Plumbing Plus builds on its humble success

by | Apr 15, 2021

Plumbing Plus builds on its humble success

After working within the hardware industry for most of his life, including 15 years at Bunnings, Plumbing Plus Chief Executive Officer Tony Hurd is now spending all of his time shifting the Plumbing Plus group into an exciting new direction. 

Currently sitting as the second largest plumbing group in Australia, with sales of around $2 billion, it has become clear that Plumbing Plus has managed to achieve a lot of business success over the years while flying completely under the radar.

For now, Mr Hurd said his focus remains clear on not only resetting the Plumbing Plus brand, with an entirely new brand livery, but also developing new in-house strategies.

“Today we have 80 members across 320 stores located in both metro and regional areas, with lots of regional stores currently making up the group. While we understand Reece Plumbing remains the preeminent industry leader, our belief is we sit second in the market and Tradelink sits third behind us. All of our members currently have their own brand which is predominately master branded or co-branded within the Plumbing Plus brand,” he said.

“Our member’s brands are very strong in their own local market. These are brands that you would not recognize as a consumer, but as a trade you would certainly know. Such brands include Cooks which is an extremely strong brand in the New South Wales market, as well as Galvin’s in Western Australia. Our members have an extensive footprint right across the whole country,” Mr Hurd said.

“We also have a long tail of traditionally regional players, including family run rural stores. Natbuild is also like a sister company and work closely with us as some of our members sit on both the Natbuild board and the Plumbing Plus board, with the cross over members being Dahlsens and H&G.”

“We are proud that we have so many good operators in the market and they all bring exemplary customer service to the trade. For now, it is important that we get our branding right so we can implement a consistent look and feel across the entire market,” he said.

Operating in the industry for over 40 years, Plumbing Plus was initially established in Queensland in the 1970s with the founding members calling themselves ‘M7’ or the Magnificent Seven. The ‘M7’ team was made up of Les Astley and his son from BCP plumbing supplies in Blacktown, Coleman Plumbing Supplies in Taree, Cooks Plumbing Supplies in North Rocks, Plumber’s Gear in Tamworth, RG Supplies in Mona Vale and Norfolk Plumbing supplies in Liverpool. The group’s major suppliers at the time included Rheem, Caroma and MM Metals.

Plumbing Plus CEO Tony Hurd, has his sights firmly set on resetting the Plumbing Plus brand and developing new in-house strategies.

From there the group has grown and evolved from multiple incarnations, according to Mr Hurd.

“There were a whole lot of mergers after this time. The smaller buying groups just got bigger and bigger and ended up being just two primary groups including Plumbing Plus and Plumbtec, with Plumbtec’s members primarily based throughout Victoria and South Australia. Three years ago, the two merged together under the Plumbing Plus umbrella, creating the largest group of independent plumbing merchants in Australia.”

“Today our deals and trading terms are one for all and are consistent from the largest to the smallest member, which means our smallest members are receiving all of the leverage and scale that the larger member is putting into play. We do not tend to lose members because they get a very good return on investment for their membership fee in the group,” Mr Hurd said.

With COVID changing and evolving the market considerably over the last 12 months, Mr Hurd said most bathroom products have achieved unprecedented sales due to the pandemic.

“We traded throughout the pandemic because we are an essential service to the primary plumbing market. Our member sales were very healthy during this period. We shut down the Victorian showrooms however the showroom side of it really is not a big part of our offer because we are more trade focused. A lot of our members have ‘trade only’ signs on the front of their stores,” he said.

Just some of the trends to emerge from the pandemic include the substantial movement to touch free tap wear and toilets post-COVID, according to Mr Hurd who said the space continues to grow rapidly with some of overseas manufacturers putting a lot of technology into these products currently.

“Lots of large overseas American and European manufacturers are investing heavily in the germ free and touchless space. Bidets and Washlet toilet products are becoming a lot more prevalent. While it is still a relatively small part of the market, it is growing rapidly.”

“Some of our members sell touchless toilets priced up to $10,000 and selling good volumes of them. I find it extraordinary that you put that sort of toilet in your bathroom, but there is clearly a demand for it right at the top end of the market. Traditionally Australians do not have a lot of bidets, but now it seems that the bigger hotels are having their bidets implemented into their schedules,” he said.

Colours are also re-emerging in the bathroom, with black tap wear remaining a primary seller in both the bathroom and plumbing sector.

“Black did not work so well in the early days because it just did not have the right finish on it. Now black tap wear is produced with a special PVD finish that is hardier and also has a much better wearing finish,” he said.

“PVD finishes in brushed golds, copper and gun metal finishes have also become more common as they evolve as more of a fashion statement within the home. While consumers tend to conduct full bathroom renovations every 10 to 15 years, tap wear allows consumers to change up their colours and give their bathrooms a spruce up at a limited cost.”

“Double showers are also proving to be quite popular with luxury hotel style bathrooms still very much on trend, incorporated with the wall hung toilets and high-end basins and free-standing baths as well,” Mr Hurd said.

Raised height toilets have also begun to gain momentum, according to Mr Hurd, who said the higher toilets suit an aging population because it allows the older generation to sit at a more comfortable height. 

While sourcing sufficient supply has been a struggle for most retailers post-pandemic, Mr Hurd said the struggle now is combating freight rates and availability which have shown no signs of improvement.

“I can remember bringing in a container from China a few years ago and it cost us less than $400 but this same cost has grown to $6000 plus post-COVID. While freight rates are very high, and probably being manipulated from the shipping companies because they want to make a strong margin, there is also the issue of container availability as they stockpile in different parts of the world. This is really tough and we are putting a lot of work into our freight moving forward to secure that product for us,” he said.

“Non-plumbing shortages, such as the current shortages within timber are causing a whole lot of delays downstream. When this happens it impacts plumbing schedules. So, if you are not getting your roofing and your trusses up, we cannot actually finish off the plumbing part of that schedule. This has become a huge issue”

“Trade availability is also becoming an issue for us as well. There is lots of buoyancy out in the marketplace at the moment, which is making it difficult when trying to get trades to work on a lot of these projects. In saying this, it is also a good position to be in because it highlights just how much pent-up demand there is out there currently,” Mr Hurd said.

Plumbing Plus has plenty on the go at the moment when it comes to growing and developing the business with plans to bring in the intranet, as well as developing its online space and upgrading its online profile.

“The Plumbing Plus brand is not a strong consumer facing brand. It is very much a trade facing brand and predominantly co-branded with the members as a ‘proud member of Plumbing Plus’, which is why we are reworking the brand and making it more relevant and more appealing going forward so we can gain some longevity,” he said.

“We are also currently launching our own reward program and lots of exclusive product ranges and brands that we are bringing through. We have a large agenda to deliver over the next 18 months which will help to reinforce our brand positioning that Plumbing Plus is ‘the better way to trade’,” he said.

Linkware thrives through trying times

With television shows like the ‘The Block’ continuing to drive colour trends throughout the bathroom and plumbing sector, it is no surprise that groups such as Linkware, continue to move into this on-trend space and increase the variety of colours they offer.

Just some of the unique colours on trend at the moment include brushed gold and brushed nickel, with suppliers now offering consumers a customised choice when choosing their own colours, Linkware’s National Marketing Manager, Greg von Einem said recently.

“While colour trends are certainly on the rise, and Linkware is working to meet this demand, we have also continued to perform well with stainless steel products across the board. When it comes to colours, one of the biggest problems we have found is the slight colour variations in products throughout the industry which is something that needs to be managed very carefully,” he said.

With its own factory in China, Linkware’s point of difference in the market includes having the ability to control all of its manufacturing processes from start to finish. 

“Often a supplier will buy from a factory, just as you and I could buy from a factory, but Linkware actually has equity ownership of the factory we use for production. This enables us to stand out from our competitors because when retailers use a third party for manufacturing, they outsource some of the finishing so they tend to lose that element of control. Some competitors often source the raw product from overseas and then complete all of their finishing here in Australia, adding quite some cost to that product,” he said.

It seems there are several bathroom products that have remained on trend for quite some time, according to Mr von Einem, who said products such as black tap ware and twin showers have remained particularly popular over the last five years.

“This is the case for ensuites, where double showers are built so there is a glass panel on either side of the entry. These showers allow hubby to turn left and wife to turn right and they have all their own soaps and creams at each end in their individual shower areas. Couples then do not have to wait to have a shower and can jump in their own ends and shower whenever they like. This is particularly useful when a house only has one bathroom,” Mr von Einem said.

“After the water efficiency scheme came in, home owners could easily install a large 200-millimetre shower head that would still only put out nine litres per minute, and they had a better spray pattern. Customers also like using the hand shower to get the soap out of their hair or use the bush shower. These products also retro fit so users do not have to change anything behind the wall, which is another reason why they have been so popular over the years,” he said.

Another product that has unexpectantly sold well post-COVID are trigger sprays, according to Mr von Einem.

“Trigger sprays also became particularly popular soon after all the toilet paper was rushed off the shelves during COVID. Trigger sprays are used in a bidet application in lieu of toilet paper. While this is definitely a cultural thing, we probably had a 60 per cent increase in demand for these products. We were struggling to keep up. There are many reasons why this product is taking off, including installation in laundry areas to wash pets etc. In saying this, these products were available before COVID, so I just put it down to people steering away from toilet paper,” he said.

Outdoor tapware has also experienced significant growth as outdoor alfresco areas were continually upgraded during COVID lockdowns and new sinks and mixers were installed as part of the upgrade.

Anti-infection technologies continue to also sell well post-COVID, particularly as consumers move into the touchless taps space.

“While touchless taps have been in commercial spaces for some time, bathroom suppliers now offer products that give consumers the ability to retro fit sensor taps in domestic applications. It is for this reason that Linkware is also introducing automatic wall taps aimed at the domestic market. This will definitely gain some traction because it is not only water saving but it is also a fantastic upgrade to any bathroom,” Mr von Einem said.

Inclusion of baths in new home builds also remains a priority as they continue to increase the resale value of a home, particularly for young families looking to purchase their first house.

“When people are renovating or building a new home, consumers are steering away from the old drop in baths which are often installed into a brick hob. The larger part of the market has now moved to free-standing baths, which are not only a feature but also practical from a construction point-of-view. The trend now is to tile an entire bathroom and drop a free-standing bath on top of the tiles. It can literally go in as the last thing,” he said.

While most hardware sectors have experienced a sales boom during COVID, significant issues remain within the international supply chain as a direct result of the pandemic. Not only have freight prices increased substantially, but China has also begun to introduce stringent eco-friendly policies within manufacturing processes.

“China is currently enforcing stricter green polices within manufacturing, however this is only forcing many factories out of business because they just do not have the funds to implement eco-friendly resources they need to complete their work. This has caused many closures particularly within finishing factories. Those factories that have the funds to implement environmentally friendly facilities then take on the work of those who have had to close, which is also causing a backlog of demand,” he said.

“This is on top of freight quadrupling in price and experiencing freight delays due to clearing the backlog of freight. There is also the problem where ships are travelling via Singapore, instead of a direct route, so there are more delays and subsequent knock-on effects,” he said.

While current industry issues are prevalent, Linkware has experienced some benefits in the post-COVID climate, with the group now approached regularly by companies who previously bought directly from China but are encountering too many problems with supply.

“Whilst the economic climate is challenging, we also see a big upside to the current situation because as a manufacturer we can offer a service to the Australian market that I do not think too many can, including having the ability to put a product package together,” he said.

“So if you are a bathroom and tile shop in Queensland, you can easily purchase everything you need from a company like Linkware because we make the products and we can put them all in one container and ship them to you. We also provide a warranty and local support. This prevents those fabled disasters from happening where people source product from China, send the money over and then the buyer receives a container full of empty boxes and the so-called factory has disappeared. People are wising up to this which is why they are putting their trust more in companies like us.”

“It is not only quality control but it is also cash flow, which is why retailers are choosing us. We warehouse locally and there are so many ways for us to assist them while they save money and headaches. If there is a problem, they have the local service to back them up. We feel we are in a pretty strong position going forward to support the Australian market, given the issues that exist in manufacturing in China currently,” he said.

For now, Mr von Einem said Linkware will continue to expand and develop its range, particularly in the production of quality products while combatting supply issues which are likely to go on for some time.

“We have definitely seen a shift more towards premium products. Because of the Australian standards we strictly follow with all of our products, we are starting to sell more premium products particularly into the overseas markets. I am also seeing this in Australia where consumers are shifting away from the budget end of the market. Consumers have become savvier in terms of wanting a good quality product at a fair price,” he said.

“I am seeing a trend now, even in hardware stores, where we are being asked to put in better-quality products. The hardware sector typically supplied the all-directional shower including your basic mixers and consumers often see a plethora of products in this space that are not particularly exciting or architecturally pleasing. However, this is changing as consumers opt more for higher quality products,” he said.

Consumers remain mindful of sourcing a good quality product for a fair price and this sits very well with us because this is our niche market, Mr von Einem said.

Trio thrives in matt black market

Matt black tap wear and mixers continue to trend up in distribution channels with no sign of the style slowing down, according to Trio’s National Sales Manager for Retail, Brandon Hitch.

Matt black products are now the new chrome of the industry, according to Mr Hitch, who said this is also why Trio‘s Mildon brand is launching so many new products within the matt black range. 

“We are bringing out more new products in the matt black colour in May, but this is more at the entry level of the market because we service a lot of the plumbing sector within hardware stores,” Mr Hitch said.

“While matt black has been around for quite a few years now, I see it sticking around for some time. Mildon is known as the brand that sits at the entry level of the hardware market. While we do plan to introduce some more new products into the pipeline hopefully in another year or so, for now we are focusing on riding trends such as matching door hardware with plumbing. This way home owners can renovate their home by changing both their door handles and the tap wear through the use of our products.”

“Gun metal grey is also coming into the market at the moment but I cannot see this staying as it is a very hard colour to match with other taps or door handles. We have also had to weigh up if it is worth supplying a product like this. Two out of ten customers might ask for gun metal grey products, but then there might be ten suppliers providing these products. This is when you really have to battle it out to sell your product. With the matt black there is about seven out of ten customers asking for this product, which is why we are following that trend in the low end of the market at the moment,” Mr Hitch said.

While the eastern states currently show trends that highlight greys, blacks and white tones, Mr Hitch also said that the matt black shower screen frames are taking off because it boasts a modern look without the need to implement outrageous colours.

“You can now easily implement grey tiles, white tiles and then a timber vanity with black tap wear. It is not as daring as it used to be with colours. I think people are also now thinking more of the resale value of their homes because they do not know what is going to happen with the economy and they want to know that their home can sell for a good price.”

“Home owners seem to be sticking with the more natural colours and they can change things up by using accessories. Teal green, gold and black are the colour traits which I am seeing everywhere currently,” he said.

Mlidon’s new bathroom accessories have also narrowed down the entry level market by providing the option of both a square or round back plate, so customers can choose either.

“While we are still an up and coming brand, entry level mixers and three-piece tap wear is the main market for us. Currently the trends in the market sit around replacement tap wear but this could change in a few years, who knows,” he said.

“This is where Mildon is a bit different because we do not sell to bathroom shops, like Reece and Tradelink, or into any show rooms where consumers browse for new home builds. We are more based within the replacement market for rentals and holiday homes and entry level products.”

“This is also why during COVID we experienced an upsurge in sales because people were doing a lot of DIY around their homes and also within rentals. During this time, we experienced a sales upsurge of around 35 per cent, with a lot of sales coming from the hardware industry,” Mr Hitch said.

Looking ahead into 2021, Mr Hitch said he expects sales to remain constant as DIYers continue to repair and upgrade their bathrooms with entry level products that not only look modern, but are easy to install as well.

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