Looking backwards and forwards
by Bob Jones
It all seems such a long time ago since I arrived at a railway station on a very cold Sunday evening on 1 January 1972 (New Year’s Day was not a holiday in those days) to attend my Rexel Sales induction course at the Red Lion Hotel in Wendover, Buckinghamshire.
The common theme that followed me through my 40-year career in the industry (I had two years with John Heath before joining ACCO) was ‘constant change’, whether that was at ACCO or within the industry.
I worked for six presidents during my career with ACCO. That means I have worked for six different companies as each one brought their own style, personality and strategy to the table (inevitably they also appointed different consultants)
During my career, I have also witnessed acquisitions and mergers within the ACCO Corporation. These included Cumberland Pencil Company, the merger of ACCO and Rexel and the acquisition of Nobo and GBC. In addition, the acquisition of Valrex (France), Hetzel (Germany) and King Mec (Italy) expanded our European business.
My job has taken me all over the world, and whilst business has always been the key motivator I have managed to catch the odd major sporting event en-route. The Rugby World Cup Final in Australia is one that springs to mind.
I have also witnessed three major recessions, including the three-day week, miner’s strike and power cuts in the 1970s, a challenge in itself. It’s ironic that I am retiring from ACCO in what is claimed to be our worst recession since the 1930s. There are tough times ahead but I am confident ACCO and the industry will adjust, survive and prosper.
The UK years…
Being a sales person in the 1970s bears no resemblance to the modern day role. There were no mobiles, no laptops or email. Communication was all ‘manual’ and the salesperson’s key tools were their sample case, order book and their individual sales skills. Orders even had to be written!
The 1970s was the manufacturers’ decade. They ruled the industry, developed their brands and established market shares. But change was on its way.
The wholesalers (Spicers and John Heath) began to flex their muscles and new dealerships emerged like Arkle, Cartwright Brice, Pentagon and Copygraphic.
New entrants like WH Smith, Tootal and Sketchleys ‘flirted’ with the industry. Dealer groups began to emerge such as Costco, Basicnet, Instant and Office Club. Who can forget Messrs Barson, Prosser, Frost and Austen, the pioneers of the dealer group concept?
The powerbase was beginning to shift away from the manufacturer. We had our first sight of the dreaded soft money payments first championed by Martin Abrahamson and the Ronald Martin Group. Who can forget the annual negotiations with Martin and his team at Leeds Castle in Kent? They were ahead of their times but very effective. However if we thought we had seen changes in the UK then what was about to happen in Europe would change the face of our industry forever.
The battleground moved to Europe and the US resellers began to look to Europe to expand their already sizeable operations.
Manufacturers, ACCO included, rushed to buy companies in Europe and build a platform for growth in order to service the growing reseller community now operating at a European level. Inevitably inflated prices were paid but the long term rewards were substantial. Staples, Viking, Corporate Express and soon after Office Depot began to expand into the European market, dealer groups also joined the expansion with BPGI establishing a European network of dealerships. The wholesalers were not to be left out either and Spicers began their expansion into Europe.
We saw the establishment of ‘off invoice’ pricing including rebates and programmes, disturbance allowance, MDF, and central warehouse etc. The naming of the soft names buckets became an art all of its own!
These were heady times. The rule book had been torn up and you negotiated ‘on the run’.
Mistakes were made by all channels. Some proved very costly to both individuals and even large corporations. Huge risks were taken but top line sales and market share growth was the priority.
However, it was a great time to be involved in something so new and challenging.
New relationships had to be built, there was business to be won and lots of new personalities to deal with. Eric Bigeard, Guenter Albinus, Graham Cundick and Peter Daman, Phil Thomas and of course Spicers’ legendary Stewart Barton-Taylor.
Negotiations were tough, relationships were strained but the ‘thrill of the sell’ kept the adrenalin flowing and passions running high. It was not a marketplace for the fainthearted.
As we approach the end of the first ten years of the 21st century and a recession gripping the global market I have great confidence that the industry will survive and strengthen. It will restructure, existing practices will have to be reviewed and changed to meet the market dynamics that now exist. The end game will be a more efficient and profitable industry.
The European industry has developed exceptional talent and this is reflected in the leaders of the major players today Peter Ventress, Dirk Collin, Eric Bigeard, Rob Vale, Alan Barclay and Jim Preston.
Manufacturers have also grown up and are now re-investing in their brands and support services to ensure their channel partners are exciting the end user customers.
I foresee a period of conciliatory partnerships between the vendor and reseller communities. Conflict brings short term gain but long term pain. During the last few months of my career it has been very rewarding to negotiate with our key resellers within a more conciliatory environment. We have agreed some exciting partnerships, with all the key players, which will benefit ACCO and their key channel partners for years to come.
As retirement looms what will I really miss? The Lyreco VLP trips: "Eric, you know I will do anything for Lyreco but curry for breakfast? Oh, all right then!!"
Depot global tenders in Florida: "Teddy, how much? You must be joking!-
Staples’ One Bright Future negotiations – or Project Abba to the ACCO team (‘The winner takes it all’ and ‘Money, money, money’). All great fun.
Stewart’s familiar question as a sommelier approaches: "Now, remind me Bob, what year were you born-
Will I miss all of this? Of course I will but the memories will keep me motivated and I will keep reading OPI to ensure the momentum stays positive and the next generation earn good rewards for all their efforts!