Stephen Ongley, national account manager for the commercial channel at Liebherr Coolectric, isn’t just trotting out the corporate sales line when he insists dealers can make money from selling Liebherr refrigeration equipment.

Once upon a time he was on the other side of the fence, so he understands exactly what the brand’s resale capabilities are. “I was in a distributor role for many years before I joined Coolectric,” he explains.

“It was mainly domestic, some commercial, but we were the biggest independent Liebherr dealer and I found it so easy to sell day-in day-out, so I know it can be done. It is a really good brand and very saleable.”

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Ongley is under no illusions that getting that message to filter through the distribution market is a process that will take time and patience, but the company is very much at the start of its journey in the UK foodservice market even though its presence in the UK stretches back the best part of three decades.

Coolectric has been contracted to German-owned Liebherr for more than 30 years, underlining why the pair are so keen to emphasise that the arrangement goes far deeper than the average import or agency set-up.

Liebherr utilises an exclusive partner model in many territories across the world, and essentially regards Coolectric as its UK operation. The duo’s relationship has primarily grown off the back of success in the domestic refrigeration scene, although a strong niche has been carved out in the medical sector, too, where commercial-grade machines are supplied.

The last two years, however, have seen added focus placed on the foodservice sector. Ongley has largely been managing this market single-handedly, although the company is on the verge of appointing a dedicated salesman for the south-west, while domestic sales manager for Scotland and the North West of England, Julie Dunn, also now handles commercial product lines in those regions.

On the whole, though, Ongley has endeavoured to move things in the right direction by maximising the collective logistics, finance and IT operations of the Coolectric Group, as well as exposing the brand to the trade though formal partnerships with CESA, CEDA and the FCSI.

“We have joined those organisations to drive the business more and we have applied and had 13 models listed on the ECA scheme as well,” he says. “In more recent times we have signed to CaterQuotes and now we are marketing into the foodservice market. Coolectric only does Liebherr, so we live and breathe it. We have just finished our new showroom at Newport Pagnell and being part of the large Coolectric Group means we offer pretty comprehensive logistics and techbical support. We have about 7,000 units in stock, so we try and offer a high level of service before, during and after the sale.”

As Liebherr’s chosen route-to-market is through the distributor channel, its ongoing focus is to find and develop long-term relationships with dealers that see value in the brand.

So far it has dealt largely with CEDA distributors, although there are exceptions to that. Arthur Walton in Bradford, for instance, is a company it works closely with. Essentially, says Ongley, it is willing to open dialogue with any serious distributors that can fulfil the criteria it looks for. Ideally, dealers would have a showroom but the most important thing is their level of expertise and ability to “sell quality”.

He adds: “They need to know the difference between what we do and what others do. In total, we probably have 20 active accounts but two of those do a large volume and are in the medical sector, so we are pretty thin on the ground with foodservice distributors, but it is growing monthly.”

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Liebherr operates a ‘registered dealer’ policy, so dealers have to complete an application form before any prices are issued. Those hoping to secure top-level terms would need to showcase the product and demonstrate that they have sales people on the road.

“A premium distributor would display the product, be able to deliver it, collect the old one, deal with basic technical questions and have the ability to sell up, not just write out an invoice. And for that they would have a good margin and the confidence that the machines have been tested before leaving the factory and the customer is likely to be very happy with it.

“We are more of a niche brand and don’t have a massive, negative internet influence — I think those two factors would also enable a distributor to make more money.”

Liebherr’s intention is to build on the foundations it has now put in place to grow its dealer pipeline and expand the sales channel. “If we are able to take on an additional 10 rock-solid dealers over the next year it would be quite a good result. Currently we do about 10% of the volume of units in the commercial of our total volume sales, but we aim to increase that to 30% of our total volume over the next five years.”

Liebherr is only too aware that it is bidding to gain a foothold in a market which is dominated by some very strong competitors and where dealers are quite comfortable with what they can buy. But it is adamant that its range of equipment, which includes everything from upright service cabinets to fridges and freezers, is more than a match for any brand in terms of quality, durability and energy efficiency.

Additionally, one of the emerging weapons in its armoury is its extensive range of commercial wine cabinets for front-of-house operations. That range has already been pivotal in introducing it to distributors such as Vision, C&C and Caterware, says Ongley.

“The wine offering is something that our three main competitors don’t do, so we feel it is a door opener and it gives us an angle others don’t have,” he says. “But in the bread and butter foodservice models we have a lot to offer and we have key selling points within each category, whether it’s under-bench, tall 60, tall 750 or heavy duty. It could be the hygiene aspect with the moulded interior, or a bigger neck capacity or a lower running cost. I think our biggest market share is in the wine sector, but ultimately we want to grow the foodservice cabinets — the 150 litre, the 400 litre, the 600 litre.”

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One enduring challenge that Liebherr faces on the commercial side is that the brand is heavily associated with domestic refrigeration. Is that something that causes concern?

“It can be a negative until people understand that they are very different machines — they are not rebadged domestic,” answers Ongley. “At every show we do we will always feature a heavy duty cabinet with the moulded 304 grade stainless steel interior —that automatically says to people that we do proper commercial equipment. Quality always sells and I think if we stick to our plans we will get that steady, gradual growth.”

Liebherr’s expansion in the commercial foodservice sector hinges on it convincing more catering equipment distributors to invest in its brand or at least explore its offering further. But you’re unlikely to see it appointing partners left, right and centre — a step-by-step approach would appear to suit it just fine.

Company credentials

– The Liebherr family business was established in 1949 by Hans Liebherr.

– The Liebherr Group’s holding company is Liebherr-International AG in Bulle, Switzerland, which is entirely owned by     members of the Liebherr family.

– Liebherr is decentrally organised into company units of manageable size, operating independently.

– The company started off manufacturing cranes but now spans 130 companies in multiple areas.

– Manufacturing activities are distributed across 40 production company locations in 17 countries.

– Liebherr employs more than 37,000 staff across the world.

– Liebherr made sales of €9.1 billion (£7.7 billion) last year, with construction machinery and mining products generating two-thirds of its turnover.

– Revenues from the appliances division, which includes refrigeration, increased 5% to €890m (£752m) last year.

Case study: Reliability over cost for restaurant owner

When Eddy Shing, owner of The Dragon Inn in Richmond upon Thames, decided to refurbish his Cantonese restaurant, he opted for a raft of Liebherr equipment supplied by Bedfordshire-based Eco Catering Equipment after sampling the brand’s offering in the wine cabinet market.

A Liebherr Vinidor wine heating and cooling display cabinet had already proved its worth at the venue, so Shing decided to source new wine and drinks cooling and freezing solutions from the manufacturer when embarking on a major revamp of the restaurant.

“The large Liebherr Vinidor has been with us for three years and I didn’t need to think too hard where to look for an upright freezer, a chest freezer, under-counter drinks cabinet and an under-counter wine cabinet,” he explains. “It has the design, function and reliability that you expect from a German-engineered product.”

Liebherr’s products are rigorously tested at its production facilities, to accurately show that low energy consumption, and therefore lower long-term running costs, will come from its equipment. “For one of the systems I paid hundreds of pounds more than an alternative from another supplier, but I know that the durability, functionality and energy efficiency will pay dividends in the longer term,” said Shing.

Liebherr’s factory in Lienz, Austria serves as the hub for the production of commercial refrigerators and freezers that the company sells worldwide. Free-standing refrigerators and chest freezers are among the product lines constructed at the state-of-the-art factory, which employs almost 1,500 staff.

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Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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