The full spread for this story can be found in July’s issue of Dealer Support
It all happened at once – first Amazon Business, then Brexit – bringing pricing volatility in their wake. Barriers to entry into the office products market dissolved as diversification took hold. As the industry foundations began to rumble, the forecast remained uncertain. A tsunami of change had begun after years of speculation. Simultaneously, Office Friendly introduced its new management team that put Julie Hawley and her unique female trio at the helm. Two years on, she looks back at what happened next and how they redefined the concept of a dealer group to restore some semblance of confidence in an ever-changing industry.
BE QUICK OFF THE MARK – SECOND PLACE IS FOR LOSERS
“Back then everything seemed to happen so fast”, recalls Julie. “The industry seemed stunned by the change of pace, but Keeley, Katie and I had our own challenges to concentrate on. Every player in the industry has to remain relevant and future proof their business against volatility. We were no different, and with the support of our board we set about redefining what a modern buying group should look like.”
What they saw emerge was a new business landscape. New technologies, integrated systems and new consumer buying habits as the pace of online availability gathered speed. This let way to a new breed of lean start-ups free of overheads. Where once dealers kept to clearly defined verticals (such as office supplies, print, interior design, and work wear), now the barriers were coming down. This opened the floodgates to competition throughout the B2B market.
The dominoes began to fall. Long-established businesses lost their edge, unfit to compete with shrinking margins and unable to fund the resources necessary to penetrate new markets. Where once dealers had only to protect their customers from one another, now the pressure was mounting all around them. “This was a threat to dealer groups like us, too,” says Julie. “I’d be naive to say we weren’t concerned – but when we dared look a little further, we saw opportunity all around us.”
THE ‘AHA!’ MOMENT – LEARNING TO LOVE WHAT YOU SEE IN THE MIRROR
One thing all businesses share is the need to stay relevant. For those concerned about the future, Julie has advice: “Map out your terrain and suddenly it doesn’t seem so insurmountable. We started this journey by looking at where we wanted to be and making sure that we were always moving in the right direction.
“We were determined to focus on what made us different, identify our members’ needs and concentrate on what we were good at.” By doing this Office Friendly was able to pinpoint its place in the industry. With an exceptional team culture, it was integral to work with all stakeholders closely and build trusting relationships too.
“This time spent looking in the mirror and really seeing what looked back was vital,” says Julie. “In the background we were always conscious that the same problems facing us also faced our members. By overcoming our own challenges, we realised we could apply the same solutions for them. That was when the business really started to change direction and switch gears. We haven’t looked back since.”
Julie describes this as Office Friendly’s ‘aha!’ moment, which opened the way to a new portfolio of unique services. “It’s not rocket science but a back-to-basics approach with an understanding of the market changes. We’re by no means a finished product. We will always be working towards progress just like any other business should be,” she continues.
“At our core we are still a dealer group, but now we have become a business development specialist team that enjoys working alongside our dealers, enabling them to fulfil their full potential.”
MOVE OVER – THERE’S A NEW KIND OF DEALER GROUP IN TOWN
Lead by example, remain relevant and share both lessons learnt and success stories: this is Office Friendly’s open new attitude. One they believe will pave the way for a more collaborative dealer group and future-proof their members’ place in the industry. Having predicted how trade supplier revenues would fall and dealers would consolidate, Office Friendly set about creating an independent stream of income.
As a co-operative this has ensured that the dealer group will still be around in the future for its members. Its portfolio includes: business development training programmes; marketing and design through their KascAid Programme; commercial direction; financial support; and networking opportunities to name a few. The delivery of these initiatives is quite unique and concentrates very much around the individual need of the member or client. Julie is quick to point out the symmetry. By diversifying into these new areas, Office Friendly is able to help their members diversify, too.
“Central to what we’re about is a celebration of the entrepreneur,” she adds. “We love that, in our community, everyone’s different. This individuality is why our members are confident they’ll continue to thrive. It’s also why we provide highly specialised, bespoke services, so members can do their own bit in their own way. We’re fit for purpose.”
DON’T LOOK DOWN – IT’S UP AND UP AND UP
Since re-profiling as ‘business development specialists’ little over six months ago, Office Friendly’s new strategy is showing all the signs of success. More and more businesses now work with the dealer group on their premium marketing programme, KascAid. From one off design jobs to flexible monthly retainers, KascAid is becoming a fully-fledged marketing agency. In recognition, they’re due to release a fully dedicated marketing website (www.kascaidmarketing.co.uk).
Having identified a lack of training in the industry they are working with VOW, and have just released another industry initiative: an e-learning system, resource centre, and networking platform in one for their members. “We call it Pioneer. It signifies the groundbreaking work we need to do with the dealers to give them all the tools they need to run their businesses and win those orders. Creating a community with suppliers, wholesaler and dealers we are looking for full collaboration throughout the supply chain.”
Their unique approach hasn’t gone unnoticed by the industry either. Recently, Office Friendly announced its inclusion in the world-leading mega-group, International Office Products Alliance (as the UK’s only partner). It’s also collaborating closely with the BOSS Federation, working together to introduce a new initiative to reduce plastic use in the industry Although Office Friendly continues to expand with an independent income stream, the unique female trio aren’t ready to rest on their laurels.
As Julie says, to inspire long-term confidence, you can never stop moving forward. “Sure, we are giving our stakeholders as many advantages as we can,” says Julie, “but it’s more than that. It represents our place in the industry and the entrepreneurial community we’ve built around us. So should we be confident? With all these amazing individuals supporting each other, how can we not be?”