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Leading from the front after false start

The Cooling Post meets Lee Jon Newman, the new md at Wolseley businesses Pipe Center and Climate Center, to talk about his new role, his plans and his first impressions of the air conditioning and refrigeration industry.

Lee Jon Newman 1Lee Jon Newman, a former athlete and the new md of UK air conditioning and refrigeration wholesaler Climate Center, says he intends to work closely and in partnerships with both customers and suppliers.

On the face of it a wise sentiment considering his early initiation into the air conditioning and refrigeration industry. Having taken up the post in September after Dean Fradgley announced his intention to leave for pastures new in New Zealand, his first few weeks were probably not what he would have chosen them to be.

Within a month of taking up his new role, Warrington-based building services company had tipped into administration. This far from memorable start was made far worse when, later the same month, WR Refrigeration collapsed taking Climate Center for £2.6m.

“It would be an understatement to say it was not the start to a new job you would wish for,” he says. “However, even with the most careful and precautionary approach, it is a fact of life that companies are often at greatest risk on the upswing out of recession, due to the cash-flow pressures.

“The loss of these customers was obviously a blow. However, I was immensely proud of the way we responded and rapidly got to grips with managing and mitigating the impacts. When a company fails, it is important to remember that the work they were doing still needs doing – it doesn’t go away.”

Maybe this is why he sees the need to respond to the needs of both customers and suppliers as one of his priorities.

“We are part of a value chain, and it is vital to recognise that we have customers at both ends,” he explains. “We need to be equally attentive and responsive to the needs of customers who buy from us and customers who supply us. This means close co-operation, and working together in partnerships that are fair and highly productive. In this way we maximise the opportunity we have in the middle of the chain to add value for everyone involved.

“A lot is said about the importance of collaboration and the need to work together and I really believe in the importance of value creation through partnership. In my experience, the most effective partnerships are those that have honesty and transparency at their foundations. And this requires trust, trust which needs to be earned.”

Lee Jon Newman can claim an impressive CV for someone leading a major air conditioning and refrigeration company, having worked in the financial sector in the City of London and held top executive posts with several household-name companies, including group operations director at HSS Hire. What’s unusual about it is that he was also formerly a professional athlete, competing in consecutive Commonwealth Games in two different disciplines – shot and discus.

It’s clear that this may have been an influence on his business and his role at Pipe Center and Climate Center: “No matter what field you are in, the key is to be the best you can be,” he maintains. “It is as true in business as it is in life. It is a simple but hugely important lesson I learned from an inspirational colleague during my time at HSS Hire.”

Lee Jon Newman 2

Outside his athletic career, his time and achievements at HSS are his most memorable to date.

“Delivering eight consecutive quarters of revenue and profit growth – in a recession. And leaving the business in a much improved state,” was his most satisfying, achievement both personally and professionally.

“HSS was my first introduction to the trade and one of the reasons I decided to pursue a career in this industry.”

But the air conditioning and refrigeration industry is a very different beast, so what are his initial impressions of this industry, the company and its people?

“I have to say I was amazed at the depth of knowledge and passion of people at all levels in this industry. The energy and commitment to delivering something tangible, something that makes a difference, is incredible. There are lots of opportunities for us to help each other make our industry even better, and I’m impressed that I haven’t yet met anyone who doesn’t want to try and do things better. Plus, we have a great brand with heritage and global reach. It is a compelling combination.

“I am lucky at Pipe Center and Climate Center that I am surrounded by some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable people you will ever meet. From our trade counter staff, who know everything there is to know about our products and how to apply them, through to our fantastic management team, there is a depth of experience and commitment that is frankly awesome.”

Customer service

Underpinning all of this this is a drive for customer service excellence, a policy which is reflected in a current customer service training programme, which all employees are required to complete, regardless of their position in the business. It aims to build on the already high levels of service delivered and ensure that customers’ needs are central to every conversation that takes place in the business.

“I believe there are huge opportunities for us to serve our customers better,” says Lee. “As a business, we are heavily investing in our branch infrastructure, so that we can offer customers an even better experience. For example, we are installing telephony systems which give customers a call back service – so that we never miss a call again.

“I think, as a service-led industry, we should never assume we know what people’s needs are – we need to put aside preconceptions and look afresh.”

And that fresh look also includes the structure within his own business.

“We are putting in place a new structure for the leadership team which reflects the changing needs of our customers,” he reveals.

“In addition to myself and a finance director, the senior team will comprise a sourcing director, commercial director, sales director, national account director, branch director and Scotland director. Although one or two people have taken the opportunity to move on, I am very happy that most of these roles have been filled by existing people in the business and that, between us, we have decades of experience in the industry. I am confident that the new service-led structure means we are best placed to take advantage of opportunities we see ahead of us.”

Online sales

Online business has never been truly embraced by the big three wholesalers but that seems likely to change very soon.

“At present, online business represents a small percentage of our trade. However, our sister Wolseley companies and Ferguson in the US have built very substantial online businesses that provide a model for what could be achieved. We are currently working on the roll-out of a new transactional website for Climate Center that will be ready for launch shortly.”

The company is also investing in a new distribution centre at Measham, enabling next day delivery to all branches in the Pipe Center and Climate Center network. It represents a multi-million pound investment and is scheduled for opening early in 2015.

Unlike athletics, of course, in this business there is no finishing tape as such but there are records to be set and broken, so what are his own personal goals?

“I have some customer service and market share criteria in mind, and a rather challenging sales figure, that I have shared with Wolseley UK’s leadership team. We are now working to make it happen.

“Nothing is more exciting than climbing a mountain you have set yourself to conquer. You might be apprehensive about setting off, but you do it anyway. I am looking forward to working with the Pipe Center and Climate Center team to make our goals a reality, and celebrating with them when we reach the summit.”

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