Workplace360: Congratulations on your 2023 BOSS Reseller of the Year over £5 million award. You’ve added another trophy to the cabinet.
Colin Campbell: Thank you. We are delighted, especially as the last time we entered was in 2014 when we won the award for the third year in a row. We chose not to enter the following year and shortly after, our journey took an unexpected turn.
The company is headquartered in Aberdeen and felt the full force of the worst recession in the Scottish oil and gas industry’s history, decimating a lot of our customer base. Our sales halved in the space of a year, so we had to navigate the aftermath of that brutal recession and reset, redefine our identity and rebuild.
W360: Sounds like you needed to future-proof your business if it was so reliant on one industry…
CC: We survived the recession because we had recognised the risks years before and had expanded beyond North East Scotland and the oil sector by acquiring companies in Dundee in the 1990s and Edinburgh in 2005. Although Langstane was already the largest office products dealer in Scotland, there was untapped potential for developing business in the central belt – Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Just as we had clawed our way back from the oil recession, there was another setback with the COVID pandemic. However, we were in a better position than most as during the strategic efforts to grow our presence in the central belt we had bid for the NHS public sector contract for office furniture.
We secured a position on the framework agreement in our initial attempt and by the time COVID struck, Langstane was the number one office furniture supplier to NHS Scotland. We’d also taken a sideways step, identifying an opportunity in patient care furniture. While it involves a different setting – placing furniture in wards instead of offices – it’s logistically similar.
We’ve been chipping away at this for several years and as of 1 December 2023, Langstane also claimed the number one spot in NHS Scotland for patient care furniture. The NHS contract for both office and patient care furniture is worth £20 million over four years.
W360: In 2021, furniture accounted for 46% of your sales. Is that figure continuing to head north?
CC: It fluctuates but presently stands at 42% and is on an upward trend.
The public sector, particularly the NHS, has become a real success for us, and it’s all within the supply of furniture. It’s a departure from conventional office supplies and newer product ranges the industry is pushing, which typically lean towards consumables. Furniture requires different skills, strategies and expertise, which Langstane has cultivated over a long period. Now, it is a leading component of who we are.
W360: But isn’t it vulnerable to economic swings?
CC: It is, especially in the private sector. However, in the public sector, during COVID, our involvement escalated with the NHS. In Glasgow, for instance, a temporary hospital required outfitting and we were actively involved. Serviced well, the public sector also tends to pay faster than the private sector.
There can be fragility during bouts of reduced spending in the private sector, but what often happens is customer consolidation. Even when this occurs, they’re still investing in their setups – whether it’s new furniture for the restructured space or accommodating staff working from home, which spawns all kinds of prospects.
One great facet of furniture is the reverse of the usual one-stop shop that tends to start with consumables. When you come at it from the furniture angle – particularly in the early stages of a new building, for example – not only do we provide the furniture, but we can seize opportunities in all the other necessary supplies during the process.
W360: This is a far cry from where the company started, yet Langstane remains a proud family-owned business.
CC: Our history traces back to The Langstane Press – a commercial printing venture started by my late father and two uncles after World War II. We began in 1947 as a printing company in Aberdeen (Ed’s note: the company was based in Langstane Place, named after the Lang Stane) and swiftly expanded into stationery, recognising that the two go together like bacon and eggs.
The kind of print we did was then known as commercial jobbing print – basically, printed materials companies needed in an office. It very much supported the idea that we could sell clients stationery as well as a filing cabinet, chair, desk, typewriter etc.
W360: Are you still printing?
CC: Absolutely, though it has shifted to digital presses, with full-colour capabilities and wide format printing – signs and banners, pop-up displays, exhibition displays, wall posters, etc. We still do business cards and letterheads here and there, but digital has opened up a bigger world of full colour at the exciting end of print. It’s also quicker.
W360: You joined Langstane in 1974, marking 50 years now.
CC: It sounds odd to say, but it doesn’t feel like that long ago. I was 18 and going to university to do a business studies degree. Then, at the last minute, I asked my father if I could miss out university and join Langstane right away. He was delighted, and two weeks after leaving school, I started on what has become an amazing journey.
W360: Can you recall the size of the company when you first joined?
CC: In 1974, our turnover was £280,000. When my father retired and I became Managing Director in 1987, we were at £2.6 million, which was quite substantial for a regional dealer back then. We harboured ambitions to surpass this, and my goal was to push past £10 million.
W360: When did you achieve that?
CC: We managed to push past that milestone back in 1997.
W360: What were the figures before the recession you spoke of earlier?
CC: We were at over £20 million before the oil recession, reaching a run rate of £24 million. We’re currently at £19 million, a significant bounce back from a low of £12 million.
W360: Just to even be here…
CC: Exactly. Much of it boils down to the resilience we’ve built up. Langstane celebrated 75 years in 2022 and weathered every national and global recession during that time, not to mention local oil and gas ones – there have been a few.
There is no limit to what we can supply. If a customer is uncertain where to find something, their first thought should be: “We’ll try Langstane. They’ll probably have it or know where to get it.”
W360: Is that your USP? It should be a difficult area given your location and being a magnet for the Lyrecos and Vikings of our world attracted to the oil and gas industry.
CC: Our main competitors have invariably been the national and international giants, but we’ve faced them down, and you can’t beat being local and close to the action.
Take our setup, for instance, with headquarters in Aberdeen and bases in Dundee and Livingston. A larger company might opt for a centralised telephone support service. Not us. When a customer asks if a delivery can be made to a local address this afternoon, someone sitting in the call centre 200 miles away wouldn’t have a clue. Our local teams know where that is and go the extra mile, even if it means dropping off the delivery on their way home.
W360: Does this advantage hold against e-commerce and Amazon?
CC: It certainly provides something to hang onto, ensuring enough business is retained to be successful. We’ll never beat the giants, but we can always be competitive.
Langstane also has long-serving, loyal, experienced employees and always has. It’s priceless. With larger firms, personnel tend to change every five minutes. It’s a revolving door, whereas we’re consistent, reliable and stable. We’re also particularly good at response times, jumping through hoops and bending over backwards to meet customer needs.
W360: I’m guessing the nearest wholesaler is some miles away, so maintaining a few thousand product lines must be an advantage.
CC: We have 3,500 SKUs in stock. Early on, we established ourselves as a stockholding dealer because, back in the 1950s and 60s, there were no local wholesalers in Scotland. This shifted during the heyday of wholesalers like Spicers and John Heath, each having branches in Scotland. It was brilliant because anything we lacked could be purchased from them overnight, with deliveries arriving before we opened the next day.
There are no longer any wholesalers in Scotland, and they struggle to get goods to us overnight. One major wholesaler now takes the best part of two days to get products to us, so we can’t rely on them for the high service standards we want to offer our customers. Being proficient at stockholding has become even more important these past few years due to the shifting operations of wholesalers. At Langstane, self-reliance is ingrained; we always aim to have the A lines in stock and use wholesalers for the B and C lines.
W360: Is same-day delivery still a necessity?
CC: In theory, if a customer needs one of those 3,500 SKUs, they can get it today. Even if we can’t deliver, they have the option to collect it themselves – an advantage our national competitors lack. Smaller local dealers rely more on the wholesaler, again giving us an edge.
W360: So your location’s remoteness can sometimes work in your favour?
CC: Sometimes. Is same-day delivery frequently requested? No. However, it strengthens our customer relationships because it acts like an insurance policy – they know if they’re ever desperate, Langstane will come through.
Admittedly, this isn’t Scotland-wide; we don’t have warehouses everywhere. Yet, for areas local to our Aberdeen warehouse, same-day delivery is feasible, and often, customers even receive goods twice a day.
W360: Beyond furniture, print and traditional stationery items, what else is in your product mix?
CC: I doubt Langstane is any different from the rest of the industry when I say we’re still witnessing notable growth in jan/san, along with breakroom and catering.
We do a lot of promotional products, which is aligned with print in terms of the expertise required for aspects such as artwork and design. Given our historical involvement in the category, particularly for workwear and similar areas, we’ve been quite comfortable with exploiting any opportunities.
Packaging has emerged as an area with lots of potential, and we’ve recently explored the possibility of supplying tools.
W360: I noticed a stack of catalogues in the reception area. The fact you’re even producing a catalogue of that size in itself might surprise some.
CC: We surprised ourselves. We used to release one every year, but the last was in 2019 due to the pandemic. The debate went on for months about whether it was worth it, but ultimately, we decided to give it another shot. Although hard work, the catalogue was launched last October. Who knows, there might never be another one.
W360: Hence the event you held.
CC: We hold a product show every couple of years, and since it had been four years without a catalogue, it was unveiled at the event. It’s not just ‘old-fashioned’ customers who use the catalogue as even those purchasing from our webstore and ordering via electronic means find value in it. How much life it still has, I don’t know, but we’re enjoying it being well-received.
It’s like same-day delivery – maybe not used all the time, but buyers like the idea that it’s available.
W360: Regarding online orders, do you have stats on the percentage placed via your webstore?
CC: I do. We’ve consistently invested in refining our e-commerce offering, making it a priority. For what we term traditional consumables, around 60% of our customers now prefer using our webstore as their primary ordering platform. For all sales, excluding furniture, approximately 40% go through online.
W360: Are you happy with this?
CC: It’s going in the right direction. Obviously, we want to look after our customers, retain them and ensure they’re not attracted to other webstores. But does a 24/7 presence online attract new business?
We’d always been a little sceptical about who would buy a random product from Langstane in Aberdeen. But recent examples include orders from Londonderry in Northern Ireland, a PA to an accountant in Paris, and the best one was the purchase of an in/out board for a yacht berthed off Palma, Majorca!
W360: Is this a platform you’ve created internally?
CC: It’s Evolution-X. We are contributing to its development and recently, we’ve seen substantial success with a new bulk buy option. We also have some customers, notably in the oil and gas industry, who buy through their own electronic portals.
We’ve been an ECI Horizon user for many years and use additional software such as VantagePoint for reporting, PrintSmith for the print side and the promotional products team needs specialist software too, so they use QuoteWerks. We make it all come together by investing in our in-house IT department.
W360: How confident are you that you can fend off the threat of Amazon, which is maybe a bit slow to get to your part of the world?
CC: While Amazon might not have a physical presence here, its delivery capabilities are excellent. Though it can’t do same-day, its next-day is probably even better than ours at times.
I don’t think we’ll ever beat Amazon and just have to live with that. Indeed, we’ve even procured items from Amazon – reluctantly spending £120,000 in the past year on the platform – either out of necessity or due to customer requests.
We’re not going to cut off our nose to spite our face. If we can get something quicker at the right price from Amazon, we’ll do it.
W360: Talking about purchasing, are you part of any buying group, dealer group or cooperative?
CC: Langstane was a founding member of the first marketing group, Basicnet, later OfficeSmart, from 1991 until 2007. By then, our size and operational scale had grown to a level where the benefits to us became less significant, so we left.
W360: Should there be a model designed for dealers of your size? Or perhaps larger entities like yours should form a cooperative?
CC: There have been plenty of informal discussions about it. Spicers used to bring its top dealers together for mini-conferences and industry discussions. There’s always been a feeling that something similar could be of benefit.
Post-COVID, my mood has been one of resetting the business – reset is a term I frequently use. As part of this re-evaluation, we pondered whether to consider the merits of joining a dealer group.
Upon review, it was felt we still didn’t need a group for buying. However, what has been missed is a platform for networking with other dealers and additional marketing and training resources, so we are currently exploring our options.
W360: I want to talk to you about sustainability. Your business is of a fairly substantial size, so how are you preparing for all the inevitable legislation and targets?
CC: We have a senior manager whose main responsibilities are quality assurance and environmental matters. She has a lot on her plate keeping updated with current legislation, let alone any that may appear in the future.
I would say we’re at the forefront of where we need to be on sustainability; the company has held ISO 14001 for years. Every tender we participate in invariably includes a sustainability section. It is becoming integral not just for competitiveness but also as a moral obligation towards our planet. It’s crucial to have both those heads on when deciding what to do next.
Naturally, the affordability factor is inevitably in the equation. For instance, we’re currently assessing our heating systems and exploring various options – from solar panels to alternative heating methods – weighing the costs and benefits. We’ve set targets for reducing our vehicle emissions, although acquiring new vans within a specific band is proving to be quite a challenge. We’re on a journey, but there’s still a long way to go.
W360: I’ve heard you do an end-of-year briefing for your staff. What was covered in the latest one?
CC: We were able to reflect on some of the outside pressures like Brexit, the conflict in Ukraine, inflation and the post-COVID business landscape. However, we can only control what we do and the briefing was very positive due to favourable numbers in recent years. We shared our future growth plans, including looking at acquisition opportunities.
You’ve asked about our competitive edge a few times. I always tell our staff the one thing we possess, which our competitors don’t, is our people. It’s what makes us different, it’s every single individual, it’s the whole team. If everyone does what they’re expected to do, it’s a powerful force.
W360: Do you think your team sees you as someone approaching the end of your career, and are they concerned about what happens when you eventually retire?
CC: In recent years, our recovery from the oil and gas recession, followed by getting over the impact of the pandemic, have been my biggest priorities. Contemplating my retirement was only going to be an option once we were stable and heading in the right direction.
The company is now growing again, we are in a stable and strong financial position, and on 3 June, it will be exactly 50 years since I started work at Langstane. It has, therefore, become very clear to me that when that day finally arrives, it will be the perfect time for me to step down from the Managing Director role and retire from the day-to-day management of the business.
From that date, and it’s no surprise to our team, my successor as Managing Director will be Mark Campbell, my cousin’s son, who, with over 30 years in the company, is more than ready for the challenge. I will be taking on the role of Chairman, so I will always be available to Mark as his mentor and biggest supporter.
In the meantime, it’s business as usual and I look forward to working with Mark and the senior management team over the next six months to ensure a smooth transition towards the beginning of a new chapter.
W360: That seems like a fitting way to conclude this interview. I wish you all the best.