In terms of success stories in OP vendor circles, you need look no further than Portugal-based visual communications (viscom) manufacturer Bi-silque. The company – founded in 1979 by Aida and Virgilio Vasconcelos and now headed by their son André – has grown to 610 employees, exports to 82 markets and produces over 2,500 SKUs in the viscom category.
Known mainly for its Bi-Office and MasterVision brands, Bi-silque serves major customers such as Lyreco, Staples, Essendant, Office Depot, WB Mason, Manutan and VOW. It operates fully supported strategic business units, including distribution in the US, Canada, the UK and Germany, and will shortly be opening a facility in France.
All products are made or assembled at the company-owned site near Porto, meaning Bi-silque controls the products from raw materials and production through to packaging and distribution.
Flexibility is key
“Our supply chain flexibility is one of our core differentiators,” explains Chief Commercial Officer Beth Wright. “We let our customers purchase the best way that works for them and fits with their strategy. We deliver full containers to many global customers, yet stock more long-tail/niche assortments in our local facilities to give our customers growth opportunities with a full range of viscom products.”
Controlled growth and development on a number of levels has been a feature of Bi-silque’s strategy in recent years – something that is not always easy to achieve as a family-owned company – and this has built strong foundations for future success.
A recent €4 million ($4.5 million) investment at the firm’s headquarters included a new, state-of-the-art showroom and a R&D unit staffed by a team of 14 full-time employees. “R&D is – and has always been – a priority, and the expanded department is focused on both technology and traditional products as it works on delivering innovation to the viscom category,” notes CEO André Vasconcelos.
Some of these innovations include interactive boards that connect with multiple users simultaneously, collaborative software developed in-house that is focused on educator ease of use, and interactive tables for the commercial and education markets.
Beth Wright was promoted to the key role of Chief Commercial Officer at Bi-silque at the end of 2014 after successfully establishing the vendor as a force in the US market. She leads an energised, global team of sales, marketing and customer service professionals.
Here, Wright explains how Bi-silque has developed in the past few years and how it partners with resellers to grow their viscom sales.
OPI: When you look at Bi-silque today versus five years ago, how has it evolved?
Beth Wright: There have been a lot of significant changes in the past five years. What I’d call a paradigm shift from a family-run private brand producer of low-cost boards to a global, fast-growing multnational with diverse product ranges and selling into many different channels.
OPI: You carried out a strategic refocus in 2014. What was the rationale for that and what have been the main benefits?
BW: When you grow as fast as we have in the past few years, there are times when you need to re-evaluate and refocus the company on a clear strategy. While we didn’t make radical changes to our mission of being the global leading expert in visual communication products, we simplified the message so that everyone from the factory production worker to the executive team were all on the same page and ‘pulling the cart in the right direction’.
OPI: To what extent have you become more sophisticated as a business as a result?
BW: Sophistication comes in many forms; we are certainly more focused as a business on core KPIs, accountability, processes and global communication/knowledge sharing. Also, we continue to structure our human capital in a way that supports our growth, yet staying as lean as possible.
OPI: What’s your view of the viscom category at the moment; what are the opportunities?
BW: The viscom category continues to buck the overall OP trend: the category is growing at around 7-9% annually, so there are most definitely opportunities out there.
These include tapping into current workplace trends. For example, millennials love a collaborative approach to working; therefore, white boarding is used in a big way in modern offices. We have multiple solutions to fit these needs, including extra-large boards and tiles to create custom walls.
We are also seeing changes in office aesthetics, with a trend for designs that are modern and give a more home-like feeling. That drives sales in our glass products.
Mobility in the workplace – using products in various spaces – lends itself to products such as mobile easels and flipcharts as well as multifunctional products like our interactive boards.
OPI: What resources and tools do you provide to support your resellers?
BW: Our support can vary significantly, based on the openness to partner from our resellers as well as the channel or trade class. This support can include business analytics, category management, point-of-sale analysis, best-in-class content, and product training/end-user sale support from our vast network of national coverage representation.
OPI: You focus 100% on the viscom category. What advantages do you think that gives you versus competitors that are multi-category?
BW: ‘Focus’ is a word I use a lot in our business: our R&D, new product development, production, marketing and sales are all focused on viscom and this enables us to keep our finger on the pulse of trends in how the end user buys and uses our products. This then pushes us to develop new products.
In the past two years we have developed over 400 new products for new channels and verticals, and specific products based on geographical need. Because our speed to market is second to none, we can get our customers into new products and new markets very quickly.
OPI: Tell us about the five sales channels that you focus on.
BW: The five channels are globals/nationals, wholesalers/dealers, e-tailers, industrial and education. Why are we organised this way? Because one solution doesn’t fit all needs.
Our aim is to provide best-in-class products and services for each channel. For instance, with the education channel, they need support, installation, service and a mix of traditional and technology products to form the best-selling solutions.
With the dealer community, our assortment is a ‘good, better, best’ strategy that allows the dealer to maximise the SME target market while providing a clear selling/catalogue and web strategy within the category.
OPI: How is your education offering evolving in different markets?
BW: Our education offering is substantial and it continues to grow rapidly. We now have a full solution of traditional and interactive products in the German market, with service built around the solution to support the educator. Our UK solution is also well built out.
Another key area of support is in the schools initiatives of our large, more traditional resellers that now have catalogues and sales forces focused on gaining more wallet share in the education sector. This has been our most successful initiative in this channel so far. We are most successful when our strategies in a segment are aligned with our customers’ initiatives.
OPI: So what is Bi-silque’s strategy for the next five years?
BW: Our aim is to be the global leader in visual communication solutions. In five years, I see us more and more focused on integrating technology into traditional products, and having a more segmented business with additional product and sales build-outs in the education space. And you never know what acquisitions are on the horizon…