Licence to chill

As the only piece of mainstream commercial kitchen equipment that effectively gets used all day every day, refrigeration remains one of the most critical aspects of any catering operation.

That very point has undeniablyformed the basis of many a manufacturer’s sales pitch over the years, although success in this notoriously competitive sector rides on more than just sending end-users on a guilt trip.

From the latest energy efficiency features to the most precise temperature control mechanisms available, the leading brands are battling hard to demonstrate how their refrigeration offering stands out from the crowd.

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While establishing the right rebate structure or discount model would once have been enough to keep business ticking along nicely, manufacturers are now scurrying to improve their engagement with partners, provide better technical support and reiterate their USPs.

And all this while the industry awaits the eventual introduction of the Ecodesign Directive — the proverbial “elephant in the room” as one senior executive puts it — which is poised to have a massive impact on the flow of product into the UK market.

Although debate continues to rage as to just how much business refrigeration manufacturers are doing directly — even accounting for the public and large account sectors where such relationships are more common — the overwhelming portion of revenue generated by the leading brands continues to come from the dealer-distributor channel.

Market powerhouse Williams Refrigeration is a brand sold by hundreds of kitchen dealers, although it relies on a core network of between 150 to 170 sales partners to provide the majority of its business. UK sales and marketing director, Malcolm Harling, says one of Williams’ chief goals this year is improving the way in which it generates and gives sales leads to distributors.

“It is all very well passing a paper sales lead to a distributor, but they are under the same time pressures as we are and there isn’t always the time to phone around in a telesales environment,” he explains. “What we are trying to do is carry out that hard work by going to the end-user customer and trying to create an opportunity to either take a distributor representative with us or to go there and see what the customer wants and then bring that back [for the partner].”

While any business would be channelled through the distributor, Harling insists it is vital for Williams to engage with end-user operators in order to understand the issues they face. “What we are seeing now is that a lot of kitchens are getting smaller because restaurants, for example, need to offer more seats out the front to increase their takings. We are not getting as much space out the back and so we have had to look at the footprint of our own equipment and try to meet that challenge.”

Business development is a major channel focus area for another bastion of the UK market, Foster Refrigeration. It has a 20-strong team of sales staff overseeing its UK dealer network and they have each spent time compiling comprehensive business plans with the top two or three volume partners in their respective territories, reveals UK sales director Ashley Sword.

“We have generally motivated people to try and sell our products by bringing out exciting new products, but this year we have really gone to the lengths of sitting down with the key dealers and putting a business plan together, trying to find areas where we can protect the existing business and grow some new business with them,” he says, adding that regular training sessions to update partners on legislative, technical and sales information also forms an active component of its engagement strategy.

Dealer expansion certainly remains on most refrigeration manufacturers’ agendas this year, including Gram UK. Managing director, Glenn Roberts, says the company is always looking to reinforce its position as a channel-focused outfit.

“We are resolutely behind our distribution chain and that is how we go to market, and why we are the size and shape that we are compared to many others which operate here in the UK,” he says. “We probably have around 500 partners but there is a sizeable chunk of those guys that are one-man bands and engineer/site operators which are buying spare parts and very occasional cabinets. In reality you are probably looking at in the region of 200 key distributors which are providing the main turnover and out of those there are about 60 that are really doing the real volumes that we are relating to.”

Although manufacturers typically wouldn’t want to turn down business from a kitchen house that expresses a desire to sell their brand, most of them have an opinion about the sort of credentials a prospective partner would ideally need to exhibit.

John Lilly, marketing director at True Refrigeration, comments: “We look for a dealer-distributor that has the ability to grow, who has knowledge of the particular network in which they deal and good coverage in an area. It needs to be somebody who doesn’t just look at acquisition cost, but who wants a sustainable, quality piece of kit and can sit there and talk to an end-user about it.” [[page-break]]

Adande Refrigeration places equal importance on working with dealers that understand the key characteristics of its offering. It says it has redefined refrigeration in the cook and prep area with its modular refrigerated drawer system, a patent-protected insulated solution that retains cold air when opened.

“I think certain dealers and certain consultants have seen the benefits and are very actively promoting those and they are typically the ones whose primary focus is on actually satisfying the customer,” says Adande chairman Nigel Bell. “The ones who are selling the most of our units are the ones who appreciate the operating experience and the cost-over-lifetime benefit.”

One relative newcomer to the market is Precision, which claims to have made solid progress since its arrival on the refrigeration scene four years ago. Its managing director Nick Williams — son of Williams Refrigeration founder Mike — says sales were up 50% last year, a spike he attributes to a combination of factors.

“We have just tried to be a little bit more flexible, a little bit leaner and offer a slightly better specification at a cheaper price — essentially trying to offer more for less,” explains Williams.

“And also, our two main competitors, Williams and Foster, are part of much bigger conglomerates now so they are quite a big beast to move and to react to things, whereas we are much smaller and more nimble, and more willing to do things for customers,” he adds.

One move that has served Precision quite well in the channel community has been the advent of a mobile showroom — basically a truck kitted out with all its equipment which takes to the road and gives dealers live demonstrations.

“The estimating department or the people that are actually specifying the equipment may normally never get to see the product — to them they are just pictures or things they put into a quotation,” says Williams. “So when we take it to the dealers’ offices pretty much everybody comes out and has a look. It is not necessarily a revolutionary idea but it is one that has proved to be very successful.”

The extent to which manufacturers are connecting with dealers, and indeed the direction in which their strategies are moving, remain heavily influenced by some of the top-level trends unfolding in the UK right now.

Harling at Williams claims demand for quicker fulfilment times from some customers is playing straight into the hands of its domestic manufacturing capabilities.

He explains: “If a customer wants something a little bit different then the turnaround time tends to be a lot quicker. The reason that’s a big sell is we are finding that the lead times we are being given by customers have drastically reduced. There was a time when we used to get eight-week lead times, but that is now a thing of the past. Our lead times have come down to almost a week or two weeks, so if you are bringing in product from overseas then you sometimes can’t react to that whereas being a British manufacturer you have got a better than evens chance of meeting that demand.”

Foster, meanwhile, claims it is benefitting from the fact that operators today are increasingly looking at value for money.

Sales chief Ashley Sword says: “A few years ago there was a phase where everybody just wanted to buy on price and get the cheapest product they could. But I think people have had their fingers burnt. They bought products that were unreliable and then had to change after a few years, so we’re seeing them look at what they are buying in a lot more detail now.”

He insists the company is working hard to prepare catering equipment dealers and refrigeration contractors for such conversations. “We give our dealers a tremendous amount of support in terms of technical advice and support with legislation. If customers come back and ask them about hydrocarbons, for instance, we’ve got papers already written which they can pass on. The companies which buy from us sell a multitude of catering equipment, they don’t just sell refrigeration, so they rely on us to be their refrigeration expert and I think that providing both after-sales and pre-sales support for the product is what we are particularly good at.”

True’s Lilly agrees that acquisition cost is no longer the underlying factor it once was. He says the quality of the product is now growing in importance, especially when there are caterers looking to slash costs by cutting down on the number of weekly fresh food deliveries, for example — a move that requires food to stay refrigerated for longer.

“I’d be lying if I said the [price] conversation doesn’t come up, however what you are finding is the coin is starting to flip in the sense that you are now getting people talking about what the product can do. They are starting to compartmentalise: what the product does versus what the cost is. They are looking at value for money.”

With this in mind it is no surprise that True and other brands are keen to find ways of communicating the advantages of their units to partners in a way that sticks.

“We are trying to provide more clarity so that it is easier for them to sell the products,” says Bell at Adande. “Even our price list, for example, contains lots of practical examples of where the units are used. One of the things we are trying to do with both the consultants and the kitchen houses is demonstrate the potential applications of the units and to have an increasing number of testimonials and case studies on the website that they can use.”

Gram, too, places a strong emphasis on empowering dealers. Glenn Roberts insists his sales staff spend a large portion of their time informing and educating distributor partners about product developments in order to improve their sales prospects, while he points out that Gram is the only player offering a five-year parts and labour warranty in the UK, endorsing the confidence it has in its products.

“The more [dealers] know about the product, the more able they are to speak about the features and benefits. Then they can sell the best value product for themselves and the end-user, rather than just looking at a price expediency,” he says.

“The main fundamental that we keep trying to bang the drum about is energy efficiency and the fact that if you have the right information to hand you can prove to an end-user that by paying a little bit more for a piece of equipment they can actually save money year-in year-out for the length of ownership.”

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