Standing stronger together
Independent merchants looking to strengthen their position in the market can work closely with buying groups, without being restricted in their choice of products. 3 Counties Timber & Building Supplies reveals the growth of their business and why they chose to join the IBC Buying Group.
By their very nature, buying groups exist to create partnerships between suppliers and merchants. Through their combined buying power they offer exclusive prices, special offers and terms to independent builders’ merchants, while giving building material suppliers access to hundreds of independent merchants all in one place.
Some merchants decide against joining a buying group because of concerns that some of their choice may be taken away, and they will have to purchase every product through the buying group, losing their valued independence. But the Independent Buying Consortium does things differently, working to create partnerships of strength and value without demanding that the merchant sacrifices their independence, or requiring them to spend time sitting on committees negotiating deals.
It was this flexibility that convinced 3 Counties Timber & Building Supplies to first join IBC back in 2012, despite their previous scepticism of the value that a buying group could offer.
Richard Dawson, Managing Director of 3 Counties, explains: “In truth, we had always been a little bit sceptical of these sorts of things, and of allowing people to interfere with our business.”
Richard had extensive experience as a merchant, having previously worked for both national and independent businesses, and felt that over-regulation in the supply chain – particularly in regard to purchasing – had actually become a barrier to trade.
“The appeal of IBC was that the members still had a choice in what they purchased,” he says. “The deals were there, but you don’t have to agree to every single one of them. It was their flexibility that we found refreshing, and it really made us think that we had little to lose by joining them.”
Over the years IBC has been a useful ally to 3 Counties, offering them help and advice when needed, and also stepping in to support the merchant during times when product shortages in the market were making it difficult to get hold of vital stock – particularly during the last few years.
“That’s the whole point of a buying group,” Richard continues. “You’re stronger together than you are alone, and they help you stand out from the competition – especially as an independent merchant. Through IBC we’ve had access to products and suppliers that we might not have been able to secure ourselves – they’re offering us a good service.”
IBC’s Commercial Director Paul Read says: “3 Counties typifies how IBC and its member partners work closely together to maximise the benefits of belonging to IBC. We negotiate national and regional supply deals on behalf of our members so they don’t have to, freeing up significant amounts of their time to focus on growing and developing their business.”
As an IBC member, 3 Counties has access to strong pricing deals and a wide range of powerful marketing and business tools that a lot of independent merchants simply don’t have access to within their own business.
The newly launched IBC Members Portal, for example, gives members online access to their account details at any time, as well as instant access to the latest supplier deals, products, rebate information and performance figures.
A decade of rapid growth
First established in 2007, 3 Counties Timber & Building Supplies has grown from a small, single branch operation to a well-established and well-respected two-branch merchant that works closely with customers throughout Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
The merchant began after Richard and his business partner purchased part of an existing business based in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
Richard says: “The retail sales of that business was really very small, turning over only about £100,000 a year in sales, but when I first visited the yard I could really see the potential.”
They purchased the site and the small retail arm of the existing business and then, after a rebrand to 3 Counties Timber & Building Supplies and a lot of hard work, the business quickly began to grow; first within Aylesbury, and then spreading out across the counties as its reputation grew.
“We’ve reinvested almost every penny that the business has generated over the years, and we’re really pleased with how it’s grown,” Richard says. “I think we’ve grown sensibly, and reasonably rapidly, to the extent that when we joined IBC we were one of their biggest members.”
After a number of years, once 3 Counties was firmly established as a successful independent merchant in the region, the search began for a second site to expand the business into alongside their existing Aylesbury branch.
In March 2015, the doors opened on the company’s new 1.7-acre flagship branch in Hemel Hempstead, which at the time was Hemel Hempstead’s largest independent builders’ merchant depot.
Across the two sites 3 Counties Timber & Builders’ Merchants now employs 44 members of staff – a real testament to just how much the company has grown over the last 12 years.
A local merchant with local values
3 Counties Timber & Builders’ Merchants prides itself on being a local business, and one that strives to give back to the community both by supporting local projects, and offering great service to both trade and retail customers as standard.
“I’ve always believed that customer service should be a core value of any merchant business, and I’ve always encouraged a strong retail element, to try and give end-users a good offering and to break down that ‘barrier of fear’ for an end-user going into a builders’ merchant,” Richard says. “I always felt we were very good at that, long before some of the ‘softer’ merchants opened their doors.”
Customer service is a core tenet of 3 Counties, one of the three values it builds its business around – consistent pricing, a comprehensive product range and strong customer service.
Richard explains: “I think a lot of people pay lip service to the idea of good customer service, but don’t deliver it at point of sale. We try to consistently reinforce it on a daily basis across the whole team, and overall I think there’s a good ethos that runs through the business. Our strapline is ‘local merchant, local values’.”
3 Counties also works closely with its local community and is a proud supporter and fundraiser for The Pepper Foundation – a charity which funds a nursing team providing free, specialist, at-home palliative care and support to children with a life-threatening or life-limiting illness, helping them to stay at home with their families for as long as possible.
While always welcoming to the general public and the local community, 3 Counties’ main customer base are builders – from those working on extension or renovation projects, through to building one or two unit housing developments.
For these customers, 3 Counties ensures it has a wide range of stock and fast availability, so that tradespeople know they will have what they need, when they need it.
“It brings great value to a client if they don’t have to go to two places when they need materials,” Richard adds. “That’s also why we decided to introduce plant and tool hire in 2012. More often than not, tradespeople have to hire equipment to work on a project, and if they can do that with you as well as buying materials, then that gives them even more value – though it’s not a service that many independent merchants offer.”
Looking to the future, Richard is keen to continue growing 3 Counties, honing the business and expanding the two depots with new product lines to add to the recently introduced UPVC soffits and fascia board at the Hemel Hempstead branch.
“I want to make both branches into individually brilliant merchants offering the widest range of products and services,” he concludes. “We just want to keep adding product lines and giving customers really good, proven product in the market, at great value, and with great customer service.”
Thanks to its hard work and dedication, and supported by its membership of the IBC Buying Group, 3 Counties can provide its customers with exactly that – great value products, with reliable delivery times and a certainty of supply that is invaluable in times of product shortages.
- This article was originally published in Builders’ Merchants Journal magazine, September 2019 issue.