Stephensons: the light touch

For five generations to have run the same company, they must have been doing something right. So what is the secret of Stockport-based Stephensons’ success?

According to MD Henry Stephenson: “We are competitive and we have a lot of experience of buying products. We have to buy right to sell right.”

The catering equipment dealer’s roots are in light equipment, tableware and janitorial supplies, but it does also offer some heavy equipment. “We’ve remained stronger of the light equipment and hygiene side of things; it’s our core focus and what we’re good at,” commented Stephenson. This also means the company has eschewed getting involved in kitchen design and installation, preferring to concentrate on sourcing and delivering catering equipment.

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The firm’s history stretches back nearly 150 years (that particular milestone will be reached in 2018), from selling pottery in a rented stall at Salford Flat Iron Market through to running a tableware retail outlet in Barton Arcade, Manchester, to finally focusing on the trade market and moving out to its Stockport premises in 1968.

“We developed our range to be a one stop shop for caterers,” Stephenson explained. And with 30,000ft2 of warehousing space holding over 6,000 stock lines, along with a large on-site showroom, there is no shortage of choice for prospective customers. “If a customer has a new opening or refurbishment then often they’ll visit the showroom and spend a whole day in there trying out tableware, hygiene product dispensers and pots and pans,” he detailed. Although the firm doesn’t have a demonstration kitchen as yet, this is something it is looking into.

It keeps its light equipment offering fresh by producing a new catalogue each year; for 2015 there are 9,500 lines available, which includes 1,929 new lines while removing a further 1,000. The company also has a broader range of non-stock items it can offer with a couple of days’ turnaround if they are stocked in the UK. “The tabletop market used to be about volume on a few standard lines and it was pretty simple,” recalled Stephenson. “But in the last 10 years we have seen a massive proliferation of product across the board, driven by customers all wanting something different.

“We have to cope with stocking the right things. If we’ve got customers on certain items we’ll stock those for them and make sure we’re giving a good service for those products.”

About 3 years ago the dealer carried out research into its customers’ wants and needs, with the major finding being that customers want competitive products that are fit for purpose. For its part, Stephensons looks for innovation and uniqueness in the products it sources, as well as quality. “There are lots of things that have come onto the market that are fun but don’t last long in a catering environment,” said Stephenson. “We have to be careful what we supply; we have a reputation and customers trust that we’re not going to sell them a problem.”

Therefore the company tests any prospective lines by asking manufacturers for samples and sometimes even sending these to customers it knows will use the product heavily. [[page-break]]

Where it can, the firm tries to source from the UK, as it has built its business on the back of UK supply. “There are certain categories such as crockery where we can do this, as we work very closely with the likes of Churchill, Steelite and Dudson,” said Stephenson. “We can also source high quality items from Europe. However for more basic items such as stainless steel-ware, quite often they are from the Far East or India.”

Currently the import markets are seeing a few price rises, with Stephenson reporting that larger manufacturers’ order quantities are being demanded to remain competitive.

While, in the main, the firm has a cash-and-carry approach, it also embraces web-based sales. “The internet means that carrier business can be serviced, if slightly less well than personal interaction,” said Stephenson. He believes that online sales are critical to the business, especially with internet-only catering equipment dealers increasingly moving in on the light equipment market.

“If you just want someone to shift a box on the internet then you can go down that route, but there’s much more to selling a product than moving a box around,” he commented. “Our suppliers buy into us because we have nine reps on the road – we stock their products and we have knowledge and expertise so we can help to advise customers.”

He believes that the crucial difference between Stephensons and its competitors is the service it provides. “There’s an awful lot that goes into supplying a good service. The devil’s in the detail, such as communication, having the stock on the shelf, and having our delivery drivers and our reps look after customers.”

He said that the firm ensures it chases suppliers up as, “We do have some suppliers that can really let us down from time to time on their supply, and if we have bad suppliers, we are a bad supplier. We choose our suppliers based on how good they are at supplying to us.”

Stephensons has the experience to anticipate when shortages will hit the supply chain and when to up its stock levels significantly, such as around the busy Christmas period. “It’s keeping your ear to the ground more than anything. If you’ve got a good relationship with a supplier you might find out that something is going to go out of stock or you will see one supplier out of several run out of a product, so we’ll often buy a lot of something if we think there’s going to be a problem,” Stephenson detailed.

He reported that current tableware trends are industrial and rustic themes, as well as coloured crockery. The rustic demand is actually causing a bit of an issue, as the ceramic products required are proving difficult to source. “The Craft range from Steelite and the Evolution range from Dudson are fantastic and on trend, but they have been struggling to get them out the door,” he said.

He believes the key to continuing his firm’s progress is visiting customers regularly. “We discuss those week-in, week-out products with them such as napkins and cleaning chemicals. Then we gain the tableware sales off the back of that because we are at the forefront of our customers’ minds.”

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