Facilities Supplies Special: A meeting of minds

Forging partnerships is increasingly the way forward in today's expanding business supplies sector. OPI talks to two organisations - Independent Stationers and Afflink - that have done exactly that.


US dealer group Independent Stationers (IS) has recently announced a partnership with facilities and supply chain management association Afflink. OPI speaks to IS CEO Mike Gentile and Afflink CEO Dennis Riffer about the deal and the challenges  as well as opportunities that independent dealers face in the facilities supplies and jan/san sectors.

OPI: Dennis, first up, please tell me a bit about Afflink, what it is and how it operates. 

Dennis Riffer: Afflink is more than a buying group – it’s a sales and marketing organisation that focuses on ways to provide differentiation through tools and technologies which allow our stakeholders to compete in today’s competitive marketplace. It also invests in sales resources out in the field. 

Our primary function is to land new end-user business for our members to grow their top line. It’s here that we have a distinct advantage and where we live out our vision of being the best in supply chain management. 

We are able to offer our national accounts a comprehensive bundle of indirect supply solutions in the facilities maintenance, packaging, safety and MRO sectors, plus now – through the alliance formed with IS – OP too. We quantify the value of driving supply chain efficiencies through our consultative selling process Elevate and our distribution experts. This gives our customers the best of both worlds – the speed and efficiencies of online ordering, single-source invoicing and one point of contact, together with the intimacy, flexibility and responsibility of local distribution on a national scale.

OPI: What was the rationale behind this new partnership between Afflink and IS? And how does it compare to the previous alliance you had in 2009?

Mike Gentile: Market pressure and continued consolidation both in the jan/san and OP channels have created tremendous opportunities. IS and Afflink are very like-minded organisations and we gel. 

We have taken our previous relationship and put it on steroids. Both organisations have come a long way since our original 2009 alliance and it made sense to create a stronger bond together and become very serious about creating indisputable value for IS dealers and Afflink distributors.

DR: As Mike says, Afflink and IS are two like-minded groups, with innovation a part of our cultures. Our shared philosophy of keeping the independent relevant has always aligned and was the impetus behind the venture back in 2009. We understood then that the channels were blurring and that we couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and watch our fate being handed to us. We want to be the groups that lead change in our industry and our new alliance does just that. 

Distributors in both organisations can now access the programmes and services each has individually developed in order to better satisfy the end customers’ needs. In the end, that’s what it boils down to – how do we keep pace with the changing buying patterns of B2B shoppers? 

OPI: In your partnership announcement, you referred to providing supply chain solutions to dealers. What are these Dennis, and how do they differ from what IS dealers are currently benefitting from?

DR: The decision-making process of today’s buyer is happening further upstream, often online and nearly always before a sales person enters the equation. In order to reach this changing mindset of the millennial buyer, we have to meet them where they are (online), provide them with relevant, non-sales content that applies to their business and consolidate purchasing across categories to drive efficiencies. 

We have used this as the foundation for developing the programmes and services that we believe will be of great benefit to OP dealers looking to insulate existing business and prospect for new opportunities in the future. 

It is our belief that consolidation, e-commerce and supply chain efficiencies can all be maximised with the new IS/Afflink Affiliate Membership.

OPI: What are the greatest opportunities as well as challenges that independent dealers currently face specifically in the facilities and jan/san sector? 

DR: Access to new lines with a better cost of goods is critical to getting into any new channel. With our alliance we have worked together to tear down – or at least lower – some of these traditional barriers of entry. 

Negotiating less-than-load (LTL) options and small order quantities for jan/san, packaging, breakroom and foodservice disposables in our 19 different categories of AFFEX private label programmes will be attractive to those wanting to explore ways to enhance their bundle and increase margins. New training and education courses will also be available through our new Affiliate Membership programme.  

OPI: Where else does the potential lie for IS dealers working with Afflink?

MG: For IS dealers it’s taking full advantage of Afflink’s sales training and certification programmes, utilising its IT solutions and creative marketing services.

DR: Our goal at Afflink is to surround the end user with the best set of solutions to run their businesses more efficiently. And any IS dealers joining our organisation don’t have to stop with jan/san, of course. They can access any of our programmes and services as they relate to other channels as well – packaging, safety, even MRO. 

OPI: Mike, what do you believe your members and the OP industry as a whole can learn from Afflink?

MG: The independent dealer has always been more flexible and willing to meet and exceed their customers’ changing needs. 

Our mutual alliance will provide each organisation with the people, programmes and processes that will help to achieve our mission of becoming the leading industry advocate and developer of progressive buying and marketing programess for members in the workforce products market.

OPI: Afflink operates across a number on industries: how do these verticals differ and how do you adapt your offering for each of them Dennis?

DR: The OP industry, as a whole, is further down the technological road than the traditional jan/san sector. Around 88% of orders that come through the OP channel are done via e-commerce compared to only about 18% in the facilities channel. Our existing members could learn a lot from how IS dealers have had to adapt to compete with the online retailers, the challenges they faced and how they overcame them to survive and remain relevant. 

As to our vertical strategy, we believe that all companies – no matter what the end-user – share a universal set of business needs: controlling costs, improving productivity, promoting a healthy workplace, maintaining a strong image, and satisfying sustainability objectives. 

The difference in how we approach each vertical segment depends on how individual businesses prioritise these needs. Understanding this is paramount to developing solutions for our customers, and was truly the genesis of the Elevate process that identifies these requirements, offers solutions that parallel them, and uncovers ways to drive out costs, regardless of the vertical a business plays in.