Ace Office Environments’ sales director Keith Boulter has seen a myriad of changes during his 43 years in the office supplies industry, but one fundamental hasn’t changed – that customer relationships are at the heart of everything he does
A lot has changed in the world since 1977, but one thing that hasn’t is Keith Boulter working in the office supplies sector. The industry veteran started out as a youngster working for New Milton-based Murrays.
“I learnt the trade,” he says. “I started in the warehouse and then moved into the office doing invoicing and admin. Next I went onto the ‘phones, and did a bit on the retail side – the company had a retail shop as well. I did the whole thing but, when I joined, I always wanted to go out selling, and I got to do that within a couple of years. I have been doing it ever since.”
Ace Office bought up its local rival Murrays in 1992; Keith moved with the company and has been there ever since. “Many clients have been with me and the business for 30-plus years, which I pride myself on because they are friends as well as businesses these days.”
Keith puts his longevity in the sector down to his willingness to embrace change when it comes along. “If you don’t, those opportunities aren’t going to be there – the only way to guarantee an opportunity is to embrace change and go with it. Change is often a good thing, and it’s probably why I’m still here; I have never wanted to look outside the industry.”
His passion to go out and sell is still there too – and if it ever does go, then that is probably when he will call it a day. “I’ve done 43 years. I’m not sure I’ll get to 50 – although state pension says ‘Yes’! I know there will be lots of other changes between now and then.”
However, one thing that doesn’t change is the importance of customer service – something that Ace Office, which supplies a range of office equipment and furniture, has held at its core since the company was founded in 1963 by Sam Emberton.
Adrian Carter is the managing director now, the third generation of the family to run the business. “It is very much still a family-run business,” says Keith. “The foundation of the business was always based on personal customer service; those foundations have never changed and is part of the reason why we are still successful. Looking back at 2020, this philosophy has become more critical than ever.
“You absolutely need to pick up the ‘phone now as you are not getting the regular contact you were six-to-12 months ago; you need to keep in contact in different ways. Sometimes it’s just dropping clients a line. I have clients working at home and I will drop them an email to just make sure they are happy with everything, and that they know the latest plans. It’s about keeping up that contact.”
Evolve to survive
However, while fundamentals like that don’t change, the business has evolved in other ways. “The company has diversified – if it hadn’t, it wouldn’t be here today, like a lot of businesses sadly aren’t. We have added other areas to the business and acquired businesses that add to our portfolio.”
One of the areas the company has diversified into in recent years is safetywear and personal protective equipment (PPE). This proved crucial when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year. “We had already established supply routes for a lot of the products that have been critical for clients throughout the year.
“For example, we had a large client with 1,300 retirement developments across the country and their responsibility was keeping their managers and residents safe within those developments. Supply in that sort of volume was difficult, but we successfully turned 1,300 PPE packs around in about six days – and that was in the early says of lockdown, when everything was a bit scary for everyone.
“The company is very proud of the way the team worked to achieve that to a tight deadline.”
The company has also actively been looking for framework opportunities. Keith says that Ace Office had traditionally provided supplies to local councils, but that work scaled down about a decade ago when many councils started to adopt established framework agreements. “We, sadly, missed out; we didn’t get the opportunity to tender, and we lost quite a fair chunk of business, but I’m sure we weren’t alone in that.”
This just served to redouble Keith and his team’s determination to go out and replace that business. “I have always had the same mindset; if you lose it you have to go find more – it makes you a little bit more determined and focused.”
While the lost business was replaced, it became clear that to get any government work on a national or regional basis, Ace Office had to get onto a framework. The opportunity came in October 2019 when the Crown Commercial Services Office Suppliers Tender was issued. There were three strands within their framework – a direct award for office supplies, a direct award for electronic supplies, and a framework that had a selection of suppliers that could submit additional tenders for work, or receive direct awards – Ace Office tendered for this one. “We spent a lot of time and effort on this and, in March, we were awarded a place on it,” Keith says.
“There is a lot of hard work in this, and it’s going to take time to build. Each tender we do we are learning, and we’ve had a little bit of success already, which is great. We expect next year to be much more focused on this.”
One factor that is increasingly considered in tenders is a company’s corporate social responsibility policies, and this is something ingrained in Ace Office Supplies’ culture. For example, long-established community radio station Hope FM had a problem 18 months ago – they were about to lose their broadcasting base, and they reached out to Ace Office’s managing director.
“Our MD generously donated our boardroom, of all places, to them as free space so they could set their studio up. They have been broadcasting there since January 2020.”
Ace Office also take their environmental concerns seriously too. Keith says two of his sales team drive full electric vehicles while others, including himself, use plug-in hybrid vehicles to help reduce CO2 emissions in the area. In addition, all cardboard packaging used by Ace Office Supplies is recycled.
Looking forward, one of Ace Office’ key objectives for 2021 is to help clients to create safer working spaces, whether they are in the office or at home. “Home working is definitely going to change what we do,” says Keith. “We, like a lot of our competitors, have solutions in place today; communicating this to your client base is key – and there are other opportunities as well.”
What customers buy has changed too. While things like coffee and janitorial supplies were big sellers in 2019, this wasn’t the case in 2020; they were replaced with hand sanitiser, face masks and such like. “What the new model will look like in 2021, nobody truly knows,” Keith muses, “but you have to be positive about it. I think the industry has done exceptional jobs for people around PPE and keeping people safe through this. Sadly, we have been overlooked a little bit as an industry, but we have done a critical job for a lot of people to keep them safe.
“Hopefully, clients will remember what we have been doing.”