Hillfront plans its future

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Less than two months after United Office Products went into administration, all is looking pretty rosy at its spin-off group Hillfront.
The group, which was set up by eight United dealers that bought the brand properties of Unique, United, OfficeSmart and OSTAline from United’s administrator Portland for an undisclosed sum, now boasts 28 members.
"So far so good," Mark Davies, managing director of Hillfront member File-It, based in Bristol, told OPI. "I should think that we could get membership up to 50 members within two to three years. But we are not in a hurry, it’s more important to have dealers that are committed to us."
Hillfront has given itself the tagline "a dealer group run by the dealers for the dealers", which resonates that of Challenge Consortium, which was formed last June when seven United dealers that felt "restricted" left to form their own group.
But Hillfront has some clear differences, claim its members, namely its "virtual nature", which means some tasks such as marketing and purchasing are outsourced to external companies so they can receive the time and dedication they require. "It is not our intention to encumber dealers with administration so they have not got time to focus on their own business," explained David James, managing director of OfficeBase, one of Hillfront’s members, "which is why we have made the decision to use external consultants."
Core dealers however will be "heavily involved". In addition, committees will be formed around the areas of purchasing, merchandising, IT, and training and selling allowing members to share ideas on best practice. The aim is to meet at least once a quarter.
Hillfront’s structure keeps overheads to a minimum, which is the group’s main selling point. Said Davies: "We have a low-cost model and dealers like to see that. There was a feeling with some dealer groups in the past that all members pay the same membership fee irrespective of size, but of course volume should drive down prices. We have a virtual dealer network where dealers pay a membership fee, but there are very few overheads – and no executive mouths to feed – so the money goes into the group.
Davies believes the Hillfront model will make some larger dealer groups take a closer look at their cost structures."
Hillfront’s dealer members, which include OfficeBase, Hertsmere, York Business Equipment, T&H, Asdon, Cawthornes, One-Stop, File-It, Sigma-Aztec and (former Integra member) Origin Business Supplies, have all put money into the group and all have equal shareholdings. "The dealers involved in Hillfront so far are very upbeat, positive and absolutely behind the brand," James claimed.
Their enthusiasm can be appreciated. The move has been a long time coming. "We have been loosely talking for over a year… We need to protect our future," James said.
And it’s the commitment to the Unique brand that will shape Hillfront’s future. "We don’t want to attract lots of dealers; we want dealers that are committed to selling the brand," added James. "It’s about the way dealers go to market with the vans, drivers and marketing, etc. We want a uniformed way of working. We want to give money back to the dealers in the most cost-effective way."
But it can be tempting for dealers to go for the own brand products when sourcing from the wholesaler, rather than the slightly more expensive Unique-branded products, so this commitment could be a challenge. "The message that we want to get across is that there are advantages in paying more in order to sell for more," said James. "It’s about ‘up-specing’ the brand so the user sees the added value."
The Unique brand, which is sourced from 16 core manufacturers – mostly in the UK – covers 240 SKUs across a variety of categories including EOS, filing, paper and envelopes.