Special Feature: Top 100 2017

Now in its 17th incarnation, the OPI team has once again been putting its collective brains together as well as canvassing opinion from around the globe to pin down the Top 100 influencers - or influencers to be - of today's business supplies ind

When we started collating this year’s Top 100 resellers list, it struck me that relatively few big hitters have come out since 2016 – Essendant’s Bob Aiken, SP Richards’ Wayne Beacham and Office Depot’s Roland Smith – and two out of the three did so because of retirement. There might be another couple of high-profile departures in waiting, of course, but nothing is confirmed yet…

Overall, there are 11 newcomers in 2017 – several of them and their companies described in more detail below. Some, including Ric Phillips, Gerry Smith, Hervé Liboureau and Neil Maslen haven’t exactly proved their mettle yet and are in the list by virtue of succession or restructure rather than actual results.

Others have been singled out for an extended magazine entry because of achievements or considerable changes in their organisations, or indeed for breaking into an industry that years ago seemed beyond their radar (Paul Yardley/GNS and Frank van Zanten/Bunzl spring to mind).

On that radar note and just to remind me – and our readers – I went back to the first ever Top 100 list that we published in January 2001. Unsurprisingly, it was all about companies selling ‘office products’ – and EOS as part of the mix – as opposed to ‘business supplies’ back then. No facilities categories of any kind, no MRO, no PPE. 

Of course, selection criteria for the Top 100 have evolved over time as much as the industry itself. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see how many of those Top 100 companies of 2001 have been usurped by a series of consolidation waves. Buhrmann, Corporate Express, Samas, Boise Cascade Office Products, Guilbert, US Office Products, to name but a few: they are all big names of the past that now fall under two names – Staples and Office Depot.

But even before that consolidation happened, these two big boxes, plus Lyreco and OfficeMax, truly commanded the stage in 2001: 24 of all Top 100 personalities came from these operators. Now it’s 11. If ever a potent reminder was needed of the channel shifts and blurring happening in our sector…

Interestingly, only four people have ‘survived’ from that very first Top 100 list and are still going strong for their companies and the industry at large and none of them are from these (former) giants: Bruce Eaton, Dave Guernsey, George Gerardos and Shoichiro Iwata. 

For the full Top 100 list visit opi.net/directories/resellers

Bruce Eaton, Chairman, Pinnacle Affiliates & President, Eaton Office Supply 

Bruce Eaton has made it into this year’s Top 100 primarily through his chairmanship of large dealer network Pinnacle Affiliates. His tenure began in January of this year, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Craig Bartholomew from 360 Office Solutions. 

A well-known member of the US dealer community and part of Pinnacle since his dealership, based in Buffalo (NY), left TriMega in 2014, Eaton has overseen a successful nine months at the group, recruiting four new members: Sandia Office Supply, Office Plus of Kansas, Source Office and Technology and MyBinding.com.

Pinnacle bills itself as the fastest-growing group of large independent resellers in the US. Its strategic plan for 2017 is to provide members with improved supplier programmes, reduced operating expenses, financial benchmarking and best practices, and initiatives to consolidate large resellers.

With his first AGM as Chairman just under his belt, Eaton is optimistic about the future: “We see the positive trend continuing in 2018, fuelled by an increase in membership, member acquisition strategies, effective go-to-market performance, product category diversification, and supplier partnerships that recognise our market share leadership in the markets we serve.”

Pinnacle aside, 2017 has also been a good year for Eaton Office Supply. Founded over a century ago in 1915, it’s been a year of growth, diversification and collaboration. Expanding its geographical footprint, Eaton acquired Strouse Business Products at the beginning of 2017. In terms of product breadth, the dealer is seeing modest sales growth in the still emerging breakroom and safety segments, and more prominent increases in the office furniture – including the state furniture business – and shipping and mailing categories. 

On the customer front, Eaton has reinforced its existing contracts with a wide range of local sporting teams, not only supplying these clients with additional products but at the same time solidifying its position as an active and enduring member of the community. 

Ric Phillips, Interim CEO, Essendant

It’s all change again at US wholesaler Essendant. After just two years in the top seat, CEO Bob Aiken left in June, making way for Interim CEO Ric Phillips. 

Overseeing the wholesaler’s second quarter results in July was a bit of a baptism of fire for Phillips. In line with similar trends seen in the first quarter, Essendant reported sales declines in most of its product categories, and these top-line pressures also hit profits. 

Phillips talked of an acceleration in the wholesaler’s transformation plan. His key go-forward strategy goals include better efficiencies in its supply chain; sales performance improvements in key channels; and creating better supplier partnerships. 

It’s not clear how long Phillips’ tenure at the top will last, with no reference having been made to date with regards to a permanent successor to Aiken or whether Phillips might indeed be in the running for the job. He certainly wasn’t brought in as a quick-fix turnaround guy, but rather to steer a somewhat unsteady ship for the time being. 

Phillips is no newcomer to Essendant, having joined the company in 2013. He most recently served as Group President of Industrial Essentials & President of Essendant-affiliated ORS Nasco. In this role, he was responsible for the oversight of the ORS Nasco Industrial, Medco Automotive and CPO Commerce businesses. Prior to that, he was President, Online and New Channels for Essendant, where he had responsibility for the wholesaler’s e-commerce business, and for building its online capabilities across the enterprise. 

Prior to joining Essendant, Phillips spent 14 years at McKinsey & Company in Chicago, where he was ultimately made a Partner in 2005. His work at McKinsey focused on strategy, commercial performance and operations. 

Gerry Smith, CEO, Office Depot

Gerry Smith was named CEO of Office Depot in February 2017, succeeding Roland Smith who retired from the company after three years at the helm. 

Addressing its strategic goals remains a work in progress at the big-box operator. Indeed, the goalposts themselves have seemingly been moved under Smith’s leadership. For a start, there appears to be more of a retail – or perhaps more appropriately omnichannel – focus at the reseller.  

In its most recent quarterly results, Depot’s sales performance at the Business Solutions Division (BSD) were disappointing, with the top line down 6% compared to the year-ago quarter. This was despite expectations that sales trends in BSD would begin to improve following the disruption that occurred during the failed merger process with Staples. 

Smith had already said previously that the reseller’s stores would play a pivotal role in the company’s future and be a key part of its supply chain footprint as it ramps up initiatives such as buy online/pick up in store and ship from store. There has also been good news from its ‘store of the future’ pilot stores, which have reported improved sales versus its traditional group of stores. 

Smith is clearly not putting all his eggs in one basket, preferring instead an all-round integrated purchasing experience for customers. In September, the company started collaborating with supply chain software platform Elementum to help boost e-commerce operations and strengthen its omnichannel operations.

Having previously worked in senior roles at global technology firms Lenovo and beforehand Dell, Smith has become well-versed in defining and leading ambitious growth objectives and operational efficiencies, driving both increases in market share and profitability at the two companies.

When Smith was appointed, Warren Bryant, Lead Director of Depot’s Board of Directors and Chair of the CEO Search Committee, referred to his “significant operating expertise” and his “ability to lead large, complex organisations”. 

Rick Toppin, CEO, SP Richards

A new face in our Top 100, but certainly not a new face in our industry. Rick Toppin took over from Wayne Beacham at the beginning of this year when his predecessor retired and he became CEO of SP Richards (SPR).

Even before taking the top spot at the US wholesaler, Toppin already had a long and extended career in the business products industry, spending the first 19 years with Moore Corporation (now part of RR Donnelly) and then in 1999 joining Corporate Express (CE) as a Division President. Having spent a couple of years in Canada as President of CE in the country, he returned to the US in 2007 and joined SPR in 2008 as EVP of Sales & Marketing.

SPR’s results over the past two quarters are best described as “satisfactory”. Parent Genuine Parts Company and Toppin himself certainly like to play their cards close to the chest, with Toppin referring to “pleasing” sales growth but downward margin pressure and increasing cost to serve. Both of the latter continue to place additional pressure on profits. For the six months to 30 June 2017, SPR’s sales were up 6.8% year on year to $1.02 billion while operating profit fell 8.4% to $61.2 million.

Having already been very acquisitive over the past few years – which has already helped boost the top line – the wholesaler continues to be on the lookout for further opportunities, particularly in the fast-growing Facility, Breakroom and Safety (FBS) segment where it’s also posting “solid” organic sales increases. FBS is now SPR’s strongest-performing category and accounts for 36% of total revenues.

In addition to his role at SPR, Toppin is a dedicated member of the City of Hope National Business Products Council and has been named the 2018 Spirit of Life honouree. 

Jaime Carbó, CEO, ADVEO

Having called 2016 a year of transition after selling its IT consumables business to UK distributor Westcoast and taking a number of key financial measures, 2017 can surely be described as a year of fundamental – CEO Jaime Carbó referred to it as “transformational” – change for ADVEO. 

The headline news from the pan-European wholesaler’s camp this year is undoubtedly the abolition of the traditional wholesaling model at the company and setting a new course to develop into a multichannel provider of workplace solutions. Selling direct to end users may not be the most surprising of its new strategic pillars that will help ADVEO on this path, but it’s certainly the one that raised the most eyebrows. 

Starting from scratch this year, the goal is to achieve direct sales of €67 million ($80 million) by the end of 2020 via four sales avenues: in partnership with its top resellers, through its Calipage dealer network, directly from ADVEO, and from new B2C platforms. The argument is that, as a wholesaler, ADVEO is essentially locked out of a large chunk of the addressable business supplies market with enterprise and public sector accounts.

Another transformational change includes a strengthened focus on own brands that compete in different sectors of the market. Carbó’s plan states these brands will account for €75 million of new sales over the next four years, thereby taking the ratio of own brand sales up to about 25% of total revenues.

In addition, the company’s franchise and retail network – Calipage, Plein Ciel and Buro+ – is set to play a considerable larger part in the future. Expanded product categories and services are planned to result in a much bigger share of wallet for ADVEO from these partners. 

Most recently, the firm’s departure from its traditional wholesaling model has manifested itself in ADVEO outsourcing its logistics operations in Spain – a bold move for a wholesale operation and one that has already resulted in many job losses as well as staff re-allocations. It will be interesting to see if this is a sign of things to come for the rest of Europe. 

Ingo Dewitz, Managing Director, Büroring

Member recruitment and retention as well as all the usual mix of sales and marketing services, training programmes and other value-adds that make up the daily work of a dealer group were part and parcel of Büroring’s agenda over the past 12 months.

In addition to that, the dealer group’s focus has been very firmly on two core strategic projects, according to Managing Director Ingo Dewitz: ramping up its warehouse operation and offering a better e-procurement option. 

The group posted record revenues for the whole of 2016 and the good performance continued for the first quarter of 2017 when the warehouse operation grew by 3.9% and the central billing business with the group’s suppliers by an impressive 19.5%. 

But while the warehouse business did well in 2016, it became a victim of its own success and reached a severe impasse towards the end of the year when demand and order volume far outstripped capacity. Dewitz and his team are currently in the final stages of a major €4 million ($4.8 million) logistics overhaul which will not only add the much-needed extra capacity, but also pave the way for considerable category growth.

Before the warehouse expansion, which effectively takes the shape of adding an extra floor in its existing building, Büroring offered about 12,000 SKUs through its facilities, plus an extra 13,000 through its virtual warehouse. As completion and full ramp-up approaches, so does the potential for a sizeable increase of its own brand portfolio, plus extended – and in some instances completely new – forays into the areas of school supplies, jan/san, packaging, PPE and breakroom products.

Going hand in hand with its upgraded logistics offering is a better e-commerce experience for members’ customers, a project that is also being finalised right now. In addition to providing a more competitive, user-friendly web shop offering, the intention is that this will also open the door to further enhancements, such as in-shop solutions and add-on marketplaces.

Kimmo Laaksonen, CEO, Wulff (since publishing, Laaksonen has resigned from Wulff)

New Wulff CEO Kimmo Laaksonen has taken the helm at a time when the office supplies reseller is struggling to get back on its feet. Its H1 2017 results revealed sales down over 4%, along with operating losses.

Despite these challenging results, Laaksonen believes that the developing economic situation in the Nordics will positively affect Wulff’s business for the rest of 2017.

The company is also striving to increase profitability and competitiveness through building a “winning strategy for the future”, developing its sales and customer service and utilising digitisation. Laaksonen, who took the CEO position in March this year, is also Chairman of the company’s executive board. He moved to the reseller from commercial printing firm Brand Factory Finland. 

Prior to this, he worked in the telecommunications and media industries. As such, he understands the importance of branding and the benefits that Wulff can gain through 120 years of history, great visibility and reputation in Scandinavia.

Importantly, Laaksonen says that there is a huge desire internally to renew the company’s operations and change the business in order to set it up well for the future.

Its ongoing strategic investments address the continued decline in its traditional operating market. Wulff has taken steps, for example, to develop its workplace product range, now focusing on digitisation, automation, new working environments and mobile. The reseller already offers its customers a diverse range of products and services, such as office products, facility supplies, ergonomic solutions and LED lighting products. It is also embracing an omnichannel approach and serves its customers across multiple platform.

In addition, the company is thoroughly embracing the future of the office. Laaksonen is keen to ensure that Wulff is at the forefront of this currently popular trend, and influence – and even partly decide – how people will work in the times ahead.

Hervé Liboureau, Head of Commercial, Staples Solutions

This year sees a very different Staples in our Top 100 list. What was formerly the world’s largest office products reseller has over the past eight months or so been carved up into several regional entities, all (majority)-owned by private equity firms.

Staples Solutions in Europe is one of these entities, having been bought – a controlling 85% stake at least – by Cerberus Capital Management in February of this year. It’s still a mighty business, with combined sales across Europe of about €1.7 billion ($1.8 billion), but its sale to Cerberus followed years of struggle in what were historically part of the US-based reseller’s international operations.

Heading up Staples Solutions as Chairman is Olof Persson, but at the helm of the company’s contract and online businesses and very much the go-to person for all the country managing directors of the reseller’s commercial subsidiaries across Europe is Hervé Liboureau. 

A seasoned sales and marketing leader, Liboureau joined Staples in October 2015 as Head of Advantage, Staples Europe. He became Head of Commercial following the sale to Cerberus, tasked with re-establishing Staples Solutions as a leading provider of workspace products, services and solutions for businesses across Europe. The company now has web shops in 14 European nations and serves contract customers in 29 countries through 17 wholly-owned subsidiaries. 

Prior to Staples, Liboureau had several positions within SAP, including SVP and General Manager, Telco Industry and Mobile Solutions in EMEA. Prior to SAP, he was Managing Director Europe at BlackBerry. During his four years at BlackBerry, he successfully held multiple operational and sales leadership roles, including managing BlackBerry’s partnership with Orange. Other roles included several years at Nokia and at Cisco Systems.

Neil Maslen, SVP Contract, Office Depot Europe

Office Depot Europe has made significant progress under the new ownership of German private equity firm Aurelius which was first announced in September of last year, with the acquisition being finalised at the beginning of 2017.

Depot is currently implementing a transformation process to restructure its European organisation and create a more customer-focused business. In the process, it will address the ever-increasing competition, especially from the big online players, in a rapidly-changing market.

Spokesperson for the Core Management Team & SVP Contract Neil Maslen has a strong e-commerce focus. And having joined Depot back in 2014, he certainly believes the future of the company lies in an online-first approach.

His focus is on delivering value for Depot’s customers, through a simple and anytime experience. He says the company will leverage its two routes to market through the well-known Office Depot and Viking brands. 

Office Depot operates in 14 European countries and employs around 6,500 people, with annual sales of €2 billion ($2.08 billion). This includes the Viking brand which operates in ten European markets, a contract segment supplying more than 100,000 business customers and a retail operation that sells products under the Office Depot brand in over 100 stores and online.

Maslen is well-placed to steer Depot Europe through this period of change. He has spent the past 20 years working with large complex businesses, leading change through restructuring, post M&A integration and business transformation. 

Frank van Zanten, CEO, Bunzl

Frank van Zanten has been Bunzl CEO for 18 months and during that time has embraced former CEO Michael Roney’s organic and acquisition growth strategy. With still a few months of 2017 to go, Bunzl has already spent almost €550 million ($714 million) on acquisitions this year – a record for the company. Still, it can afford to with H1 revenues (ended 30 June) up 7% in constant currency to €4.12 billion.

In March this year, Bunzl beefed up its outsourcing operations in the US with the purchase of Diversified Distribution Systems (DDS). With operations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, in addition to its main business in the US, Minnesota-based DDS will help expand Bunzl’s outsourcing business globally.

High on the agenda for acquisitions are jan/san and safety/PPE businesses. The past year has seen an acceleration in the number of companies Bunzl has bought in these two categories across all geographic areas where it operates. This is particularly clear in North America, its largest market. Not only has the company been snapping up cleaning and hygiene businesses in Canada, but in a bid to boost jan/san trade in North America opened a central warehouse in 2016 in the north-east of the US. Jan/san and the safety/PPE categories are currently Bunzl’s third and fourth biggest market sectors (12% and 11% respectively).

Van Zanten continues to have ambitious plans and Asia is very much on his radar following two acquisitions on the continent earlier this year. Bunzl kicked off 2017 by buying Singapore-based LSH, a €5 million distributor of PPE; this was followed in August when the outsourcing and distribution giant announced its arrival in China by acquiring Shanghai-based PPE firm HSESF.

There are still more acquisitions in the pipeline, so watch this space.

Shoichiro Iwata, CEO, Askul

Japanese business supplies reseller Askul had a tough start to the year after a 12-day fire tore through its main distribution centre in the Tokyo metropolitan area in February.

It was one of seven Askul distribution centres and accounted for 22% of all deliveries. The centre is mainly used for the delivery of products ordered on the Askul/Yahoo! LOHACO B2C e-commerce website. It was this area of the business that has been disrupted more than the main B2B operations.

Despite the extensive damage, Askul managed to achieve record sales of ¥315 billion ($2.88 billion) for its full fiscal year ended 31 May, up 6% on last year. The strong sales performance managed to absorb the entire immediate costs associated with the fire.

That said, the group and its long-standing CEO Shoichiro Iwata anticipate costs associated with the incident to affect profit well into FY2018, where operating profit is expected to come in around 60% lower.

Elsewhere, Askul’s B2B business has extended its product range significantly over the past year, mainly in categories such as MRO and medical supplies. The reseller now sells 3.3 million SKUs (as of May 2017) and clocked sales growth of just under 5%.

Meanwhile, its B2C arm LOHACO – a joint venture with Yahoo! Japan – has rolled out its one-hour delivery offering to a wider area. The service, Happy On Time, now covers ten ‘wards’ (municipalities) in Tokyo, and an additional nine wards in Osaka. In July, LOHACO also partnered with Seven & I Holdings, the largest retail group in Japan to develop a fresh food and groceries delivery service.

E-commerce and private label continue to be strategic priorities for Iwata. He aims to make Askul the number one e-commerce player in both the B2B and B2C segments, and forecasts sales of ¥359 billion across both segments in FY2018.

Paul Yardley, CEO, GNS Wholesale Stationers

Paul Yardley joined GNS Wholesale Stationers as CEO in October of last year to head up a strengthened management team brought in following a tough 2016.

A Brit, Yardley’s background is originally in investment banking, but since relocating to Australia in 2009 he has focused on the turnaround and restructuring of consumer businesses in industries undergoing major change.

GNS began life almost 40 years ago as a buying cooperative for newsagents, but has since evolved to being the largest – and only national – wholesaler in the Australian marketplace.

It has been a busy 12 months after a very challenging 2016 where the business had to refinance and refocus on its core operations due to a prolonged period of poor execution.  

Since joining, Yardley has been implementing a renewed strategy based around two big themes: delivering a lowest-cost operating model, and driving market consolidation. As he puts it, he wants GNS to be the “last man standing” in terms of profitability.

In the past year, the group also acquired two smaller regional office products wholesalers, Perth-based WA Stationery and V Wholesale in Sydney. In February, it was made the Australian distributor for Double A paper, significantly enlarging its customer base. It was also appointed to the Office Brands wholesaler panel earlier this year, adding to its preferred wholesaler status with the Office Choice and ASA dealer groups.

Yardley says that boosting the group’s marketing and merchandising capabilities is a critical part of delivering the commercial part of a wholesaling model. To this end, the group has recruited a well-known OP industry marketing manager, having head-hunted Office Brands’ General Manager of Merchandise and Marketing Margaret De Francesco.

The Australia and New Zealand office products market is in a period of significant flux right now, with several of the large operators undergoing consolidation and smaller independent dealers able to take advantage of this disruption. 

The arrival of Amazon is also expected to bring new opportunities for GNS and the wider market, as it threatens traditional big-box retail.