BHETA rebels’ plan is ‘absolute folly’, says Patrick Gardner

T&G Woodware managing director Patrick Gardner has hit back at BHETA members intent on sabotaging the association’s merger with BJGF, saying that there is “an inordinate amount of panic over the proposed move”.

BHETA rebels’ plan is ‘absolute folly’, says Patrick Gardner

As the British Home Enhancement Trade Association announced last week that it was to hold an extraordinary general meeting as a result of the rebellion – led by CAT Enterprises’ Charles Harrison – Gardner told that “independence for BHETA is short-sighted and pure folly”.

The group of BHETA members opposed to merging with the British Jewellery, Giftware & Finishing Federation want to see the formation of a separate housewares association. But, said Gardner: “The call for a new housewares association seems to ignore the history of this industry. Before 1982 there was no housewares industry.

“There was a gift trade and a hardware trade. Housewares, as a concept, started with the first publication of Housewares Magazine and the exhibition Exclusively Housewares organised by Mel Bosher in the third week of September each year from 1982/83. This was the beginning of housewares as a separate industry.

“I, with many others, entered this industry via the gift trade. This not only included T&G Woodware but also Le Creuset, ICTC, Cole & Mason, Candlelight, Portmeirion, RTA and many companies who have since merged, disappeared or have become subsidiaries of large international companies.

“Housewares companies that are members of BHETA amount to about 188,” he went on. “I say ‘about’ because, with consolidation, this industry is shrinking. We must also include our DIY members, who number about 75; again, this membership is likely to shrink, not grow.

“I have always claimed that the hardware industry, which included cookware, bakeware, knives, kitchen gadgets, etc, was the practical part of the industry, and giftware produced the stylish products used in the kitchen. That was until the new industry of housewares put these two aspirational industries together.

“How does it sound when negotiating with our service suppliers, from healthcare to employment law: “We have nearly 300 members”? This applies to so many activities accomplished by BHETA. When our customers press us on prices we ask, how much are you going to spend? This is the same.”

Gardner said he had advocated an affiliation with the giftware association for several years on the basis that an association that included both housewares and DIY members would be largely returning to its roots, and form a federation with somewhere in the region of 3,500 members.

He went on: “The first NEC Spring Fair in 1976 included hardware in Hall 5, organised by the original association BHMA [the British Hardware Manufacturers’ Association]. The rest was gifts, including many future suppliers to the developing cookshop and housewares retailers.

“It is interesting to note, and Charles Harrison may not realise this, that BHETA has a good financial position because it sold its January Hardware show to TPS, the organisers of the Spring Fair, for about £4m, which allowed it to move to Northampton with a building that also provides an income.

“There is no hardware federation, and to remain as an isolated industry does not make sense. Will the DTI speak to an organisation of less than 300, or will they listen to a diverse industry of 3,500 members?” asked Gardner.

“I understand that BHETA can be self sufficient for the range of services it can offer, especially while Exclusively Housewares remains successful, but I have this niggling feeling that, as nothing is ever constant except change, we need plan B. After all, the original Exclusively Housewares, which ran for about 10 years, was enthusiastically accepted in the 1980s by an industry that had considerably more members in those days but that had an end to its life.

“The claim is that BHETA is not meeting the needs of its members,” he said. “What is it that BHETA is not doing that the members feel is lacking?

“If we cast off the 75 or so DIY members, what are they to do? To what organisation should they reaffilliate themselves? There is a duty from BHETA to those members.

“The housewares members can still run their affairs independently, but an umbrella group the size of the BJGF seems very good insurance to me – with the bonus of the additional experiences of allied industries.”

He said Charles Harrison’s claim that the affiliation with BJGF “will be a disaster” was nonsense. “On what basis is it made? Does Charles think that we will have to consort and consult with little giftware companies? The giftware industry is far larger than housewares and I have continued to pay my subscription to the Giftware Federation without a break since 1976.

“T&G Woodware joined the BHMA in about 1983 and values its connection with both associations. The management of the Giftware Federation is highly efficient, with many companies of similar size to those in housewares. Their needs are very similar; they need the same services as housewares. Currently there is much duplication of work between The Giftware Federation and housewares. This is a totally logical development to me.”

Gardner said the proposed move was eliciting “an inordinate amount of panic. There was plenty of time for consideration,” he insisted. “The time spent in this spate of letter writing should have been considered when the proposal was first made. If Pam Plant [BHETA housewares director] had not decided to move on, would I have to be spending valuable time having to respond to what I see is ignorance of the bigger picture? Some people must have nothing better to do.

“In a complicated world no decision is easy,” he went on, “but the options for BHETA to remain strong and vibrant are limited, and to go it alone is absolute folly and could not be compared with the International Housewares Association in the USA – a nation of over 300m people and the highest disposable income in the world.

“The move from Northampton to Birmingham does give some severe staffing problems and could provide for some shortcomings until the physical move has had time to bed in, but in the current economic conditions the opportunity to manage BHETA with outsourcing many of the services without any loss of sovereignty is pragmatic realism.

“Change is painful but has to be faced,” Gardner said. “The proposals to go it alone as a self-sufficient association of a shrinking 188 members would not only be a disaster but a high-risk strategy.

“If we cannot learn from history then this association is in for a very uncertain future. I have a strong feeling of déjà vu, having been selling housewares products since 1963, and remember many occasions during tough trading periods when people would cast around for reasons for their predicaments and then choose the wrong route.

“There was one occasion when hardware and giftware companies met to discuss the proposal of one good Spring Fair and one good Autumn Fair, ‘just as they have in Frankfurt’, somewhere off the M1 during the early 1990s after a proliferation of regional trade shows and stockrooms. The result was finally achieved and included Elite, a precursor to our current Exclusively Housewares. Elite was tremendously popular but it also had a life. This unrest has a familiar feel,” he said.

“I certainly expect to attend this EGM on July 23 to ensure that as much information is dispensed in order that a rational decision is made. For me and T&G Woodware it is that the affiliation with the Giftware Federation is concluded.

“A name that reflects more directly what we do could be an amendment as, so far, we are not likely to expand the association to include other industries, and settling under the BJGF umbrella gives elbow room to develop in other ways.”

He concluded: “There is nothing to fear from the Giftware Federation, and with members as vocal as we have then we are unlikely to be subsumed by a larger organisation.”

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