CEO of Bathroom Brands Stephen Ewer joined the company during the pandemic. We talk about his first year in charge and plans for the future of the business.
Q: How has business been overall for Bathroom Brands Group? How does it compare to statistics from the Bathroom Manufacturers Association which reported annual sales 13% down on 2019.
A: Overall business for the Bathroom Brands Group has remained positive, we remained open throughout the pandemic to support our partners and dealt with the changing circumstances in a proactive manner.
Whilst the Group has seen a similar sales direction to the market, the impact has not been as pronounced and the Group has gained share.
2020 has been a year of notable highlights, including launching a promotional calendar to strengthen our retail base, and having a record-breaking national sale for the Group which will return ‘bigger and better’ for 2021.
There were challenges when it came to forecasting and demand planning, however our team and partners worked tirelessly to navigate these and maintain high levels of product availability.
Q: Which channels have performed particularly well for you in 2020, and which were disappointing?
A: 2020 was a very unpredictable year albeit our business model proved incredibly resilient enabling us to stay fully operational and deliver a strong performance.
Our retail channel performed better than expected, especially in the second half when we saw a higher demand for home renovation products owing to lockdown, remote working, and the ‘nesting’ trend.
We observed a pronounced shift in consumer behaviour with a sharp rise in online researching of our brands.
There have also been increased levels of online sales in keeping with broader consumer trends.
There was some softening in the overall level of residential new build throughout the year, which was in keeping with this sector as a whole.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges at Bathroom Brands Group?
A: I joined the business during the first lockdown, so my first “task” was to evaluate the business whilst navigating through the eyes of Zoom.
If that does not sound hard enough, I was asked within my first few weeks to virtually present myself in a ‘this is my life’ format – to over 100 colleagues sat on the call on mute…
2020 presented unprecedented challenges, our primary focus was the health and safety of our employees.
We were able to quickly adapt to remote working and safe practices in our distribution centre.
This developed into creating shift “bubbles”, the early introduction of lateral flow testing, and ensuring the continued wellness of all employees throughout the extended lockdown period.
This approach enabled the Group to keep fully operational throughout.
Managing the unpredictable and fluctuating demand was a major challenge. I have been hugely impressed by the dedication of our team, and the collaborative support across our supply chain partners and customers to overcome this period of adversity.
Q: What have been the biggest opportunities for Bathroom Brands Group?
A: It hasn’t taken me long to appreciate the businesses incredible level of agility and its ability to adapt to new situations with pace.
We have a highly experienced and talented team at Bathroom Brands Group who are supported by our long-term relationships with both customers and suppliers.
Throughout the pandemic, the Group decided to remain open to provide continuity of service and access to stock.
We rapidly switched to a virtual environment to ensure we maintained customer intimacy.
We actively supported our customers with launch of new products including installations of new displays during lockdown and a tailored promotional calendar.
These initiatives provided critical business support and enabled retailers to be better prepared for reopening.
To underpin service and stock availability, we also decided to invest into additional stock providing our partners peace of mind when promoting our brands and products.
We have benefitted from higher levels of customer engagement and built positive momentum coming into 2021.
Q: What has been the greatest learning point during these times and what changes have you had to make to your business?
A: I believe one of the standout paradigm shifts for the sector has been the acceleration of digital in consumer discovery and research during the last 12 months.
This change has increased the need for all brands and retailers to give a greater priority and focus to their digital reach.
We have had to adapt quickly and invest to be more digitally present, to build our brand awareness and harness this to support all retail partners.
We have increased investment into our ‘digital pillars’ such as additional content development and a variety of paid promotions, including social adverts and influencer ambassadorship.
Our retail partners continue to benefit from this, together with content to support selling efforts, training and guidance on relevant digital practices.
Q: How have you managed stock during the global shipping crisis? What impact has it had on Bathroom Brands Group and its trade customers?
A: The shortage and cost escalation of containers has impacted us, much like the rest of the sector.
We have managed to keep product moving and minimise delays through the hard work of our experienced logistics team, aided by our longstanding deep-sea shipping partners.
We buffered against demand fluctuation and supply chain interruptions through investment in additional stock.
Q: There have been complaints about bathroom manufacturers passing on costs, from container prices to import taxes for samples/brochures. Have you had to increase prices?
A: We have not adjusted our pricing structure; however, we have introduced a modest and temporary surcharge.
We are able to minimise impact due to our product mix and strong supply chain relationships to ensure our partners are treated fairly.
We continue to monitor this closely and keep our partners informed at every step.
Q: This year, bathroom manufacturers have launched product without the physical trade exhibition ISH. What impact do you think this will have on the industry?
A: The virtual event was a great initiative and we have reviewed the trends and products featured at ISH with interest.
However, I must admit that I am looking forward to returning to in-person venues which I believe have more impact.
Q: With Burlington, Britton, Clearwater and Crosswater – how difficult is to balance R&D and focus on each brand?
A: Over the last few years, we have carefully consolidated our brands to develop a manageable architecture to drive our strategy.
We now have major brands in Crosswater and Burlington, and focus brands in Britton and Clearwater.
This allows us to build each brand’s individual personality supported by an exciting and future looking new product development program.
Q: What will you be focusing on in terms of product launches/solutions for 2021/2022?
A: We have lots of exciting products in the pipeline, this year alone we have major launches in Crosswater’s luxury showering ranges, Optix 10 and Gallery 10, and the Riviera collection by Burlington.
Further product introductions are scheduled throughout the summer and into 2022.
Our longer-term roadmap focuses on emerging trends in design, including colour texture and form to meet the needs of modern living.
Q: What changes will be made to the Bathroom Brands Group business in 2021?
A: 2021 is actually a continuation of strategic priorities that we have set-out in 2020.
We are investing in our brands and developing products across all major categories offering ‘complete’ bathroom solutions.
Looking deeper into consumer reasoning, such as the interest in extending colour matching and design lines, moves us to driving the most comprehensive in-brand ranging in the sector.
Our passion extends to every detail, brass matching beyond taps across showers and enclosures, furniture fixtures and accessories, giving us a leading and enviable position. A position that we continue to work hard at building.
Showering is a key focus for Crosswater. We have recently revitalised our enclosure ranges at all levels with the latest launch being our luxury Optix 10 and Gallery 10.
This focus extends across a wider ‘home of showering’ programme with the newly introduced Crossbox Push, the latest addition to this highly successful family of in-wall shower valves.
We also have exciting plans to strengthen our leadership in the traditional market. Burlington has recently launched the most comprehensive range in the traditional sector for several years.
The Riviera collection, features brassware, ceramics and furniture celebrates the iconic 1920s, with a design interpretation that seamlessly fits into today’s bathrooms.
Q: What are your expectations for Bathroom Brands Group and the UK bathroom retail market in a post-COVID landscape?
Q: Whilst nothing can be certain in the ‘new normal’, there are positive market fundamentals that should support nearer term growth.
Continued levels of government stimulus, robust consumer sentiment, a strong housing market and continuation of the ‘nesting’ trend all support reasons to be positive about the future.
I have confidence that the Bathroom Brands Group can navigate through a successful 2021 and beyond.