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The Journey to becoming the largest independent electrical wholesaler in the North East of England

Guest Editor, Electrical Times – Barry Wilkinson, managing director, Park Electrical Distributors

The humble beginnings of Park Electrical Distributors is probably not unlike those of many other companies. Set up and run from the back bedroom of Barry Wilkinson’s home in County Durham in 1990, there was no initial cash injection to cushion the first few months, just a small handful of supportive clients and then, suddenly, the start of a major recession.

That is a long time ago for a company that has, over two decades, continually moved forward, despite setbacks and challenges, to gain the undisputed status as the largest independent electrical wholesaler in the North East of England. Today, the company is highly diversified, has a turnover of just under £20 million with its sights trained on achieving £30 million turnover within five years.

Park has branches in Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and Teesside with the strong possibility of further branches in the near future. In addition to its role as a wholesaler, the company has specialist divisions – Lighting Design, Energy Solutions, Building Technologies and Industrial Services – that deliver bespoke solutions to generate significant long term energy savings for end-user companies that is also proven to increase productivity and raise staff morale. Environmental stewardship is high on the company’s priority and this is achieved by focussing on Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology that significantly reduces carbon footprint.

Managing director, Barry Wilkinson, said: “We have steadily grown over the years and there have been highs and lows. You have to continually challenge the norm and trial new ways of working. However, you don’t always appreciate the quality that exists around you until you have exhausted other avenues.

“In 2003, with the turnover at about £7 million and with a growing customer base, I realised that I had to let go of some of the responsibility. The business was still essentially all about me and its culture was based on my behaviours and ways of doing things.

My approach was to encourage and support rather than being tough and forceful. I needed a balance to that and on two occasions I hired general managers. Regrettably, it just did not work and at that stage I decided to take a leadership role whilst forming a strong senior management team from within, utilising key skills from loyal, long serving people. The results were truly incredible.

“Without having recourse to external consultants for advice and guidance, we worked extremely hard to give each director clearly defined responsibilities and goals.”

Those directors are long serving colleagues Simon Mooney, (operations director), Bridget Harold (financial director) and Craig Hopwood (sales director). Joining them in 2013 was Ian Aitchison (commercial director). The impact of the establishment of a board of directors is seen by comparing 1990 – 2010 and the turnover of £10 million, to the period 2010 – 2016 where turnover doubled to £20 million.

“What I have found out about myself is that I can let go of day-to-day operational activities and my real strength is in guiding future strategy and direction. Time away from operational work gives you a much clearer perspective on the business, where the future opportunities are and to foresee any threats or difficulties much earlier.

“In the past two years we have put £500,000 into two further branches in Teesside and Newcastle with more to follow, invested in hybrid across our entire car fleet, have grown and developed our workforce and recruited high quality people from our competitors. Now we are firmly out of the recession we are seeing the return to healthy levels of performance.

Along with this investment has been the continual desire to diversify into new markets.

“Diversification was always important and when Simon Mooney joined in 1992 that process was underway. His background is in lighting design and we just naturally started to offer that service. It is now a specialist department with six people that offers advice and guidance to our branches, their trade customers and to end users. With the advent of LED lighting and the transformative effect this has on energy costs, the Lighting Design division is a very important part of the business, delivering 20% of overall company turnover.”

Around 2002 the company developed links with Siemens and was offered the opportunity to become involved in building control and automation. Siemens introduced Park to the KNX protocol and for the next ten years the company offered a design and installation service to higher-end residential properties across the UK.  By 2012 income from its Building Technologies Division was growing but the downside was that staff were continually travelling to the South East of England to carry out work, often at weekends, and the business was stretched.

At this point the division pivoted, withdrawing the installation service and reverting to the company’s core skill of wholesale distribution. It now focuses on online sales and distribution of KNX products through its web-shop www.myKNXstore.co.uk supporting key KNX brands like Gira, Theben and ABB. Furthermore, the company established only the second KNX Training Academy in the UK where it runs regular KNX certifications courses for electricians who want to learn the technology and move into new markets. This rapidly growing sector will result in Park’s Building Technology Division growing its current £1 million business to over £3 million this year as the UK’s No 1 KNX distributor. A second distribution and training centre in London later this year will support this growth.

The Industrial Services Division was established 10 years ago to meet the specific needs of customers in the manufacturing sector, where there is a demand for a wide range of product, a truly bespoke service that includes 24/7 support, stock held on the clients’ own premises and a dedicated team that visit the premises on a regular basis to replenish product.

Both the Industrial Services and Lighting Design Divisions work closely together and currently are thriving as UK manufacturing companies look to invest in new buildings and maintenance programmes at existing sites to meet exceptional demand from Europe for UK goods following the fall in sterling post Brexit.

Barry said: “In terms of future direction, the company is looking at its online strategy. While the public has embraced internet purchasing, the electrical wholesale sector is slow to move in this direction but this will change so we are looking to expand our branch network to fill in gaps across the North East, specifically targeting trade counter sales and click-and-collect customers.

“At Park we do already offer online purchasing via www.MyKNXstore and www.park-electrical.co.uk and we fully expect that this revenue will significantly increase in the next three years. However, the opportunity to service both trade and retail customers across the UK is almost certainly there and it is an area of obvious interest to us.

“Park’s Directors are supported by a highly committed and loyal workforce. We see the potential for colleagues to take on new roles and continue their career progression. They are younger and we fully expect them to mould the future direction of the business – especially in areas of technology and the internet. That said, we will always remember that businesses are built on strong customer relationships and an ingrained culture of trust, integrity and transparency.”

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