ETN: Do You Know Enough About Your Trade Association?

It should be safe for me to assume that you have some idea of the existence of BETA. It may be something of a leap to expect that, as a consequence, you’re reading this as a representative of a BETA Member company. I hope you are but you may not be. You may not even know, one way or the other. Whether member or not, do you feel confident that you know enough about the body that represents your industry?

I sat on the BETA Council for over twelve years and, to me, it’s a quintessentially British institution that manages to combine world-leading expertise and professionalism with a noble, amateur ethos. Like Schrödinger’s cat, it exists simultaneously in a competitive environment and the realm beyond mere commerce. It’s a benefit-laden private members’ club, an upholder of safety standards and a powerful lobbying force for an entire industry. It stands up for the interests of the retailer and also those who would supply them, even when the two positions can seem incompatible. BETA is, in many ways, a litany of contradictions that defy simple definition. For all of these reasons, it seems that it has an unrivalled capacity to polarise opinion, “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t”.

BETA_only_colourI’ve met non-members who’ve claimed it’s an ineffectual body that’s happy to charge for membership but offers little value and questioned if they’d done enough research to justify that position. I’ve also encountered staunch members who were frustrated at the limits of BETA’s influence or what they deem to be its over-inclusivity and wondered if they think they’re paying to be part of a cartel. Like the BBC, BETA only seems able to demonstrate its impartiality by displaying an uncanny ability to court equal dissatisfaction from all sides – which, when you think about it, takes some doing.

To me, it’s a telling comparison because there are lots of similarities between the two institutions. I love the BBC but I’m well aware that there are many who do not. I’ll be the first to admit the Beeb is not perfect but I wish it wouldn’t spend so much time justifying itself to those who happen to dislike paying for it. Of all the taxes I’ve ever paid, my ongoing contribution to maintaining it is the one I make the most gladly. Having done so, I still accept that merely buying a TV licence gives me no divine right to complain the second the schedules include something I might not want to watch, however expensively-produced. The BBC is consistently included in independently-compiled lists of the world’s most-trusted brands and it seems to command a level of affection overseas that’s wholly disproportionate to its reach and appeal. Does any of this sound familiar?

There’s also the issue of ‘mission creep’ in a changing world. Yes it’s important to have a clear vision of one’s raison d’être from the outset but robust self-definition can be a hampering factor when changes occur that the writers of the constitution couldn’t possibly have foreseen. The BBC’s website has undergone several culls of material since deemed ‘non-core’ to its Reithian principles in order to demonstrate value and retain overall relevance. Equally, BETA has had to exercise some re-enlightenment from time to time to accommodate an explosion in the number of forms of selling. Both institutions must also tailor their offering to a changing demographic, continually challenging all the safe assumptions of the past. In the case of ‘Auntie’, it’s all about ensuring minority communities are commensurately given a voice. Similarly, today’s less stereotyped horse world must be more effectively understood and represented. I remember one particular late-night debate at which I argued about the dangers of BETA aligning itself too closely with the pro-hunting lobby simply because that’s what it had always done.

And then there’s the issue of what BETA doesn’t do. When commercial disagreements occur between parties, I’m afraid “it’s business”, governed ultimately by the law of the land. There’s obviously a limit to what BETA can do in such disputes. It can advise its members but don’t expect it to stand in binding arbitration. BETA can’t enact any level of direct enforcement beyond rescinding a membership – and even then only where clear infractions have occurred.

I suppose the most easily-thrown hand grenade is the belief that BETA is somehow a secret club, more interested in its own self-enrichment than fulfilling any greater purpose. Again, just like the BBC, BETA’s stakeholders are entitled to regular disclosure of all the finances, something that, oddly, most conspiracy theorists seem not to have taken the trouble to establish. When I was first invited onto the Retail Committee by BETA’s founding father, Antony Wakeham, he promised me no benefit from my involvement beyond “altruism” and, I have to say, he was true to his word. For each meeting attendance, I was able to claim the princely sum of £35 in expenses – if you think that’s a sign of a gravy train, try getting from Wigan to London and back for that amount!

We live in an age where information has never been more freely available so there’s really no excuse for not knowing more about BETA and what it can do for you. As this is an opinion column, I’ll end by giving you mine: BETA is run by a dedicated team of talented, knowledgeable people, led for almost twenty years by, Claire Williams, who, I assure you, is nothing less than an absolute star. It is guided by a broad selection of highly-experienced, poorly-rewarded Council and Committee members who, above all else, care deeply about the future of your industry – perhaps occasionally, a little too much. BETA may not be perfect, it may cost a little more than you’d prefer and it won’t ever be a panacea to cure all ills but it’s what we have – and, I might add, it’s an asset much-envied by those in many other industries. Please don’t ever take it for granted.

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ETN: Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

IMG_3608My first visit to the BETA trade show at the NEC was in 1996, twenty-one years ago. By then, I’d been to the ‘Travelling Fair’, I’d already met many of the industry’s luminaries, attended several fairs in other markets; and spent a childhood punctuated by the county show circuit, celebrating my birthday at the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley.

My first BETA, therefore, wasn’t quite the revelation to me that it might have been but if it’s true to say I was born into this industry, my initial immersion into its annual gathering was certainly akin to a baptism…of tweed!

Despite the impressively forward-looking venue (you can’t deny it, ‘proper’ industries have their trade fairs at the NEC), it seemed to me to be a collective populated overwhelmingly by a certain ‘type’: white, middle-aged, land-owning men – mostly decent chaps of course but very much of a particular sort. Yes, if you looked hard enough, you would find a Lucy Carr-Seaman, a Vanessa Roberts or even an Oliver Skeete breaking the monotony but even then the tendency to tweed remained. As the members of the dance group were themselves back then, ‘diversity’ was a concept in its infancy.

I agree, it’s an easy stick with which to beat anyone’s history, especially an industry built around an animal which has been domesticated for millennia and which became functionally obsolete decades previously. Tradition has always been and will always be a potent selling point and, this being Britain, the compulsion to embrace the past is powerful. It’s therefore understandable that an industry such as ours was unlikely ever to have been at the forefront of inclusivity.

Back then, I was determined to survey this familiar world anew with more objective, more professional eyes. I suppose I was mostly amazed by the apparent presumption that ‘horse’ equals ‘country’ and vice-versa – forever and ever, Amen. I’m not saying that the two are unrelated – we can all agree there is significant overlap – but coming from a Northern town set between two of England’s biggest (and at the time, grimiest) cities, it jarred with my experience of burgeoning district shows in which children of scrap metal dealers competed with their suburban friends on ponies provided by their parents’ hard work and social mobility.

Two decades later, it still jars a little – even though I hope I’ve gained a much wider understanding of the complexion of the market we’re here to serve. I can’t deny that in ‘the Shires’ (wherever they may be defined), that rather cosy relationship pervades but it still seems little more than a continuing stereotype to the majority of the rest of the country.

Perhaps these days, it’s really a case of two separate niche industries deliberately combining to create a more sizeable entity, capable of punching together at a heavier weight. Or it’s just a sign of the inertia that comes with the involvement of ‘The Establishment’. Maybe it’s now being perpetuated by new consumers actually ‘buying into’ the well-spun image that ‘horsiness is next to rural-ness’ or possibly it’s got something to do with the ongoing debate about hunting. I don’t know.

I accept ‘the countryside’ is a fertile area for new participants and I realise we mustn’t overlook that, for the sake of the future but I’ve always felt it’s not the only area worthy of attention if equestrianism is ever going to flourish as much as it can.

I therefore attended BETA 2017 (my twenty-second) wondering whether the pace of change had increased much beyond the glacial, being careful not to set my expectations too high…

I can report that we are still disproportionately comprised by a brigade of such ‘chaps’ but nowhere near as much as we were. Fate, the passage of time and commercial opportunity has seen the old patriarchy loosening its grip and becoming increasingly replaced by new people in a variety of shapes, colours, genders and outlooks.

This is important because difference refreshes the thinking of the companies with which we do business – and that invigorates our product development, our marketing strategies, our operational processes, our employee policies and everything else. A former BETA Council colleague, whom I respect hugely, once told me “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. I won’t embarrass him by naming him – or by pointing out that he’s one of the very ‘chaps’ I considered back in 1996 – but that’s the very essence of the need for diversity and the main danger of consistency and traditionalism for its own sake. As he’s proven, it mustn’t be presumed that patriarchs are incapable of embracing change but I’m sure he would be the first to agree that fresh thinking is a much more elusive commodity in an environment which displays a reluctance to evolve.

What else remains? The tweed – although now it’s a badge of hipster fashion as much as a uniform of the traditionalists. ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’, you might conclude – but these days, you’re just as likely to hear it said in French.

  • Look out for my next column, about the impact of criticism, in the April issue of the ETN, out April 1st.