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Taking care of business independently

Suzanne Gill spoke to David Purdon, managing director of Wilts, the UK’s largest independent electrical wholesaler, to find out what the company is doing to ensure it stays ahead during the recession.

Taking care of business independently

Based in Trowbridge, Wilts Wholesale Electrical employs over 600 people and offers 26,000 product lines.

The company has been owned by the Kingsbury family since 1946. Mark Kingsbury joined the business in 1980, working in the Bath branch, and today there are 72 branches spread right across the south of the country.  Because the company is family owned it can adapt quickly and can react to situations as and when they arise. This makes the business very flexible – a useful trait when responding to the rapidly changing electrical industry.

Mark Kingsbury took over as Chairman of the business in December 2006 but sadly passed away unexpectedly in May last year. The business is still family owned and it is the intention for it to remain that way. Indeed, the next Kingsbury generation, Sean Kingsbury, is already working for Wilts.

The company has a central distribution centre in Trowbridge, to which individual branches send daily order requests. These orders are picked the same day and are delivered overnight to the branch. At any one time the company can hold around £12.5 million worth of stock - £3.0 million in the Trowbridge distribution centre.

Wilts is a member of the UK’s largest independent buying group - Associated National Electrical Wholesalers (ANEW) - which gives it the ability to stay on a level playing field with the national wholesalers, with regard to getting the same good deals from suppliers.
Staying ahead

I spoke to MD, David Purdon, and asked about developments which have helped the company to stay ahead during the economic downturn. David was keen to tell me about the introduction of a new computer system in April 2009, which has offered the company a great deal of benefits. "Our new enterprise resource planning software solution from SAP has enabled us to introduce RF gun technology into the central distribution centre. This has helped to improve our pick accuracy and the speed at which orders can be picked."

Because the SAP system comes with a powerful reporting and analysis tool, it also allows the company to drill down into the system and give it accurate and regular figures about changing customer purchasing trends. This gives the company the ability to better predict customer demands and respond quickly to changing trends.

Keys to success
David is also very proud of the overnight delivery service to branches and believes that this is key to the success of the business today. David said: "We are known for sourcing the more unusual or obscure products – our staff will go the extra mile to find the customer exactly what they want, even if we don’t have it on the shelf. We are also keen to help the environment by encouraging customers to receive their invoices and statements electronically – around 20% of our customers now receive their invoices electronically and we are hoping to increase this number further.
"With regards to energy saving, we have looked at all aspects of the business over the last two years to see how energy and costs could be saved to benefit both ourselves and the planet. Already the business is looking to save between 60% and 80% of gas usage a year and 10% of electricity usage."

Big sellers
One of the company’s biggest selling product ranges is, predictably, lighting and lamps. "We supply products from a number of brand leading lighting manufacturers," said David. "These products are always evolving - with energy efficient products becoming more popular every day.
A number of our customers are from local councils and the NHS, so energy efficiency and saving money is always high on their agendas."

Wilts is expecting the new EU Directive on lamps, which came into effect in September this year, to have an impact on the market. The new legislation will ensure that only energy efficient lamps will be available. "The alternatives now being offered by manufacturers are fantastic," said David. "They come in a variety of shapes, styles and colours, are long lasting and, ultimately, can save the consumer money."

Doing it themselves!
Wilts has also developed an ‘own-label’ range of products - Wilts Plus. David told me this been very well received by customers who are looking for more competitively-costed solutions, but who still want to ensure that they are purchasing good quality products. The Wilts Plus range is manufactured by well-known branded suppliers. The range currently includes products such as fire-rated downlights, emergency lighting products, fire alarm control panels, ventilation products and flexible conduit. It will soon be expanded further with the addition of a range of wiring accessories.

"Energy efficient products, generally, will become a major focus for any wholesaler in the coming months and years, with many manufacturers of electrical products concentrating on developing ‘greener’ products. Today’s consumer now also has a much wider understanding of what is available, how products can help the environment, and how much money they can save. This can only result in increased demand for energy efficient products," reasons David.

Managing costs
I wanted to find out how Wilts was addressing cost management issues during the recession, and David told me that, like all sensible businesses, Wilts has had to manage its costs tightly. "Our new computer system has brought efficiencies which have allowed us to reduce costs across the business without a loss in service," he said. "We manage stock closely with the overall objective of improving our stock turn throughout the company. Our good relationships with suppliers enable us to work closely with them, ensuring we have the right stock at the right place at the right time.

"We manage our own fleet of overnight trunker vehicles internally. We did consider outsourcing this service, but came to the conclusion that we really wanted to retain control of this aspect of the business, giving us the flexibility to reorganise routes and ensure vehicles are fully maximised at all times."

We went on to discuss the market and I wanted to get an idea of when Wilts thought things may start to improve. David’s reply was somewhat encouraging. "Things are still tough at the moment, but we can see signs that they are starting to improve. However, it is important that we continue to manage our business tightly. We have found that a lot of activity in the market has been linked to public spending and we were, over the summer holiday period supplying a lot of product for school refurbishment projects, for example. However, the current debate surrounding the Government’s finances, and the need to cut back on government spending, could have a negative impact on this sector of our market in the years to come. Generally, our customers are still buying, but are being more cautious, with many smaller electrical contractors now buying just what they need, on a day to day basis, instead of buying everything they need for a project in advance."

A lighting design opportunity
Wilts also owns a business called Design Lighting which specialises in creating lighting schemes for all types of commercial and industrial uses. All the engineers are LIF (Lighting Industry Federation) qualified and offer a complete package – from design and technical advice right through to supply.
Design Lighting has created solutions for some interesting and complex lighting requirements. It was, for example, asked to produce a lighting system for the Welsh Ambulance’s South Wales Headquarters in Cwmbran. The project included lighting for all areas of the centre but the control room required the latest in modern direct-indirect lighting. The lighting system ensures that people working night shifts have an environment that feels like daylight to help avoid fatigue.

For the control room, a bio dynamic suspended direct-indirect lighting system is installed which simulates the cycle of daylight, starting at a low level and warm colour temperature in the morning. Gradually, as the day progresses it gets brighter and cooler achieving its brightest and coolest at midday, then returning back through the cycle.

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