[Dealer interview] Risky business

Paul Travis, sales director and co-founder of Keeley Travis, spoke to Dealer Support in March’s edition of the magazine about the story of the business and the importance of taking risks
Tell me about your background, and give me a short history of the company
At 23, I was working for Office Depot, fresh after completing my business degree. As a 16-year-old had I worked for my dad’s engineering business, so I knew what running a small company was like. Sadly, in 2003, my father suddenly passed away; at the same time, there was a restructuring of the sales force at Office Depot. For me, it was important to put my energy into something new, and it made total sense to start my own office products business. John Keeley was a good friend I had met at college and he also had good experience in operations and finance, so he was the ideal partner to go into business with. I still remember our first order, in April 2004, like it was yesterday.
What has the growth trajectory of Keeley Travis been like?
We grew quickly at first, surpassing £1m in the first four years. As with most businesses, around 2009, we suffered as a result of the financial crash and then there was an increase in digitalisation within the office. We have grown year-on-year from then, with the exception of one year where we were affected by service issues in our supply chain and losing some large accounts.
To what do you attribute your success so far?
Apart from the usual hard work and dedication, I would say it’s not being afraid to take risks.
We are always looking for new ideas and services to offer our clients and we are not afraid if things fail. For example, we invested heavily in stocking a range of hygiene products direct from the manufacturers, but we soon realised that the stocking model wasn’t for us. Any new sectors we entered into had to, ideally, be IT-led but still give us capacity to run from our office in Manchester. I have always found the lack of loyalty in office products frustrating – you are only ever a change in buyer away from losing your biggest customer – that’s why our focus in the last four years has been about increasing our contract business, even if this has taken our attention away from general business supplies.
You’re primarily a supplier of Konica Minolta and UTAX – were you always involved in the machine side of office products?
No, managed print was never my background. I was very frustrated that the company was losing business on EOS due to the managed print companies. Naturally, I thought that becoming a managed print dealer would give us the best of both worlds; we could genuinely take a balanced view when carrying out print audits and pick up business regardless of the outcome. It was a good move – it’s gone well for us, but we’re not just managed print. I went into a local company recently where it would have been very hard to centralise their print requirements so, on that occasion, we decided to advise cost for the individual machines the staff actually wanted. It was what worked best for them. You go in and quote, and you win or lose.
Has being a tech-focused business given you more of a competitive edge as the office products industry has naturally shifted in that direction?
I’m not sure if it has given us more of a competitive edge, but it has changed our approach to how we win business. It has also helped with retaining customers as most contracts are done on a three or five-year term. As long as you service the customer well, you should always be in the driving seat when it comes to renewing the contract.
In which specific areas have you experienced the most growth?
That would be telling! The main growth and profitability comes from the contractual side of the business, which is mainly IT-led services. For the first time, in November 2018, the profit generated on the contract and IT side was higher than the business product sector – this is despite the fact that the turnover on the contract side was only 35% of overall sales. Even though the general office products market is contracting, it is still a huge market and there is still small growth in this sector.
As a business offering managed print services and a leased line service, how do you think selling services differs from selling products, both in terms of approach and reception?
Selling services allows us to take a, somewhat holistic, approach to our clients’ issues; we can assess the pain points within their businesses and present our solutions from our portfolio of products and services. The focus is not about what we want as a business but more about how we can help our clients – this builds trust and repeat business in other sectors. Gone are the days when we ask how much customers are paying for paper! That said, we still feel that office and general business supplies are crucial in helping establish the contractual side of the business.
Having this holistic view just strengthens the relationship and makes it more like a partnership. I was trying to offer a new phone contract to a customer last year and he said, “You’re not going to win this one because we do that much business with Keeley Travis, it scares me a little bit!” That’s a great position to be in.
How do you expect your offering to continue to develop as the sector evolves?
We have already brought on a sub-sector within the IT side this year, and employed a category manager in to oversee it. The pace of technology developing is something that never ceases to amaze me; there is huge opportunity if you keep an open mind and are willing to try new things.
What are the challenges involved in the tech industry – especially print – and how do you plan to overcome them?
The obvious one is the decline in print volumes, but there is opportunity in document management and workflow solutions. This is something that we need to improve on. There is still a crossover from the generation of hard copy to digital documents, and customers do experience pain when trying to integrate old and modern systems; this goes back to listening to what the customer’s pain points are and offering a solution accordingly.
What does the future look like for Keeley Travis?
Well, unless the Brexit Armageddon strikes, I would say it looks promising. We are 10% up on last year and on course to achieve our three-year plan. A couple of years ago we had some service issues that weren’t out fault – we were stuck in a contract – but now we’re planning to properly grow the company. We’re winning great accounts, we’ve got new people in on the IT side, and we want to double turnover within the next two-to-three years. To make that happen, we’re looking forward to bringing in new talent that can drive the business forward. We will always keep an open mind, and not be afraid to take risks when exploring new sectors. The more services we offer, the less susceptible we will be to the threat of faceless, online resellers.
What would your advice be to other dealers?
I’m quite ambitious and I want to take risks, while John reins me in a little bit. I think, if you don’t take risk and you’re reactive and just plod along doing what the wholesaler tells you to do, you’re just going to end up another OP dealer. There’s nothing to differentiate you.
There are things we’ve tried and failed at, but you’ve got to keep trying; eventually, you’ll find the right product mix, like we did.
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