In October 2018, Pippa Latham was installed as the Master of Worshipful Company of Builders’ Merchants (WCoBM) for the ensuing year. Only the second female to become Master of WCoBM, BMN talks to Pippa about her objectives during her 12 month term.

Builders’ Merchants News – May 2019

Latham, the Master’s surname will be familiar to many BMN readers. For 25 years, Pippa worked in finance and as company secretary for the family business, James Latham plc. She joined the business in 1990 and for the last 10 years worked as a Non-Executive Director.

A leading importer and distributor of timber products, James Latham plc was established in 1757 in Liverpool. Its wide-ranging products are distributed from 10 trading offices under its subsidiary Lathams Ltd. These include panel products, hardwood, joinery-quality softwood, performance doors, solid surfaces, cladding and decking.

Pippa became a Freeman of WCoBM in June 2005 and was made a Liveryman in October the following year. She is particularly interested in charitable giving, apprenticeships, skills training and supporting people into work, and draws on her background in finance and management to support a number of organisations in these key areas.

Ten years ago, Pippa became the Investment Manager of the TTBS (Timber Trades Benevolent Society), which was founded in 1897 to help people in need who either work or have worked in the timber trade. She is also responsible for growing corporate support for the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, an educational charity whose mission is to develop new policy ideas which deliver better public services and a more dynamic economy. Her experience positions her well in her role as Master.

At her Installation dinner, Pippa said: “Our industry has huge value in terms of jobs, incomes and tax generation, adding to the UK’s general prosperity. Builders’ merchants are vital contributors to ‘Supplying Britain’s Building Needs’, but we live in an increasingly fast moving trading-world of transparency and digitalisation, so people and businesses in our industry need to take advantage of new technologies and innovations to help themselves and drive economic growth.”

Pippa also highlighted the important role of a Modern Livery Company in supporting training and education in our industry and her commitment to continue the good work of Immediate Past Master Brian Blanchard: “Our Company achieves considerable impact in education and in philanthropy through our outreach, our bursaries, grants and awards. Through increased funds, we can now contribute much more and reach much further.”

WCoBM was formed in 1961 and received its Royal Charter in 2012. All 110 City Livery Companies represent a trade or profession and through their voluntary work and charitable giving, they support and promote modern skills and professional development.

The Company’s ‘Build A Career Without Limits’ campaign is a core focus for WCoBM, launched to build better awareness and understanding of our industry and the many career opportunities. The Master is particularly passionate about encouraging more women to consider a career in merchanting.

“As a female in a family business, I’ve perhaps been sheltered from the stereotypical views of our industry and the low awareness among people about our sector,” says Pippa. “As a Liveryman and now Master, it’s an opportunity to get closer to the action and help shine a light on the many successful women already working in our industry, while making it more accessible and attractive to others too.

“There is no doubt that traditionally our industry has been weighted towards men and this is reflective in our Livery too, with only a handful of female members. But I don’t believe that has been a conscious development and there is enormous opportunity to change and improve the ratio. The first step is to promote great examples of working with a builders’ merchant or a building materials manufacturer – the career opportunities for people of all ages, gender, skills and background are vast with apprenticeship programmes, graduate schemes and funding for training and education to support those that need it.

“The beauty of our industry is the flexibility to move across roles as well as develop upwards. You can start work in the warehouse or yard and progress to branch manager, or be a fork lift truck driver and develop into operations. You can start as showroom manager and move into marketing and sales, or train to work in finance and become MD. In fact, anyone in any of these roles can aspire to one day becoming MD. To quote one of our Court Assistants and Liveryman Simon Lawson, ‘it’s all about attitude’, and I agree. As long as you have the right attitude, combined with commitment and a willingness to learn, then our industry is ideal for progression – it is exciting and well-paid.

“The next step is to break the perception that construction is mainly for boys. Increasingly we are seeing women working in trades or leading some of the top PLCs in our sector. At our City & Awards lunch in March it was an honour to present Georgina Bennett of Robert Pochin with the award ‘Trade Supplier Apprentice of the Year’. Nominated by her manager for her enthusiasm and determination to learn and succeed, I hope Georgina is encouraged to continue her career in merchanting.

“More needs to be done to improve awareness and understanding among teachers and parents, family and friends, and work colleagues. I also believe building a network of industry ambassadors will be a positive step forward to help promote the opportunities offered by our industry, and to advise and coach within their own organisations.”

Although there is a lot to be done in building a better understanding of builders’ merchants and the industry in general – what we do, why it matters and the career options for people – it is encouraging to see industry bodies and organisations like WCoBM getting involved to help improve the image of construction and drive action.

For more information on WCoBM’s ‘Build A Career Without Limits’ and its new bursary programme for students, apprentices and employees in the industry, visit www.wcobm.co.uk/about/build-your-career/.