As a sports fan, B&Q’s Graham Bell can’t resist making some topical Rugby World Cup analogies to describe his feelings about the firm he’s been leading for the past five years.
“If we were a rugby team, we could win the competition because we’re feeling strong, confident and ready to push for success,” he declares.
The Scot believes that the business is getting “fitter by the year” and its employees are prepared to “go through walls” to realise his ambitious vision: for B&Q to become its customers’ trusted partner for everything relating to their homes.
Just how match fit B&Q is hasn’t always been clear, though, and perhaps Bell is indulging in a little sporting bravado. Financial results published this month revealed challenging trading conditions, with parent company Kingfisher – which also owns brands such as Screwfix, Castorama and Brico Dépôt – reporting a 33% decline in pre-tax profits for the first half of the year, to £317m. Indeed, some might argue that B&Q’s performance under Bell has been a little lacklustre so far.
Even so, his company leads the UK home improvements sector, boasting a market share of 8.2% in 2022, according to RetailEconomics. And Bell counters criticism of B&Q’s performance by noting that “we’ve performed really well since 2019, in terms of sales and profits, and we’ve hit our targets”. He adds that the modernisation project that he started and is only now starting to bear fruit isn’t yet reflected in the figures.
“If you stand still as a company, you may benefit for a couple of years because you’re not spending, but that won’t last long,” Bell argues. “Without investing in the business, you will lose ground to your competitors.”
Why B&Q had to be transformed
Bell’s modernisation drive has been sorely needed. When he took charge of B&Q in October 2018, the organisation was “unfit”, he says. It’s an assessment he’s well placed to make, having spent 25 years with Kingfisher, holding several senior roles across the group.
He started his first stint with B&Q in 1998, serving in posts including property director and HR director, before spending 12 years at Screwfix. As CEO there, Bell oversaw a sizeable expansion of its store network in the UK.
When the opportunity came to return to B&Q as boss, he found it irresistible because he knew that the company could perform better.
“I was looking at it and thinking: ‘It’s still number one but it’s not acting like number one,’” he recalls. “I’ve always seen B&Q as a top-10 UK brand. You don’t often get the chance to manage such a brand and I felt that I could move it forward.”
How did B&Q change during Covid?
He wasn’t interested in playing it safe at B&Q either. Global socioeconomic crises that have occurred since his appointment would have been enough to halt progress on most business transformations. Not so for the 10-year plan that Bell set in motion.
This long-term strategy, built on extensive research into future consumer needs and inspired by leading tech companies such as Google, has served as a “north star” for the leadership team, he explains.
“Our vision is that we want people to see B&Q as helping them manage their lives through their homes,” Bell explains. “Having that vision helped us during the pandemic, because it enabled us to accelerate some initiatives, such as using our stores as mini-warehouses to deliver locally. We became 100% customer-centric because we had to look after people.”
How is Bell overhauling B&Q?
One way B&Q went about that was by starting video consultations during the Covid lockdowns, with kitchen designers remotely advising customers at home – something that would have been unimaginable even a few years before the pandemic.
B&Q has been modernising in other ways too. The company’s Instagram profile has attracted almost 200,000 followers thanks to instructive videos such as “How to improve your lawn”, “September gardening jobs” and “Quick ways to revamp your space”.
Bell plans to expand the firm’s offerings in the coming years, encompassing pet supplies, children’s products, home services and insurance, as well as building out the core DIY categories. Ultimately, he envisages B&Q offering a digital hub where customers can collate essential home information.
“Imagine that you will have all your appliances listed with their serial numbers for the guarantees and warranty reminders, along with mood boards and artistic ideas,” he says.
Bell not only has a clear idea of what he wants the business to offer in the future; he also understands that effective investment today is vital to achieving that. For example, he’s keen to adopt tech to boost product availability, improve the fulfilment process and inspire customers in new ways.
Customer service and sustainability are a natural match
What’s more, the brand’s refreshed emphasis on doing everything it can to help customers has translated into initiatives ranging from providing energy-saving tips to encouraging responsible business among its SME clients. These customer-focused initiatives are all vital elements of the Bell plan.
For instance, B&Q’s new energy-saving service (ESS), launched in partnership with the Energy Trust, offers homeowners tailored advice on energy-efficiency investments, linking them to government grants.
“It gives you a shopping list of things you could improve, from insulation and thermostatic radiator valves, right up to double glazing and solar panels,” Bell explains.
Although the ESS was initially driven by the firm’s desire to become credible in the sustainability space, the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis created a new impetus, he says, adding: “In practice, people see saving money as a bigger priority than saving the planet.”
In March, TV presenter Jermaine Jenas fronted B&Q’s Energy Savers initiative. The former England footballer, clearly chosen to appeal to younger consumers, demonstrated how to save energy at home and highlighted the importance of helping community organisations to minimise their fuel bills. Jenas visited Welling United Football Club to help it adopt several energy-saving measures.
How B&Q is prioritising adaptability
The ability to adapt to changing consumer, community and commercial needs is something Bell sees as key to B&Q’s future success.
“This business needs to be agile,” he says. “We thought the pandemic was over and suddenly we had the Ukraine war. Utility costs went mad, as did mortgage interest rates. As an organisation, we must be fit enough to react quickly to whatever happens.”
Adaptability is also evident in the ongoing store expansion programme, which aims to enhance “convenience, comfort and simplicity” in urban areas through smaller B&Q Local shops. It’s meeting consumer demand in these communities for easy access to DIY products, according to Bell, who has taken a lead from the reduced ranges offered in supermarkets’ satellite stores.
“We’ve trialled this format and gone out of our way to be more accessible,” he says.
The CEO is clearly relishing the challenge of implementing the second half of his 10-year business plan. But, like any good team player, he is happy to commend the efforts of those around him to propel the business forward.
“I’m very pleased and confident about where we are now,” Bell says. “That doesn’t happen just through me. It happens through a team of energetic, creative people and about 30,000 employees, who are motivated to serve our customers better.”