Tuesday 12 November 2019

Chadwicks lays growth foundations

CEO Patrick Atkinson is putting in the legwork to keep the builders' merchant ahead of the competition, writes Sean Pollock

Chadwicks Group chief executive Patrick Atkinson. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Chadwicks Group chief executive Patrick Atkinson. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Sean Pollock

Patrick Atkinson is a man who values vision. The chief executive of Chadwicks Group, the builders' merchant owned by Grafton Group, was once a keen landscape photographer. The hobby not only helped him to capture the beauty of some of the 116 countries he has travelled throughout his career, but also to understand the importance of spotting opportunities and capturing them at the perfect moment.

"You've got to have the ability to know where you are going," he says. "The ability to see an opportunity and think, 'this looks good, will this work?'"

Back in Ireland, Atkinson rues not being able to get the camera out as much as he once did; but that has not stopped him from getting creative when it comes to new opportunities.

The 55-year-old, who joined the firm in 2015 and became CEO in 2017, is leading a new long-term plan for Chadwicks Group, which he hopes will help the company maintain its position in the Irish builders' merchants market.

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It is the country's largest, generating £441.1m (€511.9m) in revenue and £41.5m in profit last year. Grafton Group, which also owns Woodies, is investing €5m in an ambitious nationwide rebranding plan for Chadwicks, which will include upgrading the company's technology and refurbishing its branches.

It will also become the lead builders' merchant brand in Ireland for Grafton, with Heiton Buckley, another Grafton-owned builders' merchant, rebranding as Chadwicks.

Atkinson has made a move to stave off new competitors in the Irish sector, which includes UK-based Murdock Builders Merchants and Screwfix, after it opened its first fixings centre next to its Dublin Thomas Street branch last week.

His plan will see Chadwicks open more specialist centres next to or within its stores.

The motivation for change is not only a result of the growing competition in the market, but also a widely recognised industry slowdown, primarily caused by Brexit.

Grafton Group issued a trading update earlier this month to this effect, highlighting that demand across its Irish builders' merchants was slowing.

It also stated that the group, which had revenues of £2.72bn last year, expected full-year operating profit to be in the range of 4pc to 8pc lower than its current consensus of about £193.5m.

Chadwicks has also been affected by the slow pace of house construction in Ireland. Experts say the country needs to build between 30,000 and 35,000 properties a year. This year, it is on course to miss this target, with some estimates suggesting less than 20,000 will be built.

"We are on the front line, so if there is no activity, we feel it first," says Atkinson. "We know by the levels of activity from the biggest to the smallest builders. It is indicative of what is happening.

"The first seven to eight months of the year were fine; there's a little bit of a dip at the moment, but it will only be short-term."

It is going to take some hard work to complete the Chadwicks plan, something Atkinson is relishing.

He was born in New York to Irish parents who decided when he was six years old to move the family back to Wexford after inheriting farmland.

He says life on the farm instilled an appreciation of work from an early age, something that still stands him in good stead.

"Everyone is involved, everyone is working," he says. "No one is having a lie-in on a Saturday morning; everyone is up and doing stuff.

"The work ethic has rubbed off on me now. You get the hands-on approach as well. Something doesn't get left for someone else to do. It is up to you to do it."

Attending St Peter's College in Wexford, Atkinson excelled in most of his classes.

At the 'hurling school', he valued his involvement with the sport and gets concerned that younger generations might be missing out on some of the lessons it taught him while growing up.

"Sport taught me honesty and integrity," he says. "Your name was your brand.

"I just look at my kids now, who are at that age, and how different it is now. There is so much pre-occupation with social media and all these different channels of entertainment. For us, it was a simpler time."

Following school, 18-year-old Atkinson took the plunge and moved to Dublin to begin his degree in business studies at Dublin City University.

He jokes that he could not wait to move to "the big smoke" and get his first taste of city living since his early childhood in New York.

In his final year at college, he got his first job as part of a work experience programme with Masterfoods Ireland, now called Mars.

Under the stewardship of former Sunderland AFC footballer Don Rankin, Atkinson soon developed a love for sales and marketing which has stuck with him to this day.

The buzz soon paid off; Atkinson is the man responsible for approving the famous Pedigree dog food, a Masterfoods brand, tag line: "Eight out of 10 top breeders prefer it."

The job also gave him a taste of international travel, moving out to New Hampshire in the US for three and a half years. He eventually opted to move back home following a letter from his grandmother warning him that if he did not come back soon, "some girl would get hold of your coat-tails" and he would never return.

The letter worked; Atkinson soon moved back to take up a role with tool manufacturer Bosch.

"When you come from an island, you are always looking outward to see what else is out there," says Atkinson. "It's only when you've been around the globe a couple of times you realise that what you have at home is pretty good. Sometimes, you need to live that to learn it; you can't teach it."

He worked with Bosch for two and a half years before joining Wavin Ireland, a pipe supplier, his first exposure to the building materials world. Atkinson loved the role and stayed there for nearly 13 years.

In 2005, Atkinson made yet another big move. Gypsum Industries took him on as its marketing and development director. A few months later, industry behemoth Saint-Gobain bought Gypsum.

The company acquired Atkinson as well; he became its global marketing manager and eventually moved to Paris. The role was challenging, but it exposed Atkinson to the cut and thrust of representing a prominent business across the globe, particularly during difficult times like the recession.

During his 10 years in the role, he estimates he travelled to more than 100 countries as Saint-Gobain looked to capitalise on new emerging markets, particularly those less affected by the global recession.

In 2015, Atkinson picked up the phone to an anonymous caller, who said he represented Grafton Group. The unknown man had an offer for him. "The opening line was, 'hi, is that Patrick, how would you like to move home?' and I said, 'yeah, but who's this again?'"

He accepted the role as chief operating officer with Chadwicks and has not looked back since. He became the CEO in 2017, after Eddie Kelly, his predecessor, retired.

Atkinson's first job was streamlining the company's IT unit, which was operating on multiple platforms. He also set out to digitise the business and improve its online offering.

Atkinson is now leading the business through its €5m rebranding exercise. He is a big believer in what the company is setting out to do as it rebrands and refurbishes its outlets, while also moving some services online to make life easier for its customers.

According to Atkinson, the decision to move its builders' merchants under the Chadwicks Group umbrella was a result of recognising that customers were receiving different levels of service from different companies in the group, as they would often have an account with one brand and not the other. He says moving the companies under one brand will help customers receive the same level of service.

The new digital offering from Chadwicks is also set to shake up an industry which is traditionally slow to embrace change. Following conversations with its customers, Chadwicks found that two of the biggest challenges construction companies faced were paying consistent prices between merchants and maintaining invoices.

The new digital offering from Chadwicks will help to provide customers with both. "Getting consistency will be huge for our customers," says Atkinson. "Before, we were on four different systems, so there was no tallying between the prices or service at Chadwicks or Heitons. Some customers were scared of going digital, so we are doing it iteratively and letting them experience getting invoices sent to their email inbox."

Looking to the future, Atkinson is readying the business for the next big opportunity in construction as he looks to enhance Chadwicks' offering of sustainable renovation and maintenance products.

"Sustainability is going to be the biggest gig in town," he says. "We will be accentuating that offer, so more insulation, heat pumps and heat tanks."

Atkinson says the company plans to open more dedicated centres like the one launched last week in Dublin. He hopes this part of the investment programme can improve the business, and enhance its position as Ireland's leading brand.

"This is a big investment programme for us," he says. "Competition is important in any market. It is good for consumers, and it's good for keeping the people in the market sharp.

"Everyone has their place in the market. We've just got to keep committing to being the best we can be."

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