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In the spotlight with Jen Matthews

09 December 2020

This month we put Jen Matthews in the spotlight to find out how a circumstantial opportunity landed her firmly in the health and safety industry.

How did you get into the health and safety industry?
For me it wasn’t a conscious decision as such but instead born out of circumstance and opportunity. Along with my business partner we established Fortress Distribution in 2012 with a vision to “Deliver ultimate protection to workers in tough jobs.” Together we pooled our skills and experience and set about the daunting yet exciting task of building a new business. Our first product was the Black Mamba Nitrile Glove which remains our flagship product. And whilst this product is sold into many industries it catapulted our learning around Personal Protective Equipment and landed us firmly in the health and safety industry. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Running a business is hard work yet offers great rewards. Early on every day was so different. It was all hands-on deck getting stuck into every aspect of the business right from direct selling to logistics. Although it’s fair to say I have a fantastic business partner experienced in financial and operational aspects allowing me to focus more on marketing and HR. 

I have really enjoyed the opportunities to travel and meet people that my job has allowed. Networking and exhibiting at trade shows has been brilliant. There really is no substitute for being able to meet with people face-to-face to discuss new product and business opportunities. 

As the business grew, we were able to employ several staff and outsource various activities. Recruitment, especially within a small team can be challenging. It’s really important that everyone shares the same values and upholds the company’s vision. We have been really blessed with excellent team members. I always enjoy meeting and interviewing candidates. Skillsets and experience are important for sure but much more is a willingness to be a team player. It’s great to offer flexibility to our employees that they may not get elsewhere in much larger organisations. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the health and safety industry in UK?
There are a lot of supply and demand issues at present related to COVID. Market pricing is volatile with much uncertainty as to when this may stabilise. Competition is a challenge and we have seen a lot of counterfeit PPE over recent months. It’s vital that the market is regulated. 

The increase in use of disposable PPE is impacting single use plastic waste. We need to work together to look at solutions to this. Fortress has a reusable shoe cover which is a great way to reduce the use of disposable overshoes.

People are adapting to new ways of working and new “office” environments which require a whole new set of risk assessments! There is a lot of re-evaluation that needs to take place to ensure safety across many areas. Lone working for many organisations will have increased – but how many have lone worker policies etc?

How do you think these challenges can be overcome?
Fortress is proud to be a part of the British Safety Industry Federation and their registered safety supplier scheme. This helps build confidence within the interest and supports regulation to overcome counterfeit issues. 

Given the postponement of events and tradeshows many seminars will be taken online but that doesn’t cover everything. We need to work hard to adapt and find new ways of sharing information and networking.

What sets Fortress Distribution apart from it's competitors?

We have always focussed on premium quality products. Quality really isn’t something to be comprised with personal protection equipment. We take pride in offering high quality products. We mostly represent US brands here in the UK and have exclusive rights on the sale of these. This has allowed us to build strong relationships with both and suppliers and customers. 

Fortress takes its value of honesty and integrity very seriously. I think we all saw the guys out there who inflated prices to profiteer on the COVID pandemic. It is so hard for businesses at the moment, we know because we too are experiencing supply issues and increased price points. For us it is important to remain committed and loyal to our customers working together to absorb price changes. 

Setting up a business from scratch allows you to set foundations of how you want to work and the values you want to uphold. Of course as the business grows it can become more challenging to retain this. Fortress works really hard to maintain it’s exceptional level of customer service. The team are brilliant in doing this. It’s wonderful hearing customer feedback about our service. Yes we sell products but far more importantly for us is offering service to our customers to listen to their needs and support them as best we can with products. In the current climate this has been so important and has enabled the team to build and establish solid relationships with our customers.

We might not be one of the “big players” in the PPE market but we would like to think we punch above our weight when it comes to customer service. And being that bit smaller means, we have autonomy to do things immediately without a lot of red tape and sign off processes that can be present in bigger organisations. So, we might be able to write off a customers invoice or contribute stock to a charitable cause as and when the need arises.

What are you most memorable successes at Fortress Distribution?

It has been really rewarding seeing the success of new brands in the UK, particularly with our first product Black Mamba Gloves. Although widely used in the US the product had no presence in the UK. We worked hard to get it into the hands (quite literally!) of end users and resellers. So it’s fantastic to see is widely stocked in mainstream merchants and used in so many applications.

We expanded our product range with a reusable shoe cover called YULEYS. There are many benefits to this product and it has been hugely successful in a number of areas for businesses and organisations. It’s been great to see how the reusable shoe cover has helped save money for companies as well as cutting back on their plastic waste. There’s also the bigger health and safety factor that the shoe cover reduces slips, trips and falls much more likely with disposable overshoes. 

Aside from the growth of our products, recruitment of employees has been a real highlight. We’re a small team and have had a few changes but every team member has contributed to the success of the business during their time with us.

What’s next in the product pipeline for Fortress Distribution?

We are always on the lookout for new and innovative products in the premium end of the market. We also work alongside our existing suppliers to identify market needs and how we might be able to develop new products. The Black Mamba Glove range has grown significantly, and we now carry a variety of disposable and non-disposable gloves. Plastic waste and the environment are on our agenda and we are exploring biodegradable gloves as an alternative.

What’s your vision for the future of Fortress Distribution?

Our vision remains that of “delivering ultimate protection for workers in tough jobs”. We won’t compromise on quality or service. These are solid foundations we have in place so we are ready to take the next move.

What do you think the medium term future holds for the safety industry globally?

A tricky question considering the current pandemic. Short term it will certainly be a bumpy ride as supply and demand continue to offer disruption. Medium term hopefully things will begin to settle a little or at least we will all have learnt to adapt to new ways of working together ad supply chains will be stronger. Of course, there’s Brexit to consider too – but let’s not get into that!

Ultimately there’ no doubt that health and safety legislation and PPE is needed. Globally we need more regulation around the manufacturing and sale of PPE, again with the pandemic we have seen shortfalls in this area. 

What health and safety issues are you most passionate about?

Mental health and well-being in the workplace is slowly gaining more recognition and awareness. I don’t think it’s been overlooked as such in the past but more a case that people are unaware of the full implications it can have for individuals. As much as steel toe caps and hard hats offer protection, we need to put things in place to assure employees that the ‘safety’ of their mental wellbeing is just as important. 

Working in PPE we see and hear a lot of people talking about size and fit of workwear. This has increased a lot in recent years especially with the growth of women in various trades. It’s really important that PPE is suitably designed and made for women – not just the “shrink it and pink it” culture we have seen in the past!

How can we entice more young talent to work in the health and safety sector? 

Perhaps in the past Health and Safety has held a poor image reflecting fewer exciting aspects about work and with a bit of a “job’s worth” image. The reality is that it’s actually a really exciting and innovative industry and this is what needs to be portrayed. Health and safety is at the forefront of so many aspects of our lives both in a physical sense but also around mental wellbeing. PPE is just one part of health and safety but is a huge industry in itself. It’s really cutting edge now with safety workwear having a focus on style, comfort and fit along with safety. The variety of workwear available has grown massively, it’s marketed in really fun ways including fashion shows at events. Fashion designers and marketeers might not necessarily think about working in the workwear clothing industry but it’s a big growth area.

Jenny Matthews is director at Fortress Distribution. For more information, visit www.fortressdistribution.co.uk