Final word: Mike Pickles

Mike Pickles, CEO of Really Useful Products, on why the industry must change.

The choice is all ours

By Mike Pickles, Really Useful Products

My experience of the office products industry really only spans 12 years, but even in this time there have been fundamental changes in the structure of both the customer base and the supply base. I also think that change is both constant and increasing in speed. 

In my opinion we have to embrace change or see our businesses fail. We have maybe all seen the book title Too Big to Fail, but Lehman Brothers and General Motors have shown that no one is too big to be immune from a changing environment. I am fortunate that my role takes me to Europe, the US and China, which means I am able to witness first hand the enormous change that is occurring globally. 

However, I am actually proud of our industry’s achievements, and in my opinion our industry has the largest global spread of any retail sector. If one looks at other retail sectors, such as food or electrical appliances, it is normal to have only large domestic retailers, not international. For food, the leader in the US is obviously Walmart but that retailer recently abandoned Germany. In France it’s Carrefour and Auchan but mainly for France. For electrical appliances in the US it is Best Buy, which recently abandoned the UK. For Europe, my favourite electrical retailer is the German Saturn. 

Yet Staples and Office Depot have significant volumes in both America and in Europe. I for one think this is a wonderful achievement.

On the supply side we have award-winning household names such as 3M, which is known way beyond our industry. On the sad death of Steve Jobs or even during the London riots it was amazing that 3M Post-It note displays were almost the centre point of expression. 

So our industry, in my opinion, has achieved a great deal over the years.

We have all witnessed the launch of the fax machine and thermal paper, and seen its replacement by email. We have seen large brick mobile phones replaced by smartphones that are maybe more functional than the best university computers of 20 years ago, yet we carry them around in our pockets. Yes, the world is truly amazing in how it develops, changes and adapts.

One of the best speeches I heard was given by Steve Odland at the first OPI Global Forum in Chicago, where the plea was for honesty and working together for the benefit of the whole industry and away from the ‘me me me’ mentality. My wish for the industry is that this working together for the benefit of the industry and wider community becomes a reality.

Moving from dreams to reality, it was Bob Dylan who famously said “times they are a changing”. I think this is as true now as when he wrote those words more than 40 years ago. My warning to other industry players is simply that if you do not change and embrace this reality you will have a restricted future. 

In our business we embrace this through using technology to drive down costs. We have two themes at the moment, which are both back to basics; it is all about stripping away all but basic costs, and making more with less. 

These are the keys that I am going to use to hopefully unlock our future, and hopefully in another 20 years I can say “I told you so” while I am retired and living on Easter Island. 

I am really saying the choice is all ours; we can embrace and change or eventually our businesses will have less value. I also want to paraphrase Steve Jobs when he said that we all have a duty to ensure that the time we spend at work is long and we must all do our best in this time to achieve as much as possible for the wider benefit. These words were a great gift he left for us.