We sit down with ASK Office Supplies

ASK Office Supplies has recently acquired a rival, which shows great confidence in the business – but this is tempered with realism about the marketplace, as managing director Greg Colehan explains

The old proverb ‘All good things come to those who wait’ is one that Greg Colehan has had good reason to quote recently. His company, ASK Office Supplies, recently completed a deal to acquire local rivals Office Rulers/Sovereign 2000 – but the deal should have happened more than a year ago. Greg says it was set to be completed in April 2020 but then, of course, the pandemic hit and the plans were shelved as attention shifted to ensuring the businesses were bringing enough money in to keep going – not to mention the logistical difficulties of meeting up to discuss a deal!

However, Greg kept in touch with the owners of Office Rulers/Sovereign 2000, Tabby and Naeem Hussain and, once lockdown measures were lifted earlier this year, they started talking about the deal again and it was completed in a couple of weeks. “The owners of Office Rulers wanted to go in a different direction, but they also wanted to look after the staff they had,” says Greg. “It was an asset purchase, the goodwill and the staff, and they are now closing the Office Rulers business down.

“We have brought their guys over, and it has been a seamless transition. It was a dealership less than half a mile from where we are and the chap who runs their sales operations used to work with ASK 30 years ago – I used to work with him – so he’s gone full circle.”

The deal itself was the easiest Greg has been involved with. “I knew the people in the business, and a lot of deals are done on trust,” he says. “I saw the opportunity to see what the business can do – they deal a lot with local solicitors and healthcare companies. When we were doing the due diligence on the company there wasn’t one customer that crossed over with us, so it has added about 300 new customers to us to supply.

“There was a lot of synergy with what we do and, hopefully, we can sell more into their customers with our workwear offering, office furniture – and through Office Friendly we can sell tools and things like that. It is a win-win.”

Greg adds that the acquisition fits with the company’s ethos of being a local supplier; while ASK does have national accounts, it primarily serves businesses in West Yorkshire. ASK is based in Bradford, and has acquired businesses in recent years in Huddersfield, Halifax and Leeds. “We have West Yorkshire pretty well covered,” says Greg.

Through troubled times

That Greg felt confident enough to make the acquisition is demonstrative of the resilience of the business during the pandemic. Like many others, ASK quickly pivoted to become a PPE supplier in the early days of the first lockdown, and that proved to be a vital revenue stream.

But this isn’t the first national crisis Greg has steered ASK through. He bought the business in 2008 – nearly 20 years after joining it – during the middle of the credit crunch. Since then, there has been a banking crisis and a decade of austerity so, when the pandemic hit, it was just another hurdle to be negotiated.

He has been helped by ASK being part of Office Friendly – indeed, Greg has been on the board of the company for more than four years. “It is an organisation that means a lot to me both personally and through the business,” he says. “We use Office Friendly for the cascade marketing that has helped us to get the right campaigns out to our customer base. Over the years Office Friendly has helped us immensely with marketing and services.”

Back to basics

However, what really helped ASK to weather the pandemic and win new business and accounts – including from some of the larger players in the market – was old-fashioned, responsive customer service. “I saw some companies weren’t getting back to customers for up to two-to-three days, but our customers don’t have that,” he explains. “We brought our staff back as soon as we could, and we have had customers comment ‘You came back to us really quickly. We have been dealing with someone else who has taken hours or days to come back to us,’ so we won business on the back of that. We have gone back to basics – trying to get as much business as possible out of existing customers as it is an easy sell because you already have that relationship.”

Part of this is offering new lines. As part of Office Friendly, ASK can offer lines such as tools, while it also has a growing workwear line, which came through the AB4 business in Leeds, which ASK acquired in 2018. “Because we can offer workwear customers say, ‘We will give you this supply as well as the core contract products’; it cuts down their supply chain and we can process small orders,” Greg says. “Workwear now accounts for a good proportion of our monthly turnover. Whether it’s workwear, tool kits, drill bits, DW-40 – it’s a new conversation to have with existing customers.”

This focus on existing business is set to continue until the end of the year. “Then we’ll see how the market lies,” says Greg. “There might be acquisitions in the offing but who knows what is round the corner?

“Hopefully, by the end of the year, the supply chain, stock and prices will be stable and we can look to 2022 with renewed vigour.”

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