We speak with Ian Haldane, Group Managing Director, of the Haldane Shiells Group about how the Group has grown to be much more than a timber merchant.
Tell us a bit about Haldane Shiells Group?
The company was formed in 1946 by my grandfather, Robert Haldane, and during its early years Haldane Shiells was a timber operation centred around native soft woods. When my father came into the business in 1958, he saw the opportunity to increase the product range and offering, so we started specialising in sourcing and purchasing timber from Scandinavian countries, Canada and Russia.
Then tragically my father was killed in the Troubles in 1991 and at 27 I was thrust into the position of Managing Director. Since then and with the support of my late mother Elizabeth, sister Carol, brother David, son Rob and an extremely loyal and committed Board of Directors and Management Team have developed the business throughout Ireland, England and the Isle of Man.
With 9 acquisitions to date we have a total of 20 branches in the existing network, we are one of the largest timber and building material suppliers in Ireland and with a turnover of £128 million, we are in the top 10 UK Merchants and employ over 630 people.
What has made Haldane Shiells Group such a success?
I’d say leadership, people, quality products, value for money and above all customer service. Obviously, you can expand greatly on all of those aspects but those are the core principals and drivers behind the success of our business.
We want customers to feel it is easier to trade with us than the competition and to maintain that requires a process of continuous improvement.
Have you had a long relationship with The Keystone Group?
Yes, absolutely, we got involved right at the start. I remember going up to Cookstown. What came across was Sean’s very clear vision of what they wanted to do in the business and that soon sparked a very long partnership between our two companies.
I have to say it’s an excellent relationship whether it is; Director, management or operational level, Keystone is always willing to get involved supporting us on the ground. Practical involvement in things like breakfast mornings and factory visits for example are absolutely first class. This combined with product training and technical support make a tremendous partnership.
Is a 100% merchant focus important for the Haldane Shiells Group – In terms of supplier selling directly through merchants?
I think it’s essential to build trust, develop relationships and grow the business. When you have trust you have forward motion and certainly
Haldane Fisher, Keystone and Keylite have built that over many years.
What technology or initiative do you feel has most improved your business in the last five years? What are your plans in this area for the next five years?
Over the next decade we are starting to really focus on digitisation of the business. It’s going to be quite interesting to see how business changes and that’s not just about online ordering, it’s about how do you make it easier for the customer to deal with you, access their account details, order online, price online and estimate online.
It’s also about streamlining the business to become more efficient in administration, accounts, or stock-taking. We’re looking forward to embracing it, and we’re just building that team now and the journey is sure to be an exciting one over the next five years.
In the past people just phoned up and said, ‘Can you have this ready for me?’ or ‘Can you deliver it?’. Now millennials tend to do everything on a phone or tablet, so the information must be at people’s fingertips to be able to develop business further.
What’s next for Haldane Shiells Group?
I suppose in a nutshell, it’s to continue to grow the business both through organic growth and by acquisition in an environment where people feel valued and strive for continuous improvement at all levels within the organisation.
It’s both throughout Ireland and the UK, both are sizeable markets and the demand for housing in the next five to ten years we believe is going to be reasonably strong as long as consumer confidence remains, and the required finance is available. However, what happens with Brexit and how that affects things remains to be seen.
What’s your view of cross border trade in the event of a hard Brexit?
It will certainly have a negative effect, even though good trading relationships are already established. I certainly hope there’s not going to be a hard border and there’s no desire within the business community either North or South for that but it’s a sticking point in Brexit. Any change to the current free flow of goods and services will be detrimental to both economies.
How have you adapted your business model to suit the market?
We have 5 categories of customers within the merchanting sector, ranging from the merchants to builders to plumbers to white van man and finally the DIY market. We now operate under five brands to serve these sectors.
Haldane Fisher operates as Timber and Builders Merchants, Plumbmaster supplies Plumbing and Heating Contractors, Bathline sells showroom products to the end user and Key Hardware specialises in ironmongery selling to the trade. In addition we have a specialist Timber company in England trading as GE Robinson. Approximately 60% of our business is in Ireland and 40% is in the UK and Isle of Man, so we’re looking to grow in all aspects of the business going forward.