Wholesale force: RB Distributors Q&A

With £30m worth of stock at its disposal, wholesaler RB Distributors boasts one of the most comprehensive portfolios of catering equipment in the country. Catering Insight caught up with RBD’s sales manager, Tony Mercer, to find out how the company is aiming to help dealers take the stress out of ordering, stocking and selling equipment from multiple brands.

There are essentially two components to Nisbets’ B2B operation: RB Distributors and Uropa Distribution. What are the main differences between the two businesses?

RB Distributors is the wholesaling division within the Nisbets Group and Uropa is the marketing branding we have developed within the wholesale division to promote the key brand equipment within our extensive product programme, including KitchenAid, Samsung, Dynamic, Waring and our own Apollo refrigeration range. RB has been part of the group for about 13 years, and we only sell to and through distributors. A couple of years ago we had the opportunity to pick up some exclusive and semi-exclusive arrangements with some key brands and what we wanted to do was give those brands specific focus, which is why we created Uropa and a separate catalogue.

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What benefits does that bring to you internally?

From a marketing point of view it gives us a vehicle to market the equipment side even better than we do within the main catalogue. It also helps to give it plenty of focus, both from within our own operation and also in discussions with distributors.

How large is RBD?

There are 13 people in the wholesale division who are full-time field-based sales. The real selling arm of our wholesale business is actually our distributors’ sales people because they are the ones that are end-user customer facing. It is very important that we give them all the right tools and support to enable them to take on that selling role.

How many products does RBD now have in its portfolio?

More than 14,000 products are in the catalogue, of which most are held in our UK distribution centres. At any one time there is as much as £30m of stock. Overall, we have access to more than 30,000 products through our extensive supply chain. There aren’t many brands or product types that we don’t have access to, even if it is as a non-catalogue item. Our product range contains high profile brands such as KitchenAid, Samsung, Dynamic and Waring, and alongside those we have 10 of our own brands, which includes Apollo, Polar, Buffalo, Athena and Olympia. Our customers want choice, price, service, support and security, and we provide all those elements of the buying criteria without exception.

How important is the own-brand side of the business?

It is very important to us because we actually source them, specify them, bring them in from various suppliers and put our own brand name on them. We take the approach that we want to offer our customers choice, and we offer them the choice based on the ‘good, better, best’ scenario. And we cover that extremely well, both with known branded products and own-branded products; it’s a case of different products to fill different applications at different price points.

What is the biggest value that RBD provides to its distributors?

There is no one single feature of our offering to our distributors that secures their trust and loyalty. It is the collective package of the widest product range, same day dispatch/next day delivery, intensive and intuitive marketing support programmes, competitive pricing and the security of ongoing supplies from a financially-sound company giving them the ‘one-stop-shop’ purchasing opportunity. We are a company that is driven by inspirational customer service with the strength and know-how to continually invest in its people, infrastructure and customer support.

Most of our distributors find it extremely convenient to deal with us because we are not a wholesaler that asks them to commit to putting loads and loads of stock into their own warehouses. Quite the opposite in fact! And that is true because what we are exceptionally good at is the logistics side. We can move large and small parcels, and many items or a few items, very quickly from our stock through to our dealer or our dealer’s customers within 24 hours to most postcodes. We want to release our distributors from that financial burden and time burden to spend more time on selling and marketing, rather than picking, packing and filling a van.

Are you looking to expand the brand portfolio?

We are continuously looking for new and exciting products to add to our vast range. Our buying teams visit many manufacturers and exhibitions across the world seeking out new product development opportunities. Our latest catalogue includes over 700 new lines. We are always looking to bring new products, and indeed services, on board, and it is all for the objective of offering our dealers the widest choice.

As a volume-driven business, do you generally measure your success on sales growth?

Of course, that is a key factor, but it is not the only factor. We measure ourselves using lots of KPIs, so we know exactly where we are doing well, and we know exactly where we need to do better. While turnover, sales growth and market share are probably the best references you can have, it is also important to make sure that customers are happy with the products and the services that we are offering, and that they keep coming back. Then, of course, you have got to be doing things that also attract potential new customers as well.

How effective is the web as a sales channel for RBD?

The trade website is a tremendous success, with the majority of our distributors using it for processing and progressing their orders. We only launched the RBD wholesale website about five years ago, but something like 80% of all our business to wholesale now comes via it. The facility offers 24-hour access for browsing the catalogue, placing orders, accessing account information, keeping up with current promotions and checking stock availability. It is the perfect knowledge source reference point.

Are there any plans to advance the site further?

Yes, indeed. We will be upgrading the wholesale website in the early part of next year. That will bring aboard all the latest technology and new features that are available with website builds. It will be about the speed and ease of processing and browsing the catalogue on the website, it will be about reliability, and there will be some new features in terms of being able to browse the catalogue electronically, page by page, online. We do that at the moment on the Nisbets site, so we will be moving to the same platform as that.

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How many distributors does RBD trade with?

That is confidential information, however what I can tell you is that we have a wide variety of distributor customers who between them cover all the different sectors of the catering market. Our penetration rate is very high and effective. We are always looking for new distribution and there are still plenty of opportunities out there for us to grow our distributor network in a structured way.

Do you feel that the profile and identity of your customer base is changing?

It has already changed in many ways. There are a lot more online customers and that obviously is a trend that is going to continue for some time. As technology becomes better, I think more and more customers will move over to a web-based marketing strategy in addition to their current traditional ways of working.

You are a division of Nisbets, which some distributors regard as a competitor. How much of an issue is that for you?

Nisbets being our parent company, it is not an issue, it is an asset. We support our distributors — our success is generated by their success! In terms of the way that we go to market, we operate within the group as two businesses, so while we share central services and stock and we operate out of the same buildings, we do actually function as two separate businesses. We will sometimes actually compete with each other — not necessarily knowingly — as we would compete with any other competitor out there.

That may sound a bit strange but it is a fact, and it has worked very well for us. If you look the support we give our dealers, at least two or three promotions are in place every month, and if they come back to us with an opportunity where we need to price support them, we do that, regardless of who they are up against. It doesn’t create any issues that we can’t manage between ourselves and our distributors.

What are your main strategic objectives for 2013?

In simple terms it is to do more of what we know works for us and works for our customers. We have got many new and exciting innovations and activities planned during the next 18 months, including a brand new RBD trade website, a new distributor promotions marketing support service and the expansion of our sales team.

Buying group still an important source of sales, insists RBD boss

Marketing support is a key element of RB Distributors’ strategy to provide value for dealers. Its 700-page catalogue, which contains 14,000 products, can be overprinted with a dealer’s own logo and branding, and this has proved popular with many companies.

The Bristol-based wholesaler, which is part of the Nisbets group of companies, also claims that its ties with the dealer community have been strengthened over the years through its links to Cedabond.

Tony Mercer, sales manager at RB Distributors, believes its engagement with the Cedabond membership base has been key to its growth: “We have had an association now with Cedabond for many years, almost since we started our wholesale business within the group, and we are very pleased with the success we have had with the group over those years.”

According to Mercer, RB Distributors is one of the largest — if not thee largest — suppliers to Cedabond members. “[Cedabond] is quite a big group, a very professional buying and marketing group, and they are good to deal with,” he comments. “They are quite tough in the negotiations but they do it very well. It has proved very successful for us and therefore it must have proved very successful for them also.”

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