The Bluefish Group continues to expand through a mixture of organic growth, diversification and acquisition
Doing it the Bluefish way
The last 12 months have been busy for the team at the Bluefish Group. The latest acquisitions for the group have been completed, extending the reach of the Northampton-based dealer business into East Anglia, while business has continued to grow and diversify into a number of different areas.
“We’ve come a long way since we set up the business in Northampton in 2000,” explains MD Mark Heath. “Back then, there was definitely a void left by the old Arkle business, which was sold to Ofrex, and the contract stationers shooting themselves in the foot. We took advantage of that opportunity and we picked up some big business along the way, which matched our ambition to be the biggest dealer in the East Midlands. We turned over £1m in the first year and reached £8m in the second year! We never knew we would grow at that pace, but a contract with one of the UK’s largest retailers really helped us get going.”
In 2002, the business hit the £10m mark and in 2003 a new warehouse was taken on as Bluefish was – and still does – hold stock. In 2005, the business entered the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 and it was at this point that Mark and his team realised that they had a ‘proper’ business!
“That was a big moment for us but we, like so many dealers, were struggling with organic growth,” Mark explains. “It was a case of two steps forward and one back, so in 2009, we started to play with acquisitions and we took over the office products part of the Paragon business. From there, we added the Oxford-based B-line business in 2012, and that really helped us to shape our approach going forward. We realised that the way we could best utilise the power of the combined businesses was by having a central backbone in Northampton with regional sales arms. Local trading brands are of paramount importance and the people in the local businesses are vitally important.”
This set-up was further honed by additional deals - in 2016, Bluefish took over STP in Haverhill, at the beginning of 2017, also signing a joint venture with a business called Technocopy to get into MPS and, most recently, it completed the acquisition of Harts in Saffron Walden. This means the business now stretches across the East Midlands, down into Oxford and across into East Anglia.
“I’m the first to admit that we made mistakes, especially in trying to integrate acquisitions into our business, but the important thing is we’ve learned from them and now we have a set-up that’s working,” adds Mark. “Local is key. There’s now one purchasing team, one stock team, one marketing team, one IT team but four, local sales teams. People who had equity in the businesses we’ve acquired still have equity, and that’s key – they’re absolutely invested in what we do and are going nowhere in the short-term. That also ensures continuity for customers. In a nutshell, we’re utilising the economies of scale of the group but still delivering local service and relationships.”
Mark adds that when Bluefish is looking for an acquisition they’re looking for an ideal fit, which means the following boxes need to be ticked:
- Strong alignment and same values
- Good leadership and team dynamics
- High customer retention and profile
- Well established as local brands
- Good growth opportunities
- Flexible and passionate teams
“Acquiring the likes of Harts and STP made sense because they ticked the boxes listed above. Strategically it also made sense because they’re located in the fastest growing region of the UK and they give us access to a raft of markets, including traditional, tech and university sectors. It makes sense.
“We want to grow further by acquisition and we believe the strong group model is brilliant, not just for us but for those new partners too. They’re not just working with us on a central level, but with the others on a regional level too.”
Four pillars of success
Speaking at a recent supplier event, Mark explained that the elements that make them different to their competition are effectiveness, approachability, flexibility and passion. “We live in a world where everybody can sell paper, so we focus on what makes us more attractive than our competitors. Customers tell us that we’re effective, have a can-do attitude and that we’re approachable. We’re still an independent business – nobody owns equity in Bluefish that doesn’t work within the business every day. That means everybody is invested in our success. We don’t hide from our customers.
“For me, flexibility and passion for what we do is essential to ongoing success. If a customer just wants a Biro they can order on Amazon and have it the next day, or even the same day in some parts of the country, delivered by a courier who will kick it over your fence. We realise that we have to go further. That’s why, for example, we still have our own delivery fleet. We think that’s massive, as is the versatility of having our own warehouse. We have 65,000 sq ft of space in Northampton and carry £1.1m of stock made up of 4,500 lines. We run 18 vans a day out of that warehouse, plus a couple of HGVs, which gives us the flexibility to behave however we want to. If we want to buy direct, we can. If it’s better for us to go through wholesalers and distributors, we can. We’re relaxed about how we do it because we’ve built a business model that revolves around flexibility. All doors are open.”
Strong financial position
This year, the Bluefish Group is targeting a turnover of over £23m, with growth based on the business from acquisitions and some organic growth, as Mark explains.
“Organic growth remains, but as I mentioned earlier, sometimes it takes a knock back. We got big into carrier bags a few years ago, but it wasn’t a keeper when the government put a levy on them! But you do have to try.
“We remain a profitable business and, importantly, we leave a lot of money in the business, which means we can deal directly with suppliers and invest where necessary. We’re not afraid to take on more space or to invest in our logistics. We’ve recently ordered two new vans and we’ll order more as we grow our furniture delivery network, which we’re looking to take control of. We’ll also invest in IT and e-commerce, as we will in brand marketing. Building a reputable trading partnership with suppliers is important to us – and helps us build sales for us and those suppliers – so we’ll also invest in it.”
Mark goes on to say that the people in Bluefish also make the difference when it comes to relationships with customers and suppliers.
“Our people really do set us apart. We’re a 90-strong team now and, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve retained sales teams in Oxford and the Greater Cambridge area following our acquisitions so that salespeople are local to customers. That won’t change – we want to be close to our customers. Our staff retention is fantastic too and that makes a difference. We do expect our head count to grow, especially on the sales side because, once again, we recognise the importance of investing when and where it’s needed. That’s why Nigel Edwards joined earlier in the summer as Group Commercial Director, and now Rob Punch has been brought on board as head of furniture to lead the first group-wide sales drive.
Looking to the future, Mark says the business will continue to do what it does best – and that's working closely with and talking to customers about what they want.
“Why can’t we bring a total solution to customers? We’ll continue to add new products and services and MPS is a good one thanks to our Technocopy deal, which we’ll run under the Bluefish tech brand. We’ll invest in growth and look to develop our economies of scale, but continue to deliver to the end-user through local brands with local connections. It’s a model that works for us, so why shouldn’t we extend it and do even more to help customers? It’s a smart play.
“If I was to sum up our customer proposition, our aim is to maximise the client’s workspace, share knowledge and industry expertise, tailor product ranges and service offerings to their needs, ensuring their time is spent doing what they are best at. The work we do revolves around making that happen – and will continue to do so well into the future.”
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