Taking data from the boiler room to the boardroom
Margaret Fitzsimons is Director of the Electrical Distributors’ Association (EDA). Here, she outlines the challenges she sees in an ever-changing market – and why the association’s new ETIM-UK initiative is aiming to take the pressing issue of product data to the very top
Hello Margaret. What are some of the challenges you face at the EDA?
The industry is currently under pressure, with technology a big concern in many aspects. The products on offer through electrical wholesalers are becoming more sophisticated and require greater technical expertise to explain and sell. They’re also ever-changing, so the sheer number is significantly higher and their lifecycle significantly shorter. So wholesalers have to keep pace with the constant changes, constant new product introductions, and constant removal of products from shelves. The industry needs to up-skill to sell these more hi-tech products.
So is this an unprecedented time for change?
It’s difficult to say that categorically, but it’s particularly remarkable. One of the biggest areas of change is lighting. We’ve had a revolution where the traditional light bulb, manufactured by the major players, has been replaced by LEDs that are much easier to produce. A new breed of lighting ‘manufacturer’ has entered the market in recent years. So now, in addition to trusted and reliable brands, there are importers springing up all over the UK offering LEDs. There are definitely compliance issues and it’s difficult for wholesalers and installers to know whether an LED’s performance and life expectancy is going to live up to the claims. This is why we’re working closely with the Lighting Industry Association (LIA) to help make wholesalers aware of the many quality and compliance issues.
What else is the EDA currently doing?
Our agenda is both broad and deep – there is so much to do. We had a strategic review a year or so ago and followed it up with extensive research to identify the concerns of electrical wholesalers and manufacturers. What we’re now trying to do is address the most important of those concerns, make our members aware of the challenges, and help them react to them efficiently.
Could you give some examples?
Trying to attract and retain good quality staff in the wholesale environment can be a challenge. So a lot of our efforts go into training, especially product knowledge training. Our Specialist Product Knowledge Programme provides specific expertise to help our wholesalers better understand the products they sell. Apprenticeships are also vital to attract new talent into the industry and our aim is to build an education and training pathway, starting at our entry-level apprenticeship and continuing for several years, to foster a culture of continuous learning in the sector. It’s vital that whenever anyone new comes into the industry, there is a structured training and development route for them to follow. Making our members aware of the benefits of taking on an apprentice is one of our priorities. Members are busy running their businesses, so getting a share of their attention to start a conversation about training isn’t always easy – but that’s true for most organisations.
Have you had to adapt yourselves?
Absolutely. To try and engage people more, we’ve recruited our first head of marketing and communications. Her role is all about raising our profile, getting people to listen, and changing the pretty negative perception of wholesalers. Quite often the value of the wholesaler has been put into question: “What good do they do? What value do they add in the supply chain?” So we’re now trying to make people realise and appreciate their expertise in logistics, procurement, product expertise, financing, sales and marketing.
So how confident do you feel about the future?
Very. One reason is the absolutely exceptional networking ethos in the electrical industry. I’ve worked in other industries but this is unique – I’ve never come across anything quite like it. Creating an environment for decision makers to build relationships face-to-face is recognised by the EDA, which is why our networking programme is a key pillar of our work. It oils the machinery of business because people pick up the phone and know who to speak to. It means people actually enjoy working in both the industry and with each other, so there’s a willingness for it to continue.
Apart from lighting, what are the other big changes?
Technology has changed the way consumers buy and therefore how wholesalers are expected to sell. It’s fair to say that the UK wholesaler has not been an early adopter and it’s very hard to get an exact figure, but the proportion of business-to-business ecommerce between wholesalers and contractors/installers to customers is only 5-7%. Compare that to pan-Europe where it can be anywhere between 40-60%. So we’ve got to try and help the wholesalers adapt and make their products available online. Saying that, we don’t think online will ever replace the traditional trade counter but we need to be able to offer multi-channel purchasing for customers. We don’t want them to stop coming to the trade counter but we do need to be able to offer them the ability to order online. It’s something we’re trying to help our members with, which is why we’ve launched ETIM-UK, a major project related to product data.
So what’s the theory behind ETIM?
Businesses can’t launch and maintain an e-commerce website if they don’t have product information with which to populate it. As things stand, an electrical wholesaler has around 200-500 suppliers and each one sends their data in a different format, whether it’s a PDF brochure, an Excel spreadsheet or Word document. If I’m a wholesaler and I want to show that online, I then have to sit down and key it all in from scratch. The EDA is engaging with manufacturers and wholesalers to adopt a European-wide standard – ETIM. It’s currently operating in about 14 countries across Europe and is particularly strong in the Nordic countries. Most European wholesalers will only accept product data delivered to them in an ETIM format and most manufacturers on the continent are structuring their product information in what’s called the ETIM classification model.
So why do you feel it's so important – and what’s been the reaction so far?
The word ‘data’ either makes people fall asleep or feel overwhelmed by its volume and velocity. They say: “That’s not my department. I’m not interested. We have a data expert.” They have to sell it to the MD – but the person who really understands the significant value of this data to the business is the IT professional sitting in front of a computer. So, we’re trying to take data out of the boiler room and up on to the bridge – if you’ll excuse the shipping analogy – and make business leaders understand how vital it is to get their data in order. We’re currently at the first stage of saying to MDs: “You’ve got to understand what this is – and you’ve got to get your data team to do this.” That’s the stage we’re at – the buy-in stage.
What about the manufacturers and wholesalers?
We’re quite lucky that the data starts with the manufacturer. They create the product information and it’s the wholesaler who has to re-engineer their systems to be able to receive it. So there’s work to be done on both sides. In terms of manufacturers, we have 69 affiliated members, 20 of whom are very large European companies already using ETIM. So it’s very easy for them to have the data available for the UK market, with just a few tweaks to the translations. So they’re fairly positive about it.
And what about the impact on BIM?
One reaction we’ve had from manufacturers is: “We don’t want this different standard as we’re working towards BIM.” But in fact we’re already speaking to several of the organisations involved in the development and promotion of BIM. In fact ETIM recently signed a global co-operation agreement with Building Smart who are developing the Product Data Dictionary e and we’re trying to get the message out there that ETIM is not an alternative to BIM. It complements and enhances BIM; ETIM is all about getting product data into structured files and formats and calling everything the same name. BIM is the same, with some additional features. For each product, there are probably around 100/150 pieces of information or attributes you need in its lifecycle. At the moment we seem to be chipping away at the BIM end of things, that’s particularly data for specification , but we also have great information at the front end, such as trading information and pricing. What’s missing is the bit in the middle that allows you to market, sell and operate in an ecommerce world, and that’s what we’re trying to develop together.
So how is your relationship with SELECT?
Scotland is a key market for us and we have a very good relationship with our SELECT colleagues. The EDA’s Scottish Section is a particularly active, organising a number of events, including the Sportsmans’ Dinner in May and the Scottish Function in October each year. As well as our recent Forum (see pages 20-21), we’ve also just announced a new EDA Scottish Section Apprentice of the Year category, to be presented at the SELECT Awards 2017. It’s a good example of the significant support for education and training that exists throughout the electrical supply chain in Scotland.
And finally, if you could wave a magic wand and change just one thing in the industry, what would it be?
I see the industry is a three-step distribution channel, with manufacturers, wholesalers and contractors all facing the same problems, but not really tackling them together. I’d love to see these three links in the chain unite to address any issues as one.
What is the EDA?
The Electrical Distributors’ Association (EDA) has been serving and representing the UK’s electrical wholesale sector since 1914. Enhancing business performance through:
Education and Training
Business Advice and Information
Initiatives, Campaigns and Projects
Recognition, Visibility and Exposure
With 250 members and 69 affiliate members (manufacturers), EDA membership represents an estimated 75% of the UK’s electrical sector. Members include the national leaders such as Edmundson Electrical Ltd, Rexel UK and City Electrical Factors (CEF) as well as hundreds of independents who benefit from EDA membership through their buying groups – ANEW, AWEBB, Fegime UK and the IBA.
What is ETIM?
Formerly known as the European Technical Information Model, ETIM is a system for classifying technical products. The ETIM classification lists the most important technical characteristics for any product. Currently applied to seven million products globally, it is multi-lingual, supplier neutral and, once embedded in a product information management (PIM) system, can be delivered in print and online.