Douglas Brown: from Edinburgh Fringe to transforming industrial supply

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For our most recent episode of Leaders in STEM, we sat down with Douglas Brown, head of marketing at MSC Industrial Supply co. Discover his unconventional route from acting to manufacturing marketing, as well as his thoughts on the digitalisation of the industry and how to best tackle the skills shortage felt throughout the STEM industries.

Just to start with a little bit about your personal background, Douglas, can you share a bit about your professional journey leading up to your current role as Head of Marketing at MSC?

I originally spent two years as a professional actor, had various films, different theatre productions, I was part of different theatre companies, all culminating with doing the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and kind of showcasing a two man play there.

But that journey of being an actor taught me, I've always said, the kind of guerrilla basics of marketing, the absolute fundamentals of when you've got a pound, how did you turn it into £10, how do you turn it into £100? And so that sort of set me up and gave me an absolute appetite for marketing and advertising and PR and understanding. Of course, from a theatrical background, of storytelling, it helped me understand there's an even better way, from a business point of view, of how to tell a story.

So, as is my natural way, I started talking to somebody in a pub. He told me he was the director of Marketing at a business round the corner. I told him, you're going to come in next week, you can give me an interview. He did. A week later, he gave me another interview. And by being a bit of a cheeky chappie, and by hopefully having a bit of something about me from what I've learned from the acting days, I then started as a marketing and PR executive and then over the years kind of grew. I've always been very curious, bit of a sponge for learning, so I soaked up as much as I could around me to progress and take on as much responsibility as people would ever give me. And the same is today as it was ten years ago.

MSC is a leader in metalworking and maintenance supplies. Could you give us a bit of an overview of their mission and how it is contributing to the stem landscape?

In a nutshell, it's about being the best industrial distributor that we can be not only for the customers, but for our shareholders, for our suppliers. And it goes a little bit far beyond just a transactional relationship. It can be very easy for a business like us to sell 100,000 products from 600 brands and to just go, “oh, you want to drill? Here it is, here's the price,” kind of stack it high, flog it cheap mentality. But that's not what we're about. We want to sit down with the customer, understand what it is that they're trying to do from their manufacturing point of view. Yes, we sell you something, but then we've got a substantial engineering team, really industry leading in the way that they think and the way that they apply themselves to those products.

So, yes, we're going to sell you that drill. That's fantastic. But then we're going to overlay this unbelievable expertise on top of that, to bring that product to life, to give you the time and cost savings of throughput that you need to make your business really hum from getting that output out of your shop floor.

You've got a huge range of products that MSC Industrial are supplying into the sector, but could you give us a few practical examples that might highlight sort of that product and service combination?

Our heritage is metalworking. If you've got CNC machines, five axis lathes, milling, turning, hole making, whatever you're doing—if you're cutting metal into something then you're the perfect example of a customer that we want to help. Over the years we've been developing a range of nearly 50,000/60,000 products from suppliers that are focused on that metalworking kind of customer. And so, we've got real top leading OEM manufacturers of these kind of products. So, yeah, we will go into any type of customer that's doing metalworking, whether you're working in aerospace, automotive, Formula One, submarines, you name it. If you're making something out of metal, then we're there for you.

Is there anything else that you guys do that is a real USP and helps you stand out from the competitors in your space?

A few things, I think. First, we've got the largest cutting tool brands in one place than anybody else. So, it is a destination for any engineering business to come to for that. So that certainly helps. But anybody could potentially do that. It's the independent advice, as I say. On top of that, it’s from the engineers, which is a key differentiator. We don't, month-to-month, sort of flog which brand we want that month because we're getting a rebate from that supplier, or we've got a special offer on with them.

I think secondly, the work that we do with Next Gen Makers, as I say, to walk into a factory and say, “yes, we can help you today and next week with your throughput and your shop floor, making your machines the best that they can be. But have you thought about your business and about where it's going in five years and the skills that you need to get there based on again?” Maybe they’re thinking about changing the way that they’re working after COVID, or maybe thinking about the digitalization of their business, maybe thinking about kind of new skills they want to bring onto the shop floor. “How are you doing that from a skills gap point of view?” And again, there is no other business like us that does that. Nobody else does that.

Could you highlight maybe three or four things you’ve see fundamentally changing in manufacturers’ way of working over the ten years you’ve been in the industry?

I think one of the biggest ones I've seen in terms of a kind of manufacturer's behaviour is the adoption of digitalisation, which of course, you could always argue is always going to happen the more that it becomes more widespread and there's different grants that help manufacturers do things. But I think businesses are really beginning to think deeply about how various technologies can really help them as a business to be more streamlined and give them more visibility of what’s happening on the shop floor.

So, the idea of the connected supply chain that when they take a job on and even subcontract it out themselves, are they able to see the various components of what they're working on with their subcontractors and how they're working on it and how all that data comes back to them as a business to understand? When are they going to deliver this project that they've bid for? That's very interesting. I think then aside to that is probably the use of data. So, of course when you implement all this lovely software and these solutions you end up with this kind of digital footprint across your business. Businesses now have so much data, more data than I think that they can possibly even begin to understand themselves, that tell how the business works.

When I was at Brammer ten years ago and you walked onto a shop floor, it never felt like that. It kind of felt like there was a timeline or a timetable printed out and stuck on the side of machine. And that still happens today, let's face it. But now it feels like there's a bit more, at least, digitalisation of that business and they’re really trying to control and have visibility on what's happening in their business. Then, they can obviously look for opportunities where they can make more money.

And are you seeing things shifting and changing now, existing in a world where a lot of young people are coming into the industry having grown up in a digital age?

You have to think about how you're setting the business up, even in MSC’s case. How are we setting ourselves up now for five years and ten years’ time and what are we doing today that takes advantage of the way that we work as a business? What I mean by that is our absolutely world class customer service that we've kind of crafted over the years. How do you take that offline experience that you've got huge credibility for, that you've won awards for, that you've got proper brand equity for. How do you take that customer service and then apply it digitally? That's a huge thing to have to think about and to achieve and to pay for.

It's a very interesting concept to try and make sure that that happens correctly, because I want MSC customers to deal with us in an omnichannel way—offline and online—and to feel like they're getting the same experience, whether they speak to one of our fantastic contact service people or whether they go on the website. Trying to figure out that for that type of generation, knowing that it's still traditional, that they still like salespeople turning up, knocking on the door, that they still like a catalogue. Do I ever see us not making a catalogue? Probably not, because engineers still like to stand there on a shop floor with the greasy fingers and flick through a catalogue.

If I'm honest, I'm still the same. There is something tangible and easy about seeing stuff on a page. But you must accommodate for this big mix of a world where you've got so many different generations with distinct buying behaviours. The whole psychology attached to just the way that people search and want instant search and want answers to things quickly makes you now must go, “we've kind of got to give everybody everything.”

Would you say we're very much shifting towards an environment where it's more, these days, about helping your good fit customers to buy from you and to continue to buy from you?

Creating that habit in customers, I think, is obviously always important. Repeat business is good, but I feel like it's also about the relationship beyond that. As I say, we can keep sending you this widget all the time, this drill all the time, this pair of gloves all the time. Well, unless you're really sitting down with them and understanding what the future of their business is, how that they can control those costs that they're spending with you; do they have visibility of all the inventory that they're buying from you and where it is and how they manage it? Now, in your world, I think you've got to take it to that nth degree. You've got to take it away from just that transactional relationship and say, here's now, the world of expertise and independent expertise at that applied to that product as well.

You've discussed supply chain, cost control, and inventory management. Does your approach to these also extend to addressing environmental responsibility and sustainability?

Well, the last thing any manufacturing business wants is waste. It's just throwing money down the drain. And when you think of all the consumables, as I say, that a manufacturing business will buy, they need to know that essentially, they've got a good handle on where they are and what they are. And so, our solution is an inventory management vending machine. You put your stock that you want to buy on a regular basis into it. We work with you to understand what that stock is. You have it line size or right next to your machine. So, your workforce isn't necessarily walking all the way to the stores just to come back with a new drill or a new pair of gloves or whatever lubricant they're using on a job.

When you use an inventory management system, you've then got all the time and costs associated to somebody pulling together all those POS, pulling together all those invoices, pulling together all the different orders to regularly order those things that are always being used on a manufacturing floor. All of that disappears because it's all automated now, and the vending machine just does it for you. You hit your min/max levels, it orders the stocks, we come and put the inventory back in there for you.

How do you go about attracting and retaining the right people for MSC? And are we doing a good enough job with this across the industry?

I think over the years one thing that's kind of never changed is the horror of the skills gap. You see every single year, it's a quarter of a million missing heads each year that need to be filled. I don't know if it's getting better or worse if I'm honest, especially since COVID but that obviously has a compound effect on the industry and the way that the industry works. And so, from an MSC point of view, what we've tried to do to kind of alleviate that we've tried to enable our engineering team to be the best that they can be. So, when they walk on a shop floor, a manufacturing business can be assured that these people know what they're talking about and are going to apply their expertise correctly to the solution.

What that means for us is, first, having engineers in an engineering team that are engineers, I know it sounds daft, but I think the job title of engineer gets thrown around a little bit too loosely for my lightly. You can get salespeople that know the difference between one tool and another and suddenly they're a sales engineer. It's a bit dubious if I'm honest. They've never run a machine before. They've never stood on the duct board. So, are they truly an engineer? Could they work a CAD file? Let's face it, we're confident that our engineering team is filled with super engineers like that. When we hire engineers, it's absolutely focused on making sure that we find proper engineers that know what they're talking about that can apply themselves. It's about getting somebody that when they walk on a shop floor, don't embarrass the name MSC.

If we were sitting down, having another catch up in let's say five years’ time and everything had gone well, what would the shape of the business look like and how would things have changed from today?

If I'm honest, I don't think the proposition would change much if at all. I mean there's a reason the proposition works which is because we really try to help businesses be the best that they can be. So from a fundamental level, I don't see the proposition changing because it's sound and it works. We know it works because customers are telling us all the time that we're a great business to work with and our customer retention is great too.

We're obviously going to work towards digital solutions that help businesses have more control, more visibility, more time, and cost savings in their business. There's the myriad of possibility when it comes to AI and how you can help have that affect customers and help them understand their data a little bit more and have AI help the way that you treat your customers, help them with the technical specifications and data attached to products.

I personally would want MSC to stand for the same things in five years’ time as when somebody hears the name MSC Industrial Supplies today. It's pure trust and confidence so that if they see that person on their shop floor or they're on the website, that they know they're getting value from it instantly. And its trusted value that no matter how small or large of a problem in their business, there's something that we can help them with that would feel great in the next few years.

So specifically, in your role as sort of heading at the marketing, what are the three or four things you're going to be concentrating on over the next couple of years to set you on a path for growth?

Digital evolution, for sure—making sure that our digital footprint in the manufacturing world is the best it can be. I think secondly, we as a business, and especially the engineering team, have learned so many great things over the years around how to help manufacturing businesses. There’s a bank of cost savings and best practice and thought leadership and all that type of stuff that we've been collecting over the years that we've done a few things with. But we've now got the opportunity to really make sure that we can get that insight and that best practice out into the market in a better way. And so there's a lot of work happening in the background with getting that content ready for customers just to learn a little bit more. Again, passing on the expertise. We've got a technology centre here at the head office, which is designed to help, as I say, when we go into a manufacturing business and we say you're making that for £50, we think we can make that for £32.

We've got a lot more plans over the next few years to really make sure that that is front and centre of that engineering capability that we talk about. And again, proving when we say these tools in conjunction, working with this kind of cutting strategy on this type of material is the best thing since sliced bread. It's to back it up, and as I say, to prove it in there. And then I think finally, from a marketing point of view, there's a lot of work to be done with getting the technical expertise of the OEMs closer to the customers.

I think there's a job where we can help bring that technical information to a customer in a more instant way. Again, in a digital world there’s a new generation of people that want instant answers to instant questions. We have a place in the industry to bring all that information together.

Beyond your role and your life at MSC, what passions or interests you pursue in your personal life? Are you still doing any acting?

Unfortunately not. I did try, but I just couldn't give the time commitment to do it properly, to do it as in depth as I would want. Yeah, it would take some significant time. So I'm leaving that until I retire and then I'll just be the old man in every film.

One of the things I do on the side is I'm a non-exec director for mental health charity: the Kaleidoscope Plus Group, based in West Bromwich. I think people still don't quite realize how present it is in, obviously, everybody's lives, but how much it affects lots of people's lives, how much goes on behind closed doors. To be part of that and to advise and help that business make money, help people exist and just change lives is a very fulfilling thing and something I don't take for granted. And, yeah, it's great to hear the stories of when a seven-year-old who's dealing with mental health has a complete change and thinks about the world in a completely different way. You just sit there sometimes and you're just thankful that there are charities like that that exist.

Where to find MSC and Douglas:

You can find Douglas on LinkedIn, and MSC's website is here.

Listen to past episodes of Leaders in STEM on Spotify.

Becky Nicholls

Becky Nicholls

Author