Part exchange: Inside the world of catering spares

It’s every engineer’s bugbear: a piece of equipment has broken, they’ve identified the issue that needs resolving to get it operational again, and all they have to do is order a replacement part. There’s only one problem. Either they can’t find somebody to supply the part or the item they need isn’t in stock.

Fortunately this scenario is occuring less and less these days thanks to the growing maturity and sophistication of the spare parts market. In some respects this is due to a move away from having to buy parts directly from the OEM, but it is also down to fervent competition among specialist spares suppliers driving up the standard of service on offer.

Additionally, cash-strapped operators are inclined to repair equipment rather than replace it, leaving engineers to identify and source components for kit that may be several years old or no longer in production.

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Catering engineers aren’t the sector’s only customers, of course. Large end-users occasionally like to have supplies of core spare parts to hand, while some providers cite private facility management firms as the most rapidly growing category of buyers due to their responsibility for an increasing range of establishments. Those who have specialised in the spare parts business for any meaningful period of time can recall an era when discounts were low, cut-off times were early in the day and next-day service was virtually non-existent. Not anymore.

“The supply of spares has changed significantly over the last 20 years,” says Jonathan Booth, managing director of Lancashire-based Commercial Catering Spares. “Then if you wanted an Electrolux part you bought it from them, and if they didn’t have it you had to wait. This is no longer the case and we will not be going back to those times. The major customers demand ever-increasing service levels, which then become the norm expected by all our customers. This is not a bad thing but you have to be continually improving to stay ahead of the game.”

The mantra for most spares suppliers is speed and availability, and in order to prosper on both those fronts significant investments are being made in new warehousing, IT processes and UK-based stock. Increasingly, the battle is also being fought out online, with companies looking to gain an edge by launching interactive websites, multi-language catalogues and exclusive apps for iPads and tablet devices.

Northamptonshire-based Caterparts is symptomatic of the innovation evident in the sector. It has recently completed a major brand revamp that has also included a roll-out of a new ERP system to underpin its web activities. The firm now holds more than 18,000 stock lines and have 80,000 parts on its database.

“Caterparts has been a spares provider for over 20 years and we have invested more in dynamism and infrastructure support in the last two years than probably over those 20 altogether,” admits commercial director Shaun Gamble. “We are known in the market place for our warewashing knowledge and parts supply, which we will take to a new level this year. Our new ‘engineer-friendly’ warewashing catalogue is available, which focuses on warewashing product that is installed in the UK base, rather than every model that exists across Europe.”

CCS, meanwhile, which holds around 10,000 lines, has purchased the industrial unit next door to its existing warehouse space to improve logistic flow and increase its storage capacity. It has also introduced a range of refrigeration parts to its range.

MD Booth says it is vital to keep with the times in the spares game. “Spares availability is key and as we cannot stock everything we have to continually review and increase our stock holdings, quickly reacting to any change in demand,” he explains.

“Obtaining correct lead times for our customers is also key, and as we are sat in the middle of the supply chain we are sometimes blamed for failure to supply even though we just pass on the information we are given.”

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Oldham-based Euro Catering Parts has redesigned its website and formed relationships with new clients and suppliers since a buy-out at the company 18 months ago.

Managing director, Nick Hughes, agrees it is a sector of the industry where you have to be flexible to prosper.
He says that clients want to order items in the way that best suits their needs — be it via a website, email or phone — and therefore suppliers have to be sensitive to this.

“The important thing for us as a company is that we move with it as the market shifts in a particular direction,” he comments. “As long as we concentrate on our own portfolio then we will see where it takes us.”

Spare parts suppliers certainly can’t be accused of resting on their laurels. The level of investment being made in the market today undoubtedly dispels the myth that this business purely comes down to how much product you can cram in your warehouse.

First Choice Catering Spares, based up in Staffordshire, is another company that has been ringing the changes in the quest to raise standards.

It has introduced split-shift working patterns in its warehouse to extend cut-off times, ramped up the amount of intensive training it delivers to staff and made its website tablet- and iPhone-compatible.“We have also just increased our automatic storage from six to 12 units to further improve our ability to stock more and pick faster to better meet customer needs,” reveals company director and co-founder Carl Bate. “For the same reason we now open on Saturdays.”

First Choice now has a five-strong team managing refrigeration parts, which previously was an area it had little focus on, while steps have begun to introduce ISO9001 into the business to help streamline its systems.

The company now holds more than 22,000 different lines of stock, which it claims enables it to fulfil an average 70% first-time pick.

Bate, though, points out that there are still quite a few brands which don’t have any arrangements in place for holding spare parts stock in the UK.

“In a world where every item is required yesterday, it is frustrating to have to wait days for information and sometimes weeks for the supply of what could be deemed common parts, especially when our customers are working to tight KPI with their customers,” he says. “We offer a one-stop-shop and in doing so are always looking at the opportunity to help support these brands with a spare parts policy for the UK wherever possible.”

Caterparts’ Gamble notes that there is growing pressure on engineers to have instant access to spares, with the average van likely to contain £2,000 to £5,000 of spare parts. He says that more engineers are asking it to look at additional equipment which may be out of their specialist zone and in turn they rely on the company to help them with parts identification and fault analysis.

“We believe we should focus on our strengths and support the engineers with the best catalogues and training we can offer within that core field of warewashing,” he says. “Frustrations come to fruit when we do all of the work and the parts are then ordered from European suppliers only to find their substitutes are not always suitable!”

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There is no escaping the fact that the spare parts landscape has become increasingly well populated within the last few years. Mark Brooks, director of LF Spare Parts, which has its headquarters in Italy but has recently put down roots in the UK, suggests it’s the extent of the online competition nowadays that is really impacting the market on a global scale.

“In some cases, this is driving prices for spare parts to unsustainable levels which will impact on the overall service and quality delivered,” he says. “These new channels — along with the traditional ones — are making it ever easier for end-users to source spares direct, thus cutting the service companies out of the loop. By sourcing from a professional spare parts company, the service and maintenance providers will save time and money and benefit from the highest standards of service and quality.”

LF says its European hub holds 40,000 spare parts in stock, cross-referenced to 270,000 manufacturers’ codes, but while it has been trading globally for the best part of 30 years it has only recently moved to establish a local presence in the UK.

Brooks insists the expansion is paying dividends: “We certainly cannot complain because since we opened our sales office in the UK last year it has been fantastic to see the positive reaction from the market — both service companies and OEMs — in all sectors that we operate.”

Another relative newcomer to the UK market, but also with a powerful European engine behind it, is GEV Catering Spares. Its Lincolnshire-based support team has access to a central warehouse in Europe that stocks £6m of parts, including items such as refrigerated gaskets, which it highlights as a real growth area for the business.

Bryn Vivian, sales and administration director at GEV UK, believes there are some serious changes in store for the spares market over the next few years. “Currently over half of orders placed by our customers are made online,” he says. “We see this figure growing, with more parts and brands as well as technical information, being made available on the internet. It is in companies’ interests to keep up to date with online developments in order to maintain a competitive edge.”

Vivian also suggests that a greater focus on value for money, especially for public sector budgets, will impact the way in which customers shop around for spare parts. GEV’s main objective, he adds, is to continue growing the business.

“As we have taken over 20,000 orders so far we are well on our way. However, this growth will not be at the detriment of customer care. GEV will continue to provide the highest level of support to service companies of all sizes. Above all, we will remain a technically competent and knowledgeable company that provides its customers with the best possible information allowing for the right part to be ordered first time. Such a service is what the industry requires in a dynamic and changing market place.”

Spares suppliers have evolved and adapted to market conditions in a manner that would perhaps frighten other areas of the market. But with the sector braced for further changes in the years ahead that willingness to adjust can only be a good thing. Completely paperless systems, enhanced delivery options and greater IT enablement on parts ordering and account information are just a selection of the advances predicted to be seen in the near future.

Catering equipment parts, it would seem, have never been so in vogue.

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