personal service

Having just completed his first full year of business at the helm of regional wholesaler ActionEmco, seasoned OP campaigner Bob Scribner is looking to kick on in 2005 and continue taking business off the nationals

Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. That phrase could have been invented to describe Bob Scribner’s time in the OP industry. He’s probably forgotten more about doing business in this market than most will ever know, and yet the desire to push forward and succeed with a new project continues to burn within him. To that end, regional wholesaler ActionEmco is now feeling the benefit of Scribner’s experience.

Scribner became CEO of the company after he led a management group that acted in partnership with a private investment firm in the acquisition of ESS Holdings and its Emco Sales & Service and Action Wholesale Service units.

"The transaction was completed 19 September 2003 and the focus has since then been to sort out the business, but most importantly to focus on the customer," Scribner says.

The firm’s mantra is "we want it more" and adds that "the road to success is always under construction, and the secret to success is to never let up".

Certainly, the ActionEmco chief has never let up through his years in OP. Prior to taking the helm, his career included significant spells at major manufacturers as well as national wholesaler SP Richards (SPR).

At Hunt Manufacturing, from 1986 to 1994, he raised the profile of the firm in his role as VP and general manager of its office division. From there he spent five years at Esselte, starting with a turnaround job on its Esselte Americas division before switching to the role of CEO for its worldwide OP business, headquartered in London.

After a long stay with the manufacturing side of the OP market, Scribner jumped into bed with the reseller community, taking the role of COO at US #2 wholesaler SPR.

He is now funnelling his wide-ranging experience into thre regional wholesaler.

He explains: "After we bought the business we spent six to eight months getting our act together. We had ambitious sales targets coming into the business in the first months and we had a lot of basic work to do before we could really begin getting ready to hit those targets.

"Consequently, the first six to eight months after we came in were a little disappointing. However, the effort we put in over that period has resulted in the sales gains we have seen recently."

Overall, Scribner feels that the business has been fully stabilised and closer connections have been forged with customers.

"We feel happy that we have re-established confidence in the business and we have a solid plan going into 2005," he adds.

Backing up this view, Scribner is in buoyant mood after recording a good start to the crucial January period by utilising the old Boy Scout’s motto of ‘be prepared’.

"Business suddenly jumps up in January and you have to be prepared," he says. "We have had a very good start to the year. This is a key time of year for a wholesaler and we appear to have been a bit better prepared than some of our competitors."

While 2004 was largely about setting down the bedrock for a brighter tomorrow, 2005 represents the dawn of that new tomorrow. So, having made the switch from manufacturer to wholesaler, what is it like moving from national wholesaler to the more specific requirements of a regional distributor?

"Obviously, we feel we can offer a more personal service," he says. "Customers with a problem can ring us and get a real person with authority on the end of the phone, while at bigger firms you will generally find yourself with an automated response or a more junior person."

To add to this personal touch, ActionEmco set up a wholly-owned subsidiary, ActionEmco New England Distribution, in March 2004 to serve New England furniture dealers and "be close to the customer".

Although there will always be intense competition between regional and national wholesalers, Scribner is focusing on doing what the regionals do best and where it counts. He explains: "We concentrate on fighting the bigger firms on our patch and we feel we do a good job. We may not be as large as SPR or United Stationers, but I think we outshine them with our responsiveness and on service levels we tend to be a couple of points higher."

Bearing this is mind, how is ActionEmco doing when it comes to taking business off the so-called big boys?

"We are happy with what we are doing in that area," Scribner says. "We look at our business in two ways. We have organic growth, where we look at how we grow through existing customers, and conversions, which are dealers who were first call with United or SPR but which we have now convinced to make us first call."

In terms of organic growth, ActionEmco is feeling a boost from the more aggressive dealers that are looking to grab business rather than just wait for it to come to them.

"Our better dealers that are making inroads against the superstores and at the same time the superstores are looking for that traditional dealer area," Scribner says. "The benefit that independent dealers have over a Staples or Office Depot is that most of these businesses are local people who have grown up in the community and have relationships and a few good-sized accounts that are very, very strong."

Having taken a long hard look at the regional wholesaler market, Scribner is now well-placed to see how things are heading for these smaller businesses and he has encouraging words for the future of ActionEmco and other regional firms.

He explains: "There has been a long, long decline in regional wholesalers but you have to understand that many of these were specialty or niche wholesalers. Very few were true full-line wholesalers like we are and that is a tremendous benefit. In saying that, I believe that the decline of the regionals has stabilised."