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Damian Walters, The Man That Built BiKBBI

Damian Walters is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of BiKBBI – the British Institute of KBB Installation – the body that represents, guides, and brings together the KBB world.

Installer Kitchen & Bathrooms’ Andy Bishop had a long chat with Damian about what led him to his current position.

With someone so high profile in an industry it’s always interesting to look at where they came from, so tell me Damian, where did your KBB journey begin?
“I didn’t really have any idea about what I wanted to do when I was at college, but my mum had other ideas. She was, at the time, working for retail giants MFI as a kitchen designer and urged me to apply for a job there as an installation manager. Having no experience of anything it was no surprise that I was unsuccessful in my application, so what next? A friend of mine was a kitchen fitter and I started working for him. To be honest, it didn’t go well, I was a terrible fitter, so I was given basic labouring, fetching and carrying tasks that required no skill or knowledge. I lasted around 4 months before fate delivered an opportunity – My mum (again) bumped into the guy I’d interviewed with at MFI and in conversation mentioned that I was working in kitchen installation  – in other words I now had the required experience!

Before you know it, another interview later and bingo, I was an Installation Manager for MFI, who at the time were a hugely successful £Billion turnover retail business, and I absolutely loved it. I worked hard and was very enthusiastic and before long was promoted to Senior Installations Manager – with job security, decent pay, a company car, life was good.

And then I left!

With MFI installing around 65,000 kitchens a year, I was in a unique position that allowed me to see what was going on in the industry, the good and the bad, what worked and what didn’t. I was young and ambitious, and I guess this was around the time that I thought I could do my own thing while making a fortune by doing things better. As it turned out, I took another route.

It had become clear to me over time that the industry had some issues that needed to be rectified. Things were all a bit ‘Wild West’ and there was little regulation, it was open to anyone trained or not with plenty of horror stories. With youthful exuberance and enthusiasm onboard, I thought that the person to put everything right in the business may as well be me. At 26 years old I realised that this was what I was going to do and the early stages of IKBBI were born.

In 2006 I put together plans to create an association to represent the KBB installations industry. I had solid experience and great contacts from my time at MFI. Looking back at this time it seems a bit of a crazy move, I had a young family and a mortgage, and my plan was to create a not-for-profit organisation, but I ploughed ahead anyway, applying to the UK Secretary of State to register the organisation as an Institute, a government sanctioned institute dedicated to KBB installation rather than a trade association. For me, this would give us better standing in the industry for positive change, and a pathway into government – all together a better, more serious position to represent such an important an industry.

However, as you may remember, the late 2000’s were a difficult time and the 2008 financial crash affected everyone. The early years of IKKBI were extremely hard going but eventually, with some amazing help and backing from the industry we kept going, increasing membership and support from manufacturers.

In 2016 we were invited to become a ‘British Institute’ and our name changed to the BiKKBI with a full rebrand and a stronger position to lobby government in things like regulation, the effects of Brexit and international trade. I think this elevated status also made the industry as a whole look at us in a different way, more as a body that represents everyone in the sector, rather than a trade union for kitchen fitters.”

What did you set out to achieve with BiKKBI and how has that changed over time?
‘From the beginning we set out our core pillars which are still in place today, Education, Standards, Compliance, Sustainability and Support. Each of these has grown and evolved over time and we believe that we now cover all aspects of the business”.

BiKBBI Core pillars:
Education – 3 strands

  • Apprenticeships – creation of a fit for purpose programme, to enable us to grow a new generation of installers. The skills gap is worrying, and it needs addressing urgently and there is currently no proper entry pathway for kids who want to enter the industry.
  • CPD – Continuous Professional Development. It’s of vital importance that our members can upskill to develop their careers and their work.
  • Retraining – working with the MOD to train ex service personnel to re-enter the civilian world – Royal Engineers and Royal logistics core, (Damian volunteered as an Army reservist until 2020 and currently volunteers as a Police Special – counter terrorism to organised crime – and believes this to be valuable experience and eye opening in terms of dealing with challenging situations).

Standards

  • Working with the industry to create and publish a set of industry standards that are relevant and current, bringing together standards across the industry.

Compliance

  • A compliant workforce is a less risky workforce, and we work in a complex industry – for example gas needs a qualification – asbestos awareness is crucial, however not everyone needs all compliance – there are no existing guidelines. BIKBBK has created an entire compliance software package for the industry – funded by subscriptions – which is constantly updated by our standards committee.

Sustainability

  • BiKBBI aims to lead the industry in meeting the need for better access to sustainability education and resources for KBB installers to support industry sustainability progression and the needs of consumers.
  • Obviously, the environment is incredibly important, and the KBB industry has a big impact on that. For us though its more – sustainability of workforce, sustainable solutions and the global skills gap – These things are a huge focus for us now.

Support

  • BIKBBI is the centre of the overall support of the industry, a conduit for industry to enable brands to connect with installers and distributors, and to offer support for the industry to support itself.

BiKBBI now has a comprehensive collection of suppliers involved? Did they immediately understand how the association could benefit them?
This was built up over time, the first years were hard, achievements along the way have built a confidence from the industry. I like to use the ‘lifeboat on a cruise liner’ analogy – you don’t need them until you really need them! When the industry gets rocky the institute becomes vital – when Covid hit we became a valuable resource for the industry, and I am hugely proud of our achievements at that time – we stayed in business and looked after our members – I think we put in more effort that year than ever before, being so proactive with advice and guidance. We spoke constantly with government to establish guidelines to ensure work was finished in lockdown, safely – and in a matter of weeks pulled together industry specific Covid guidelines and an online course in Covid best practice. Tens of thousands of the industry took the course, initially we planned five zoom sessions which sold out in minutes, so we recorded sessions to be available 24/7.

How has the industry changed since 2006?
I think the biggest change has been that the industry has come to realise the importance of installation and installers – whereas previously this was sometimes thought of as an inconvenient bolt-on. I believe that over recent years BiKBBI has given recognition to this side of the industry, and its considered more as an important element of the industry as a whole.

Tell me about the BiKBBI conference, how did that come about?
The conference started 8 years ago. Our original thinking was that we wanted to get our key stakeholders together to provide an update on our progress and learn more about their needs and expectations. Initially we had great support from Brian Binley MP, now sadly deceased, who gave us the opportunity to host an event at the Houses of Parliament. Our local MP Stephen Metcalf was instrumental in continuing this support. The event, in the Churchill room at HOP started small, maybe 40 or 50 guests but it gave us the opportunity to show the strength of BiKBBI and to demonstrate our access to government. In attendance were partners, retail supporters and other associations. The annual event was a great platform for us with a bit of theatre, it built up our reputation and hinted at what the Institute could become.

We ran the event for five years and then Covid hit us so we were unable to deliver a physical event from 2019 to 2022. During that time the world changed, and we made some key internal changes – Michelle Daniels joined us and BiKBBI entered its next chapter. When we started to look at our next conference the Houses of Parliament wasn’t available, so we crossed the road to the QEII conference centre. This move provided an opportunity for us to start to build on the success of what had passed and shape what  we wanted the conference to become – an event that brings the whole industry together to both understand BiKBBI and our objectives better but also address the challenges and opportunities facing the installation sector, our stakeholders and the wider KBB industry. Each year we build on content, delegate numbers and In 2022, we also launched the BiKBBI Awards, the only recognition programme dedicated to KBB installation, and we also link this into the conference, with both events taking place on the same day in the same venue.

Finally, BiKBBI is set to become a large part of InstallerSHOW’s new Kitchen and Bathroom section. What can our visitors expect from BiKBBI at the event?
We visited InstallerSHOW in 2023 and were very impressed, great brands and visitors, plus there was a real vibe to the event. The addition of kitchens (not before time!) made it a no-brainer for us to be involved, it’s now 100% relevant for BiKBBI to be a key partner.  We won’t be there as a typical static trade association but will be creating awareness of BiKBBI and our values, expanding awareness into other trades like plumbing and heating, bringing new dialogue, new content, and ongoing conversations with our rapidly expanding community.

I would urge everyone who works in the KBB sector to register for InstallerSHOW (here) and come along to see us as well as the many amazing brands who are taking part this year. We have great activities and talks planned for each of the three days of the event – If you’re in this business, this is absolutely the place to be.

InstallerSHOW, 25 – 27 June 2024 at Birmingham NEC.

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