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Smith Brothers Stores – Moving with the times

As befits a company with 115 years of operation under its belt, Smith Brothers Stores Ltd continues to move with the times in order to further strengthen its position within what remains a very competitive marketplace. This is not only evident from an ongoing branch expansion programme, which has recently seen its site portfolio increase to 12 units, but also from the implementation of a new all-encompassing IT system that has helped take the business to another level.

“The new IT system deals with everything from purchasing through to sales and involved quite a significant change for ourselves,” explains Adrian Smith, Marketing Manager. “We had outgrown our existing IT system so we had to develop a new one. That platform was integrated at the start of 2015 and constant development has been going on ever since by a dedicated IT team. It’s been very much a work in progress but with the majority of the main modifications having been implemented in the early stages, now everyone is used to the system we’re really starting to get the most out of it as capability of the system is much improved. Reporting and information is now available after only a couple of clicks, whereas before it was much harder to navigate around the system.

“We’ve also launched an app that is available on the Apple and Google app stores and along with a new brochure that we’ve recently launched, we’re aiming to make further strides on a marketing front, both in terms of traditional literature and social media.”

Following the IT system upgrade, SBS has been able to get back to focusing on other areas, such as expansion of its estate, and last year saw the company opening three new branches in Heathrow, Cardiff and Merseyside. These are all now fully up to speed, while the company also relocated its Leicester head office after 110 years at the previous site.

On the back of the IT development, these new sites and relocations have significantly improved SBS’ operational capabilities. The Bristol site’s move to a new 30,000 sq ft unit has meant that capacity has been increased by nearly 50 per cent providing it with huge scope for potential growth. The move to new head offices, meanwhile, now offers bespoke solutions to its requirements and a larger warehouse enables the company to store overflow products much easier. In addition, there is increased capacity to cater for ongoing expansion of its fleet.

“We’ve also launched an app that is available on the Apple and Google app stores and along with a new brochure that we’ve recently launched, we’re aiming to make further strides on a marketing front, both in terms of traditional literature and social media.”

Adrian Smith, Marketing Manager

Having so impressively expanded infrastructure and systems, SBS continues to be well placed to contend with the challenges it is currently having to face in order to make the most of opportunities within the marketplace.

“We’ve noticed numerous changes since the Brexit vote, particularly in terms of price increases from all sorts of manufacturers,” adds Mr Smith. “Thankfully we continue to have strong working relationships with our supply chain, which in turn leads to a better quality of service for our own customers. This is vital as we’re an intensely customer-focused business. This requires us to have a close relationship with the manufacturers to ensure that we have good lead times and strong stock levels so that we can consistently deliver on our promises. Obviously the likes of Brexit have made things trickier but when price increases have occurred we have strived to inform our customers as quickly as possible. We also endeavour to pre-empt them as much as possible by having a keen eye on the direction the market is heading and by having plenty of stock to insulate ourselves when we can. It’s all about operating in a smart manner while at the same time remaining a sustainable and profitable business.”

One particular strength of SBS centres on the fact that it remains very much an independent business, particularly in terms of flexibility. “We look to actively team up with businesses that want to work with us because at the end of the day we need to support suppliers that are willing to support us. This manifests itself in our approach where rather than offering four of five variations of the same product we’ll potentially only offer two. We’re therefore much more committed to our suppliers on that front and we obviously expect a bit more loyalty and reward in return.”

To support the expansion it is seeing as a company and the subsequent increase in its workforce, SBS has been careful to recruit sensibly to ensure its high standards are not in the least bit compromised.

“Our staffing levels have obviously risen naturally following the opening of the new branches but with the turnover growth and the strong performance of our other sites, we have been to support this increase. To help ease the burden of the added workload we have recruited in virtually all areas over the past few years and there’s more sales managers on the road speaking with the customers. All branches have a branch manager, an assistant manager or, depending on the size of the branch, sometimes two.

“We have a fairly flat structure within the business because we prefer decisions to be made quickly. If an important decision needs to be made we don’t like it having to go through several layers before it can be made because the customer potentially might need an answer straightaway. We have increased personnel within the operations side so we have more drivers and more warehouse personnel, while the IT department has also expanded, as I mentioned previously. In turn the accounts side has obviously had to expand with the increase in the number of branches we look after and the rise in employee numbers to staff them.”

Although generally a positive move, any expansion process entails challenges and recruitment can be particularly testing at times. “You can’t just click your fingers and expect instant expansion, you need to work hard to get the right people in order to build a team that gels well, while at the same time supporting your existing staff so that they can develop their own roles and take on greater responsibility. Thankfully we are very employee-centric and care about all our staff greatly. We support them in the workplace as much as we can, while we also hold company-wide events, such as the one scheduled May 2017, a sit-down meal followed by entertainment for all our staff and partners to demonstrate our appreciation of their hard work and commitment. It’s our way of saying ‘Thank you’.

“As an independent business with a strong family ethos we feel this type of approach is vital and helps to generate a tremendous amount of ‘buy-in’ from our employees. This is a major advantage we have as a company because our competitors simply aren’t able to provide the same level of staff support, particularly with the well documented restructuring and streamlining some players within the industry have implemented recently. What’s more, our directors remain very ‘hands on’ and strive to visit all of our branches to get a real feel for the business on the shop floor so that any issues can be quickly identified and addressed. It’s all about giving our employees all the assistance they possibly need to fulfil their roles to the best of their abilities.”

Having had such a busy couple of years, SBS could be forgiven for having a period of relative consolidation and for the immediate future one of the primary objectives is to make sure that the most recent additions to its site portfolio firmly establish themselves in their relative markets. “There’s been a huge amount of work that has taken place behind the scenes and we’ve been striving to develop new business as a result,” says Mr Smith. “That said, we haven’t just forgotten our existing customers and we have refused to sacrifice our service levels within the business just to increase the number of stores that we have as a company in an attempt to expand our market share. It’s all been about striking the right balance.

“Once the new sites are well stabilised and require less day-to-day support, only then will we begin to expand again. Of course expansion is always something that we’re looking at, particularly as we’ve got a very positive cash flow and are a tremendously ambitious company. At the same time we will only proceed if all the factors are right for us as a business and we have the people to make a success of it.

“It’s all about sustainability and as we’ve been around for over 100 years we’re not in any rush to compromise our legacy.”

Given the success and growth SBS has enjoyed over the last century or so, it would be extremely hard to argue with the wisdom of the company’s approach.