On the back of a big year in which it rebranded from CaterQuotes, AutoQuotes (AQ) decided to hold its first conference event.
Hosted at the Forest of Arden Marriott Hotel and Country Club on 24-25 October, the programme brought together not just an open forum to discuss AQ’s current offering and future direction, but also an exploration of major industry issues and a chance for sector luminaries to network and connect with each other.
The main presentation day began with AQ UK MD Rob Gibson revealing that 180 manufacturers are signed up to have their products quoted on the platform, with the published products total currently being 111,131. Plus 236 distributors or consultants use AQ UK.
He then handed the presenting baton to Ed Stone, AQ’s vice president of sales and customer success. He reported that with the B2B landscape rapidly digitising, consulting firm McKinsey & Company B2B estimates that digital leaders drive five times more revenue growth than their peers. Putting this into context, he feels it is important that the UK catering equipment channel embraces digital technologies like the AQ platform, and that this has informed the future roadmap for the product.
The company is investing in migrating from an older SQL database to Azure cloud services. “This is scalable and will allow us to release updates quicker,” Stone advised.
Furthermore, he forecasted: “There is a big opportunity to create a more seamless information exchange in order management. We often hear from distributors that what happens after they create a quote in AQ is quite complex and they have to re-key information into another system. We are trying to eliminate that with bi-direction system integration in and out of AQ. We want to be the industry’s partner to make challenges go away.”
Next up it was CEDA director general, Adam Mason, who detailed that during his 5 year tenure so far, the association has grown by 35% to 114 members with a combined annual turnover of more than £650m.
He said: “One of our greatest challenges has been making members understand their own importance at both ends of the supply chain.”
Therefore as part of its portfolio of services to support, promote and enhance the industry and members, last year it launched the beingCEDA code of practice. “It gives our members an opportunity to tell a story, that they adhere to industry association standards and expectations,” he added. “It’s a sales tool for members to use as a point of difference.”
The association’s latest accreditation, launched in August, is CEDAsafe. Independently assessed by the Health & Safety Executive, the installation, design, maintenance and health and safety accreditation is the lowest cost and least admin-heavy way of meeting all core health and safety standards, according to Mason.
E-learning is another area CEDA has focused on, with 110 modules now available on the online portal, the majority relating to generic topics such as finance or health and safety. However, now the association has started to develop its own industry-specific content such as commercial kitchen design and servicing. Mason reported that within the 3 years since its launch, 400 individuals now regularly use the platform.
As well as the CEDA Academy, dedicated to encouraging and developing distributor staff members under 30 years old, Mason detailed: “The biggest thing I’ve seen over the last 5 years is the change of culture and the sense of community. Members are readily communicating with each other, sharing knowledge and offering advice and support.”
CESA director Keith Warren then brought the perspective of the manufacturer and supplier side of the industry to the fore. “We work to integrate supply channel partners and arm them with the information to prosper in the current market,” he said.
Warren rated the top five prevailing issues as membership growth and member engagement, circular economy principles, connectivity, BIM and training and education. The association has tackled engagement by creating product group forums and by quickly feeding back key outcomes from each CESA meeting to the membership.
On the circular economy and sustainability targets, Warren explained that to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5°C limit on global temperature increase, 11 out of the 17 sustainable goals will directly impact the catering equipment industry. “There won’t be one element of business unaffected,” he underlined. One of these steps is the ongoing work to develop foodservice appliances that use hydrogen as a fuel.
For connectivity, Warren predicted that the coming 5G network would allow equipment to talk more effectively to each other, and that new wireless technology would address the problem of sending signals from basement kitchens. While on BIM he reported that AQ is part of an international group working to ensure common BIM standards. “We support the centralisation of processes resources, like the CESAShare BIM platform, to have everything in one place to make life easier for designers and consultants,” he commented.
Representing the FCSI was stalwart foodservice consultant Ken Winch. He remarked that the UK and Ireland chapter was slowly growing after re-joining FCSI worldwide, with 35 professional and 50 allied members currently.
However, he feels that the association is somewhat in flux at the moment and that to move forward, the organisation needs to discuss restructuring. Nevertheless, he believes: “Consultants have an important contribution to make and contribute multi-millions of pounds-worth of equipment to the industry.”
The day’s first panel session saw CEDA’s Mason joined by Hoshizaki UK MD Simon Frost; Alex Waring, director of Foxton Budd Recruitment; and Whitco commercial director Vita Whitaker. The topic of recruiting for the future provoked interesting debate, with Waring examining the demographics of the candidates she has placed in the foodservice equipment industry. She reported that there is a pattern of over 50s, and 100% white British ethnicity, with only 6% of successful applicants being women. “There is a temptation to lean towards a ‘safe candidate’ as there is no time for training and development at many companies,” she analysed.
Mason believes that CEDA’s initiatives can help to shift the needle on this, revealing: “We are launching a big marketing and recruitment piece in January. By providing more learning, education and development tools, hopefully we will give confidence to our members to look outside the industry for candidates.”
However, Whitaker commented that the discussion on training, apprenticeships and bringing new people into the industry has been going on for years. “All of this information has been sitting in our hands, why has action not already been taken?” she questioned. “We need to share the unique selling points of our industry more broadly.”
Frost agreed: “Trying to attract young people into our industry is a challenge. There is no information available to young people about being a catering engineer or salesperson. An average executive age of well into your 50s is a sad reflection. It’s also a shame that we don’t have more ethnic diversity.”
The second panel of the day, discussing looking ahead, involved CESA’s Warren, FCSI’s Winch, Vision Commercial Kitchens’ MD Jack Sharkey and Meiko UK MD Paul Anderson. When asked if manufacturers are embracing connectivity, Warren predicted: “Every business will have a data department. If you are not already on that journey, you need to get started because it’s going to move fast.”
Anderson concurred: “If you are not onboard with connectivity you will be left behind. The information has got to be tailored to what the customer wants. Warewashers are already being connected and this will evolve further.”
While Winch warned against employing connectivity for the sake of it, Sharkey believes the challenges will be both to connect appliances and facilities management. He also argued: “We shouldn’t lose sight of security, as someone could hack connected appliances.”
The day finished with a networking dinner, featuring guest speaker Matthew Hoggard, who regaled attendees with stories of behind the scenes of his career and the 2005 Ashes-winning cricket team.
AQ under the microscope
In the middle of AutoQuotes’ first conference, the company organised simultaneous break-out sessions, one for distributors and subscribers of the quotation platform and the other for manufacturers.
The distributor session was led by AQ director of product management, Radek Stypulkowski, who detailed that the platform’s content is updated daily by a dedicated team. However, the dealers in the audience began a robust discussion about gaps in content supplied by manufacturers, with many reporting that specification sheets and mechanical and electrical services information is often missing and that it is time-consuming to compile a project’s operation and maintenance manual because of this. Some even suggested that AQ should not accept manufacturer data onto the platform unless it is complete.
AQ’s vice president of sales and customer success Ed Stone suggested that a compromise could be that if a manufacturer’s product information is not complete, this could be flagged up in the platform’s search function. He also encouraged dealers to notify AQ if content is missing.
Stypulkowski then went on to detail AQ’s new SKU product, which allows users to bulk import inventory information from their ERP or inventory system directly into the AQ catalogue. This updates in real time and allows stock numbers to be linked to products. Plus he recapped the recent launch of the AQ Go mobile application, which is essentially a portable extension of AQ’s desktop application.
The other product launches mentioned were AQ Design Solutions. This trio integrate Autodesk AutoCAD and Autodesk Revit to AQ’s database and quotation software, enabling AQ subscribers to create accurate kitchen designs in both CAD and Revit design environments.
In the suppliers’ gathering, AQ Insight was the lead topic. This is a reporting platform for AQ manufacturers which provides analytics for them to gain visibility into their products’ performance and positioning within the marketplace. As standard, suppliers will be able to view their product category’s quoting activity over the previous 90 days, and by channel, as well as gaining access to quote volume trends.
There will also be a paid Pro version available, which AQ UK MD Rob Gibson estimated would cost 30% of a manufacturer’s subscription fee, but that is to be confirmed. Pro would enable manufacturers to drill down into that data further, on an individual product scale, to see quoting activity and by channel, as well as the possibility of viewing dealer quote volume – though only for those dealers who had opted in to sharing this information.
The room debated what the Pro incremental fee would be for and whose responsibility it would be to encourage dealers to allow their quotation information to be obtained and viewed.
Further feedback suggested it would be welcomed if AQ also looked into developing a regional breakdown of quotation data.