Constant change leads to success

Industry veteran Mike James has been a fixture in the office products business for more than 40 years – but his passion for it, and wish to carry on learning about it, still burns bright

The office products and stationery industry has a history that can be traced back hundreds of years and, as Mike James observes, one of the successes of the industry across all that time is that it copes well with change.

“We have changed over the past 600 years, and continue to change today; we have emerging companies, and we have different ways of trading, but I think it is a robust industry because what we do, and produce, people still need.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a good example of the industry’s ability to change quickly – many dealers set up new, PPE-based, product lines within weeks of lockdown, for instance. In addition, the pandemic highlighted another facet of the industry – a sense of community. “One of the things I love about the office products industry is that a lot of us look after each other and that has shone through,” says Mike. “We have had some great examples of companies that have looked after their employees during this time; that’s a good reflection on our industry.”

Lifelong learning

It is an industry Mike has had a varied career in. He started at DYMO Corporation in the 1970s, then working for several companies, including rising to sales director at Esselte. Now, he is managing director of Dundale Associates, and non-executive chairman of Prima Software. He also has a long-standing association with The Stationers’ Company, and is still active within it.

“It is an amazing institution,” he says. “We do a lot of charity work and I get a tremendous buzz with the Stationer’s Company, working with some of the young people we have now. People like Amy Hutchinson [CEO of BOSS Federation] and Ian Buckley [managing director of Prima Software] – both winners of the Stationer of the Year award in the past five years – and people from allied industries. It is amazing what you can learn from other industries.

A thirst for learning is something that has been with Mike throughout his career. He says he has been “incredibly lucky” throughout his career to have learned from some talented people, such as the late Jonathan Straker, who was his “industry hero”.

Even in his later years, Mike has found that he can learn just as much from younger people in the sector who have different skill sets, such as Nigel Gunn, now of Office Products International. “I worked with Nigel, when I was fast approaching 50, and it was amazing what I was learning from him, someone who is 10-12 years younger than me.”

Today, Mike says he learns a lot from Ian Buckley. “I am old enough to be his father – probably his grandfather – but I am still learning from him. He has this brilliant talent…of being a mate to the people who work for you but, occasionally, turning that key and they recognise you are the boss. That’s a difficult one to do, but Ian has got that talent. So I am still learning at my greatly advanced age.”

Mike believes that senior people in the industry should do what they can to help and mentor young people who are making their way through the ranks. Meanwhile, his top tip for young people starting out in the industry is to get involved with the company they work for, and the industry associations. “If you look at it as just a 9-to-5 job you can do ok, potentially – but get involved and recognise the people that can mentor you.”

Change coming

While the past 18 months has seen many changes in the sector, Mike expects more to come, such as new players entering the industry, or an increase their presence through acquisitions. “It’s going to be interesting to watch,” he says. “We could see companies emerging quickly.”

One of the biggest changes to the market recently was the demise of Spicers – which has meant that independent dealers don’t do so much business with wholesalers. “The traditional wholesaler business is declining by the day. We are looking at new suppliers coming into businesses, and traditional suppliers are looking at direct arrangements with some dealers,” he says. “I think we are going to see that trend continue.”

But Mike expects the independent dealer sector to – not just survive – but thrive in the future, and the pandemic will have played a positive part in this. “The independent dealer has survived for centuries, and they will continue to survive,” he says. “The surprising thing is, if you look at the data, during the past 18 months or so, in these difficult times in general the independent dealers have done quite well because they have been quicker to adapt.”

He notes that some orders have been picked up by the independent channel as larger, office-to-office, players have been slower to adapt, whereas smaller businesses were able to quickly open new sales channels and sell new items. “Now the independent dealer covers a wide range of products,” he says. “They have the support of dealer groups, and a strong e-commerce platform, and lots are doing well.”

While Mike admits that some dealers will fall by the wayside, he knows that many will prosper. “The future is always going to be tough, but the independent dealer has a future. The past 18 months have, in some ways, reassured that future as people have had to change, and have changed quickly.

“They have new routes to market, and new suppliers, and it seems to be working for a lot of them.”

You can hear more from Mike in the latest episode of the Dealer Support podcast, Tuned In, hosted by Steve Harrop. Check out the Dealer Support website [https://dealersupport.co.uk] for more information.

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