Beginning his career in the PPE industry in February 1982, Steve Barker has been working at Arden Winch & Co for over 40 years, starting as an Office Junior and working his way up to his current role of Managing Director. A keen champion of reinvesting in business, he is currently doubling the size of the organisation’s embroidery facilities and has recently overseen an overhaul of Arden Winch & Co’s energy supply with an ambitious target of becoming carbon neutral by 2030.
Steve is also Eurosafe’s latest Chairman after taking on the role in November 2022. So, we thought it was time to get his take on Eurosafe, the current opportunities and challenges in the PPE industry and his plans for the future of the buying group.
Congratulations on your appointment as Chairman of Eurosafe, Steven. How are you settling into the new role?
Having been the Vice Chairman for the past two years, I appreciated the period of trying it out – you’re involved in all the meetings and get a feel for the responsibilities and role.
The way I approached it has been different than what has been done in the past. I’m a planner. So, at the first meeting I showed my vision to the rest of the members and set targets for the next two years.
Although it’s more work for me, I’m ready for the challenge. We’ve set our plan in motion already and everyone is on board, so it’s looking very positive.
What experience and insight do you want to bring to your role as Chairman?
When you’ve worked over 40 years in the industry, you build a lot of relationships – and I’ve always been a firm believer in not burning bridges. I always try my best to be respectful and get on with contacts, because you never know when that relationship will be key. Quite a lot of people in the industry know who I am now, and you build respect through that – it can be easier to get people to listen and take what you’re saying on board. I’m also pleased that Jonathan Hall, Managing Director of Consumables Solutions, has taken on the role of Vice Chairman. It’s great to have that mix of a younger perspective who can bring different ideas to the table.
I also think that our knowledge is more important than ever. I’ve never subscribed to the theory that you don’t need to know much about your products, I think you need to know absolutely everything. When you are confident in your products, especially PPE and all the standards that come with it, the customers hear and feel that.
Were you involved in Arden Winch & Co’s decision to become a Eurosafe member? What factors helped you make this decision?
Yes, I spoke to other Eurosafe members in 2008 and convinced my Managing Director at the time that we should join.
When it comes to ‘why’, the easy one is always money – the rebate was a no brainer.
But money is not necessarily the most important for me. It goes beyond that. It’s about getting the best prices through collaborative procurement. It’s also about meeting likeminded people, sharing experiences and learning from each other.
What do you want to achieve during your 2-year tenure as Chairman?
I like to use the analogy of house building. Our past Chairman, Matt Stevens, built the foundations and pipework. I now have the job now of adding all the nice stuff like windows and doors.
Mainly, I want Eurosafe to become stronger than what it is now. My quite ambitious target for the end of the two years is to be the leading PPE and workwear buying group in the UK.
We’re also looking to add more members – between 10-15. But I’m talking about quality over quantity. New members have to be prepared to do training and be specialists so that they can also offer accredited advice.
The level of turnover I want the group to achieve by the end of the two years, the level of rebate I want to achieve, I believe it’s all possible by introducing a little more resource and getting more engagement from our members. Our upcoming Eurosafe+ event is an ideal opportunity to improve our engagement between suppliers and members. We’re trying to get as many decision makers as possible in one room to show that we mean business.
If you could prioritise one change for Eurosafe during this time, what would that be?
It would be introducing more members to give us a stronger foundation. If we achieve this, all the other changes I would like will follow. I would like to strategically add members, not just by location, but by speciality – whether they work in a certain industry sector or product sector.
It’s been a busy few years for the PPE industry. Were there any learnings from the pandemic that have shaped your plans for Eurosafe?
I’m pleased to say that our supply chain held rock solid during the pandemic. I believe that this was because our 15 members are relatively small compared with the group nationals. We were able to pivot our businesses and offer flexibility, whereas for our larger competitors, it was a bit like trying to turn a super tanker around – you can do it, but it takes time.
I saw Eurosafe’s real strength in the level of speed we brought in crisis, as well as our collective strength of sticking to our principles. We weren’t tempted to buy substandard stock when many people were supplying them.
I also found that it’s best, when you’re dealing with suppliers, to deal with people who manufacture at source. They control the supply chain, whereas if you’re dealing with an intermediary, you just won’t get stock in these times of pressure.
Finally from an end user point of view only purchase PPE from a registered and accredited BSIF member https://www.bsif.co.uk/. All Eurosafe companies are BSIF members.
What do you believe are the main challenges and opportunities for Eurosafe right now?
Before the pandemic, when I was asked what I do for a living and replied with “I sell PPE”, you’d see the puzzled look on people’s faces. Now when they ask, everyone knows and more importantly, everyone now understands that you can’t cut corners when it comes to PPE. I believe that this is a major opportunity, as in my view, Eurosafe are the alpha supplier of the correct PPE in the UK. And because we never let anyone down during the pandemic, some of the extra business we picked up has been retained. Customers really appreciated how we went out of our way to help them and keep their teams safe.
Also, all Eurosafe members are investing heavily. This includes our investment in marketing as many prices rise. It’s one of the first things that goes when people are struggling, but you want people to know more about you, not less.
It’s also good to see at the moment that container prices from China are starting to come down and the pound is strengthening.
In terms of challenges, the current concern would be the long and numerous lockdowns in China. We’re finding that before, products would have taken 4 months to arrive are now taking 7-8 months. And as with every business, we are navigating the impact the Russia-Ukraine war has had in pushing up energy prices and creating instability for the economy. Also, I’m mindful that what a lot of our competitors are doing at the moment is they have an own brand range which is quite competitive. At huge tenders, it gives them a little bit of an advantage.
What do you believe is needed for a buying group like Eurosafe to be equipped for the future?
We should always be building on our really strong core base of loyal suppliers who work in partnership with the group. We should also be building excellent communication between Eurosafe, its clients and suppliers. By expressing our group USP of being technical specialists, we can grow confidence in the fact that we’re not just here to offer products, we’re here to offer valuable expert advice.
We’re not box shifters. We’re a solver of problems, here to negate health and safety risks, not just in product, but in people.
One example of this added value is that we’re currently looking at partnering with a company that offers training courses, one of which is Mental Health – one of the biggest issues across the board. It would be an add on service which isn’t about making money.
The camaraderie of Eurosafe is something I don’t see in other buying groups and I’m confident that it’s something that will set us apart going forward.
Sustainability will continue to be on the minds of members and customers. Currently, every member is doing something towards sustainability, and we will continue to talk about it collectively. As a membership we’re asking suppliers to bring in eco and sustainable products, particularly clothing.
The future is really about offering customers a package. One that answers needs for products, price, financial stability and risk, as well as a commitment to reinvest profits back into the business.
What would you say to any PPE business currently considering joining Eurosafe?
Just come and talk to us and engage with us. You’re not tied to joining us if you do.
We will not only show you how to put money back on your bottom line, but we’ll also give you credibility with suppliers, help training your staff and professionalising your business. Everything we talk about is confidential. We don’t open any conversations to the entire membership, and we all sign NDAs so that you have the confidence that your information is safe.
As with any business decision, money is important. Most of the other buying groups do rebate deals, but as they have lots of resource at the centre of the business, a lot of the money from the rebate deals goes to paying the staff. Eurosafe is really the only buying group where 100% of the rebate goes back to members. And when everyone is struggling with costs, those figures could be critical for your business’ success.