Ridgeons boss Angela Rushforth is challenging perceptions

Angela Rushforth, managing director of Ridgeons.

Angela Rushforth, managing director of Ridgeons. - Credit: Archant

Angela Rushforth, managing director at regional builders’ merchants Ridgeons, became the first female chairman of the CBI East of England Regional Council in December. She spoke to Ross Bentley about her new appointment and why she wants more people, men and women, to consider a career in the builders merchants sector.

As managing director at Ridgeons, the largest independent timber and builders’ merchant in the East of England, Angela Rushforth is no stranger to taking on trail-blazing roles.

Not only is she one of the only women in the country holding a senior role at a builders’ merchants, she has also recently become the first female chairman of the CBI East of England Regional Council. The two-year appointment sees Angela take over the reins from Andy Wood, chief executive of Adnams.

The new position is a natural progression for Angela who was previously vice-chairman at the organisation and has sat on the council since 2012 - an activity she finds complements her day job nicely.

“The reason Ridgeons is involved with the CBI is that it allows us to get our voice heard in the regional council and beyond in Westminster,” she says.

“It’s also good from a networking point of view – the people around the table at the council are from a broad range of businesses – there are companies that are importing, companies that are exporting, as well as universities - so it gives you a clear view of what is happening across the east of England. It helps us to put our own business in context, we can get nationwide indicators but it is much more difficult to find regional figures.”

The key messages coming out of the CBI at this time also chime with the main challenges facing Ridgeons.

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Its ‘Get Britain Building’ campaign is directly in line with what the company is trying to achieve with its close links to the construction industry. In addition, the CBI’s call to create the right environment for business growth and its work to ensure those coming out of schools and colleges have the skills and abilities that businesses need are also high up the agenda at Ridgeons.

“All the major parties have committed to building more houses in their manifestos,” continues Angela. “ But it’s not just about ensuring we have the right products, it’s also about how we unlock the processes that enable us to build more - its about looking at the planning process and at the whole supply chain and ensuring we are able to deliver across that.”

With a background in marketing, Angela broke into the building industry when she joined building supplies business Screwfix as marketing director in 1997. In the seven years she was at the company, it went from being an online and mail order business to a multi-channel retailer while turnover increased from £30million to £200million.

Angela says: “At Screwfix marketing was very close to what was happening commercially because it was a marketing-led business, so whatever you did in marketing was what generated the business. I got involved in a lot of areas and it gave me a flavour of what is was like to manage different parts of an organisation.”

From Screwfix Angela moved to be marketing director for Wolseley UK - the parent company for firms such as Plumb Center, Parts Center, Pipe Center and Drain Center - her tenure taking place at a time when the business was growing substantially as it was going through a major acquisition stage.

Born in Carlisle and having lived in Somerset when she was with Screwfix and Worcestershire during her time with Wolseley, Angela moved to Stowmarket to take up the position of managing director at Ridgeons in May 2008. With a head office in Cambridge, it was an interesting time to take on such a senior role - just months before the recession kicked in.

“It was a challenging time,” says Angela. “We had to make cutbacks like everyone else and there were some redundancies at the end of my first year - as a family-owned business those decisions come very difficult.

“I had to get to know the business very quickly and although I wouldn’t wish to go through it again it helped me to understand what was core to our business.”

Despite the tough times of the recession, Ridgeons continued to invest and opened six branches between 2008 and 2013 as a result of either acquiring other businesses or developing brown field sites.

“The current climate certainly feels a lot better than it has done for a while,” continues Angela. “We started to see things pick up in November 2013 and last year was a success as we achieved our best ever turnover in the group.”

Today Ridgeons has 26 branches across the east of England in Hertfordshire, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk and it also owns a timber business called Ridgeons Forest Products which distributes to Ridgeons branches as well as external customers. In addition it runs an online business called Anglia Tool Centre, which has recently opened two new stores in Bury St Edmunds and Norwich. The company employs 780 employees across the group and has a turnover of £139million.

Angela says being a woman leader in the tough, male-dominated world of builders’ merchants “has never been an issue” as far as she is concerned but it has brought with it some challenges.

“I’ve had to work hard to prove to customers and other people in the industry that I can do the job and be a success,” she admits. “I’m sure most women working in our industry would say the same – there is that extra hurdle you have to get over. I think the fact that I came into the group as managing director has helped because I was immediately senior in the business.”

Angela says she hopes her example will encourage more women to consider a career at a builders merchants, where she says there are many opportunities.

She continues: “There are more women coming into the sector and I think it’s a great industry for women to join because it’s a relationship-based business - it’s built on service and I think these are key aspects that women do as well as men. I always say that I will have made an impact in our sector when I go to an industry function and there is a queue at the women’s toilets.”

But, she says, it is not just women who need to change their perception and see the builders’ merchants sector as offering a fulfilling career.

“One thing we work on quite a lot is promoting builders’ merchanting as a career because I think there is not always a positive perception of builders merchants as an area you can join and have a great career,” she says. “We have some fantastic examples of people who joined the company at 16 or 18 and have been with the business for 25 years, and have had amazingly exciting and diverse careers, and ended up in senior management.”

Angela says several initiatives at Ridgeons have been aimed at trying to get this message out more clearly.

“We have been working with a school in the Cambridge area – saying to pupils that when you look at the shop front of a builders’ merchants there are lots of people behind the scenes making the business happen. If you want to work in marketing, IT, purchasing, merchandising we’ve got roles that actually fit that in Ridgeons. “We’ve also run some successful management development programmes and we aim to fill as many posts as we can internally. “

She adds: “There are two aspects of the skills agenda – one is ensuring we get the right people when we recruit and then there is their development when they are in the business, so they can advance and we ensure they will stay with us.”

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