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The time is now – ‘Education is the key’ Says Brian Smithers – New President of the EDA

Brian Smithers was recently appointed as the new President of the Electrical Distributors Association (EDA) at the association’s annual dinner in London. Brian gave a passionate and articulate speech at the event and met with the EWM to give an insight into his plans going forward, the focus being directed towards the need to attract more young people to the sector, alongside the core theme of education within the industry.

Whilst Brian’s position as Managing Director of WF Electrical will be an entirely separate role, the understanding of the distributors’ viewpoint it brings will undoubtedly prove invaluable in encouraging his peers to recognise the commonality between them and shared goals for the future. First and foremost will be to create new revenue streams around energy efficient products. 
‘With numerous specialists entering the market, there is a need to recognise that distributors have the ability to compete in such areas as PV and data, the latter previously associated purely with the computing sector. Diversifying into such areas is not such a great departure from our core business in many cases, and if we are to flourish and not merely survive, we need to embrace new technology and associated products and services as a collective. Promoting and giving credibility to these products can only be of wider benefit to all members.’ 
Brian’s intention will be to encourage members to share their successes across the entire energy spectrum, from training for front line sales staff giving them the confidence they need to sell new products, to the transformation of branches in terms of their own energy usage. Brian elaborated: ‘Many members are already assessing their own properties and installing new lighting and heating technology, not only to make significant energy and cost savings, but to promote these products in situ to their customer base, and as a clear demonstration to the industry as a whole of our joint ethical commitment to sustainability. Many members are already acutely aware of this responsibility, but my role will be to spread the word to the widest possible audience and raise awareness of all energy related issues that affect us all.’  
Similarly, education does not stop with associate members, and filtering this awareness down to the customer and end-user will be all-important to the distributor. Brian believes that delivering the message directly to the client is the key to selling a new concept or product. 
It is Brian’s aim to enhance the relationship of EDA members with their suppliers, by bringing them closer into ‘the fold’. Efforts will be made to counteract the misconception in some cases that the distributor has no part to play in such specialist sectors as data, resulting in the manufacturer taking a direct route to the customer. ‘This market offers huge opportunities for the distributor, and now is the time to make bold strides where we have previously been reticent’.

PV opportunities
Taking the view is that there is a real risk of the PV market taking a direction away from the distributor if the opportunity is not grasped quickly, Brian says ‘I am fortunate in my role as President of the EDA that I can act as an ambassador not only for our members but also for the products I truly believe in. One of the most exciting trends emerging is that of PV, and with momentum continuing to grow at an unprecedented rate, there are certainly enough opportunities for us all to participate and share in the success of this unique product. I will also be urging our distributors to not only go for increased volumes but to widen the range and varieties of product offered to secure our place in what will be an increasingly competitive market.’

Why now?
EWM posed the question as to why Brian sees now as such a key time for the electrical industry, he replied: ‘This industry is more interesting than at any time in the last 100 years, due to legislation changes in the last five years. Government initiatives require that we bring our carbon footprint down by 80 per cent by 2050, 15 per cent by 2020. I think we have got such a massive opportunity over the next 25 years or so. There has never been an opportunity like this, technological development has previously been focused on cars, phones, computers and not on materials sold to the building trade. So for our industry, we have a massive opportunity to raise our profile.’ Speaking at the BEAMA conference, Brian received a lot of positive feedback on the subject and working closely with this organisation and the ECA will be high on his agenda with meetings already arranged to explore new opportunities.
Legislation changes have generated a great deal of interest and speculation, but following recent announcements, the waiting is essentially over, and in Brian’s words ‘the time is now’. 
‘The Feed in Tariffs for emerging products such as PV and tax on carbon are key drivers to sales growth, and now that the uncertainty has been removed from the equation, we can really take this sector forward.’
The emergence of the energy manager has also contributed to the increasing number of opportunities presented to the distributor. Most businesses now have energy and cost saving targets to meet and they want to know how the distributor can help them achieve them. Brian sees the role of the distributor as a close ally of the energy manager, who is in a unique position to open doors to a wide range of applications. 

Cost of ownership
Recognition of the end-users’ needs in energy related projects is also to be highlighted to EDA members. Brian advised that most are already conscious of the energy and cost saving targets that customers need to achieve, but they are leaning ever more heavily on the distributor for support in realising these goals. ‘Finding ways in which we can support the Energy Manager from a project’s inception to its completion and beyond will be an integral part of the distributor’s service offering in the future’ he explained. ‘Providing specialist advice, project management, recommendations and all-important measurement to back up any estimated savings will all be essential elements in transforming distributors into solution providers’. 

A new Director and a new direction
Brian explained that following the departure of Nigel Ellis, Ray Evans has been appointed as Director of the EDA, with whom he has formed a strong alliance. ‘Ray is undoubtedly a pillar of the association, and I will be drawing on his vast experience to take our new strategy forward. He is fully supportive of our new focus on education and bringing a youth element to the organisation, and I very much look forward to working alongside him.’

Supply chain
Immediately after his appointment, Brian siezed the opportunity to communicate with the major suppliers within the industry. Writing to all of the affiliate suppliers he requested completion of a Powerpoint template with details of their current innovative and energy related products, including their recommended routes to market. ‘The intention is to identify the key drivers behind these products so that member distributors know how to sell them. It sounds obvious, but the approach can make or break the sale of a new product’ Brian explained. He hopes to share this information via the EDA website in the very near future. 

EDA Phase one
Meeting 4 times per year, the EDA has an established network in place, and talking about sustainability has been on the agenda recently. Brian advised ‘We have built a great industry platform from which to launch our new strategy, and I am looking forward to the EDA function in Scotland later this year, at which point I will be ready to provide some real direction on sector selling, particularly from an energy perspective. I hope to present to our supplier affiliates a guidance document which will arm them with the information they need to approach businesses across the entire spectrum from government organisations to commercial premises. I am committed to this objective as I believe it will inject new life into the organisation. Sharing market intelligence has traditionally been a commercially sensitive subject, but we need to recognise that individual success is not always jeopardised in the process, and there are real benefits to be enjoyed from openness at the appropriate level'.

Brave new world
When quizzed as to how these new beginnings are to come to prominence, Brian is forthcoming: ‘If you look at the traditional world of wholesaling, it is apparent that ‘a new world’ is on the horizon. Now is the time not to say that we are merely doing the best we can, but we are striving for perfection in all we do.’  With so many members to ‘educate’, we posed the question of unrealistic ambitions, to which Brian responded ‘It is true that providing the tools to do the job may not be enough and some may choose to take a different route, but it is my personal commitment to give our members every opportunity to be the best and thrive in our community, and I intend to achieve this by making personal contact at future events and getting to know individuals. I want to meet wholesale members, not just affiliates and will be setting up meetings to really get to grips with the topical issues.’ He continues ‘I don’t see my role as a teacher, but more as a facilitator creating an environment in which we can learn from each other. No member is superior to another and everyone has a valid contribution to make.’

A new dimension: What do our members want?
Brian has a vision to engage with EDA members: ‘Next year we will extend more member invitations, and be more inclusive at Board meetings, which will give us the opportunity to ask first hand the pertinent questions’. Members are vetted before they come on board, after which they enjoy certain privileges such as learning equipment and attendance at EDA functions. It’s a great association to be a part of, and I want to build on the excellent foundations laid by my predecessors and take it to another level.’

Need for young people
In accordance with his passionate speech at the EDA dinner Brian explains ‘There is a need for more young people in the association. From my own experience, we have to introduce something to attract this rich resource. For example Ray and myself met with the (MOL) – Manchester Open Learning recently and we are looking at ways of working with them in regard to learning and development.’ He proceeds ‘There are 48 modules, and on completion of five, a City & Guilds qualification can be gained. The process has been enhanced whereby you can now attain postgraduate status. Since government backing has been withdrawn from the modules, the module price has gone up and the sales have gone down. My ambition is to get that investment back so we can restore the credibility that comes with educating young people in the world today. I will be pressing for this service to be online as statistics tell us that almost everyone has access to a personal computer these days. Ray Evans and myself will be making this a priority in the coming months. 

Asking the right questions
On the main board of the EDA all the main buying groups are represented, and all of the directors have committed to get on to the agenda of the committee, the need for improvement. At the next board meeting I will be asking ‘What have we done and how did we do it, and what were the results?’ 

Lobbying government
Brian poses yet more questions when quizzed as to how he sees his role going forward, ‘I have been on the board of the EDA for four years, and one could ask what the association is all about. I believe that we carry responsibility for instigating change, and we should be lobbying the government on such topics as a tariff for LED and how we should be selling products on enhanced capital allowance? It is a complex subject and we need to make our position clear that we want to make a difference and be heard. It was gratifying to find so many like-minded members at a recent EDA dinner, and it was greatly encouraging to witness a level of forward thinking that I had underestimated.’
‘I relish the prospect of two years in my new role and was delighted to receive so much support after my appointment. I can give my assurance to all members that I will be devoting my energies towards the realisation of this new strategy. It’s time for change, and we have to be bold and unafraid to challenge each other on important issues. Conflict brings change, and against a background of mutual co-operation, our distributors can look forward to a new era that we will all be instrumental in shaping’.

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