Blakes Workplace Solutions, once a one-man band in a spare bedroom, has defied the odds as owner Michael Byrne recalls his first customer was a local golf club that placed a small order worth £20. Fast-forward seven years and Blakes is now generating £2 million in sales and has moved into new facilities in December 2022, equipped with office space, a warehouse and a furniture showroom.
Byrne, who has over 20 years’ industry experience, credits his sales expertise and an introduction to former Nectere owner Paul Musgrove for laying the groundwork for his entrepreneurial venture.
During the initial stages of the business, Byrne relied on three credit cards and his modest savings to keep the fledgling company afloat. The early days were fraught with financial difficulties and doubts, but a stroke of luck in the form of a substantial furniture order after Christmas breathed new life into the dealer. Reflecting on those times, Byrne says: “It was heavy-going in the beginning.”
The COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges but also presented unexpected opportunities for Blakes. Sensing the demand, the company swiftly pivoted its operations to supply PPE, resulting in a significant surge in sales. Additionally, a fortuitous collaboration with a major client requiring a shipment of face masks to Spain, acted as a catalyst for invaluable referrals and recommendations, catapulting the company’s growth and reputation.
The pandemic-induced boost propelled Blakes to new heights, enabling Byrne to finally realise his long-standing plan to be independent. Departing from Nectere during COVID, he is keen to emphasise the platform’s benefits for aspiring entrepreneurs, recommending it as a launchpad for those seeking to establish their own ventures.
Inspired by a personal bugbear borne out of working for a couple of decades in our industry, Byrne invested in a reliable back-office system with Prima Software and the EvolutionX e-commerce platform. “My patience had evaporated with clients phoning for a price on a roll of Sellotape, and knew I needed a great e-commerce site where I could add a realistic margin on everything. Whereas many companies went RRP down, we went cost up, meaning all customers receive a competitive price regardless of whether it’s on their core list or not.
“It was a game changer. I could direct customers to the website to order unless they needed a bulky purchase like workwear or furniture. It has freed up my time to focus on gaining new business,” he notes.
To this end, there has been a substantial shift towards online sales, which now accounts for approximately 80% of general office supplies sales. While some customers still prefer traditional methods such as phone or email orders, the convenience and efficiency of online purchasing have revolutionised the company’s sales dynamics.
Blakes is currently affiliated with Office Friendly, with VOW as its main wholesaler for office supplies, and it also holds an account with Exertis Supplies. The furniture division stands as the core focus of Blakes, constituting around 65% of sales. The remainder primarily comprises general office products, jan/san supplies, and workwear. In an effort to enhance its workwear offerings, the dealer recently partnered with a local embroidery company to expedite the garment customisation process.
Furniture is Byrne’s true passion – follow him on LinkedIn for the video evidence – and the primary focus of Blakes Workplace Solutions. The ability to work directly with manufacturers has provided two significant advantages, he reports: exceptional service and competitive pricing.
Collaborations with strategic partners and local
fit-out firms have been crucial in the company’s success, enabling the dealer to offer turnkey solutions and comprehensive workplace fit-out facilities. These alliances help differentiate Blakes from other dealers, as it provides personalised consultations with full design packages including 3D visuals and tailored quotations.
Partnering with external resources such as the fit-out firms also allows Byrne to maintain a lean structure, employing only six staff. Acknowledging his strengths and weaknesses has enabled Byrne to source the right staff to ensure the dealer operates at maximum efficiency, agility and adaptability.
As a result, at the beginning of the year, Commercial Finance Manager Rachel Walker was made a company director. Already in charge of running office operations, she is also the force behind Blakes’ sustainability drive, which has seen the dealer recently receive a silver award in waste management through Office Friendly’s social sustainability programme, Weaver.
Says Walker: “This award is just the beginning. The next tasks are to eliminate single-use packaging and reduce our carbon footprint – all actions that we’re currently working on. We will also continue to improve our waste management practices.”
The gold standard
Blakes owes its thriving status and £300,000 annual growth to its unwavering commitment to customer satisfaction. By prioritising client relationships and delivering tailor-made solutions, the dealer has built a diverse and loyal purchasing base across various sectors. Its core philosophy revolves around integrity, offering honest advice and ensuring they receive exceptional service. As Byrne proudly declares: “We’re a small team but incredibly passionate about what we do. Although it’s a cliché, we treat our customers like gold.”
He adds: “We’re not a typical sales company. By that, I mean we don’t go in for the hard sell; it’s about relationships and being a partner within their business. I believe the key point is to treat people how you would like to be treated. You’re more powerful this way, because if you’re just selling on price, someone will inevitably undercut you. We always try to underpromise and overdeliver.”
Rising to the challenge
Even in the face of inflationary economic challenges and the current cost-of-living crisis, Byrne views these circumstances as a chance to acquire new business by offering cost-effective solutions and building relationships with clients in need. He asserts: “If you ask the right questions, there are always opportunities.”
Blakes has successfully secured contracts in its local trading area with public sector organisations, including hospitals, colleges and Merseyside fire brigade. An investment in search engine optimisation and digital marketing strategies has played a pivotal role in securing these deals.
However, while the constant demand for furniture and workplace supplies across multiple sites is appreciated, Byrne is discerning when it comes to the lengthy tendering process, selectively choosing what to bid on based on established relationships and perceived chances of success.
Remaining rooted in Liverpool while serving clients nationwide, there are no plans for geographical expansion. However, amid ongoing dealer consolidation, Byrne remains open to potential acquisitions, emphasising that any such endeavours must align with the company’s ethics and values. “I’ve seen it so many times where companies try and expand too quickly and end up in failure. We’ve been growing at a nice, steady pace over the past seven years; it’s manageable and we’re heading in the right direction,” he concludes.