visit, they both reflect on their place within the industry. “The one thing that never surprises me is the element of surprise” laughs Gareth. “Every day brings something different,” he adds. For Emma, it doesn’t even feel like a job. “Construction and property has been in my family for donkey’s years – it’s always been in my blood, and I find it very exciting,” she enthuses. “I love working with good people.”