Spreading far and wide
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Andy Wilson, Syndico’s managing director, tells Sam Fenwick the story of how his distribution company came to be, the challenges it faced, and its recent foray into France

Looking back, it seems hard to believe that Syndico has been up and running only since May 2015. Since then it has grown to become a business that is on target to achieve a turnover of around £8m for the current trading year and was recognised with the Hytera Diamond Award last year as the supplier’s number-one distributor in just its third year of trading.

But how did it all begin? “It started with my departure from another distribution business,” says Wilson. “Shortly afterwards, I was introduced to Hytera UK’s managing director. By that point they had been looking for a distribution partner for about six months or a year because they had more interest from lots of resellers in the UK than they could handle by themselves.

“I didn’t really know what I was going to do at the time but after five or six meetings, they said that if I could raise the funding to start a distribution business and place some stock orders with them, they’d be happy to make me Hytera’s official UK distributor.

“So I busily went off to find some finance, which I found through some old venture capitalist contacts of mine. I put together a solid business plan, which set out how the Hytera brand would develop in the UK. They thought it looked like a good idea and provided us with the start-up capital we needed to obtain some premises, to place an initial stock order with Hytera, and employ a couple of guys to help us in the office – and we never looked back.”

Grappling with growth

Wilson adds that naturally there were some growing pains, and in some respects Syndico still has to grapple with them because of its high growth rate. However, back in 2015, problem “number one” was having to start from scratch – “we started off just having boxes on the warehouse floor”, while the office also lacked the communications equipment needed to take orders from resellers. Wilson and his small team also had to recruit the staff needed to deliver the service that Syndico’s resellers were expecting.

“We were very lucky as we were able to recruit some old hands from the industry. I happened to know someone personally who was a warehouse manager. I also appointed a very experienced (and very wise) chairman to ensure we didn’t make any ‘classic’ mistakes that a young, entrepreneurially led organisation might make. We managed to recruit Gareth Jones, who was a customer-facing sales-type person; Shona Barnett, our operations director, is an expert on a back-office system called Access Dimensions.

“Shona also had a family friend who is now our partner relationship manager and who does a fantastic job; she had no experience whatsoever so she had to learn from scratch. So we started with five people and with friends and family as employees.”

Since then Syndico has grown its headcount to 18 people (soon to become 21) and that expansion has been “much more tricky because you’re dealing with so many more personalities”. As a result, Wilson says it has been a challenge to find the right people and ensure that they fit in well. The company’s growth has also meant that “lots of us are now managing people, having never done so before”. To address this, Syndico became an Investor in People and has spent heavily on training.

Returning to the company’s early days, Wilson explains that when it came to placing its first order with Hytera, “for the most part we had no idea what we were ordering. Apart from the handsets, we weren’t sure which parts of the portfolio were fast movers and which were slow movers – requiring lots of technical upfront knowledge to set up.”

This knowledge gap was filled through Syndico’s team working closely with their counterparts at Hytera, “who supported us from day one”. Wilson adds: “We relied on them to advise us on what products we should be stocking heavily, and which ones we shouldn’t. They helped our technical guy and we got lots of support in our first trading year as well because we didn’t have our own qualified technical support until about eight months in.”

This came with its own challenges. “It was difficult at first because we were the first pure distributor [one that only sells to channel partners] that Hytera had ever worked with. So they weren’t used to a company placing large orders on them and processing them in one go. It’s been a learning curve for both companies. Over time, both teams got to know each other on a personal level, and that really helped.”

Pushing the boat out

Another obstacle was that of image: “We had to overcome the idea in the channel that it was just myself and Shona selling radios out of my back-garden shed,” Wilson says. The solution? “A really big dealer launch day.

“We launched the company aboard HMS Warrior in Portsmouth, which was very apt as we felt like we were going to war with certain other companies in the marketplace. The venue was close enough to us that the resellers that attended the event could come and look at our offices and our warehouse the next day and see that we were set up from the outset to be a big player.”

But what of cash-flow – which has been the demise of many a promising start-up? Wilson explains that Syndico has been “very lucky in that regard”, largely because its performance in its first six months of trading very closely matched that forecast in its business plan. The actual results differed in one way from the plan in that “our profitability was significantly greater than forecast because we conservatively estimated the margins that we’d be making. That gave our investors confidence. This was vital as the more successful we became, the more significant our debtors’ ledger would be. We also made Hytera aware that we might need the occasional exceptional deal from them and they were keen to work with us on this once they’d seen and gained confidence in the work that we were doing with the channel.”

A bigger slice of the pie

Winding the clock forward to the present day, Wilson says Syndico’s current challenge is maintaining its growth. “All our partners, be they our investors or our supplier, such as Hytera, 3M Peltor and Savox, have become used to our rate of growth and they want it to continue forever. That gets harder as we grow and increase our market share. We’ve managed to maintain our growth rate and we’ve got a few more years of it ahead, but we have to manage our supplier partners’ expectations because the market is only so big.”

Wilson and his team are conscious of the fact that many rapidly growing companies fall by the wayside because they become blind to anything other than day-to-day firefighting. To avoid this trap, “our management team makes plenty of time for strategic meetings and planning to ensure the long-term health of the business”. This includes making sure that the company’s expansion plans are managed and controlled, “rather than jumping at every opportunity that is offered to us”.

Even at this point, Wilson says he has been offered opportunities to partner with manufacturers “that just aren’t a good fit for the business at the moment, and we have politely rejected these opportunities without (hopefully!) shutting the door on future trade agreements”.

One opportunity that Syndico has enthusiastically embraced lies on the other side of the English Channel. Hytera offered it the opportunity to become its official distributor in France, in late 2017, based on its performance in the UK, and Wilson and his colleagues took Hytera up on the offer in January this year, seeing it as the “next logical step for the business”.

“We have dedicated sales and administration offices in Dijon, with personnel who are permanently based in France, as we thought that if we are going to commit to the French channel, the best way to show it would be to have a physical presence,” Wilson explains.

He adds that during the set-up of Syndico’s French operations, “the number-one goal was to make sure our existing customer base was not adversely affected by the increase in orders we were inevitably going to see, so we brought in an administrator to liaise with the French office and an extra pair of hands in the warehouse before the agreement began and, thankfully, it has meant no interruption to service for our existing UK partners”.

Wilson goes on to say that although Syndico, through its role as Savox’s Master Distributor for Europe for its Vigilite range of products, was already dealing extensively in Europe, and therefore had the systems and processes to deal with the euro, customs, taxation and so on prior to its expansion into France, the lessons it has learnt from doing so “stand us in good stead to continue Syndico’s international expansion”.

While Wilson accepts that good fortune has played some role in the company’s growth, he is keen to attribute the bulk of it to the hard work, perseverance and hunger for success of the entire Syndico team and that of its partners. “It’s been a really great journey for us and everyone involved in Syndico. My name gets used a lot in the press and in the industry, but it’s the whole team and the partnerships that we’ve developed that have led to this success.”

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