Workplace360: Simon, thank you for the welcome and tour of your facilities. Let’s delve into your background, as you are a fresh face for some readers.
Simon Allan-Brooks: My career began in the world of parcels and from there, I navigated through various roles across different sectors. The advantage of working in parcels is the exposure to a wide array of business sectors, spanning many industries and countries.
When I was 21, my Grandad was selling his business, which I wanted to buy. He quite rightly said: “Simon, you know nothing about writing a business plan for a bank. You’ve not got enough experience under your belt. If you want to run a business, you need to go and do X, Y and Z.”
I used that valuable feedback to expand my knowledge beyond my initial areas of specialisation which has ultimately propelled me to this point in my career. I’ve held positions in diverse fields, including working for a finance house, overseeing the financing of trucks and trailers, and gaining valuable insights into building a skilled workforce through a stint at a recruitment agency.
I’ve also gained extensive expertise in logistics and supply chain management, complemented by roles in both commercial and operational capacities.
Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of contributing to some of the most prominent brands in the UK, such as DPD, TNT, Antalis, and what is now known as Connect Group (formerly Smiths News). The opportunity then arose to step into the role of Logistics Director under the Office Depot banner – which, of course, is now Viking Office.
W360: That was back in 2020.
SA-B: Yes, amid the challenges of the COVID era. The business found itself in a phase of uncertainty, prompting the acceleration of plans initially slated for 2025. Given my background in driving transformative change, I helped facilitate the sale of the large customer account business. In addition to my role as Logistics Director, I assumed responsibility for orchestrating the transition out of the Office Depot brand while safeguarding the Viking side of our operations.
Subsequently, I was part of the due diligence team evaluating the potential of the UK segment in RAJA Group’s broader acquisition of parts of Office Depot Europe. In order to concentrate on expediting the growth plans, RAJA chose to regionalise a portion of the Viking business, beginning with the UK & Ireland. As part of this move, I was awarded the position of Managing Director in September 2022.
W360: I suppose that was a development that took many by surprise. Those in supply chain logistics tend to be more behind the scenes.
SA-B: Many who’ve interacted with me – whether within the organisation or from external circles – have expressed surprise at my approach and strong commercial acumen, especially considering my entry into managing director responsibilities from a logistics background. But I believe that it gives me an edge and translates into a well-rounded and pragmatic approach to decision-making.
W360: Now that the company is free from its private equity shackles, give us a view of where Viking UK & Ireland sits within the greater good.
SA-B: In terms of Viking UK & Ireland as part of Viking Europe, I’m an integral part of the European leadership team, reporting directly to Christa Furter, Managing Director of Viking Europe. I have a vested interest in the group as a whole and the UK & Ireland. This dual perspective makes a significant difference when trying to move Viking forward as a unified entity.
We meet regularly as a leadership group and Christa has created a truly forward-facing team. We roll our sleeves up and are very much hands-on in the daily operations. I believe this approach has paid dividends and is evident in the significant strides forward that have been made.
The UK & Ireland is the largest of the seven territories in the Viking Group in terms of turnover. Our organisational structure centralises functions like purchasing, finance, and marketing in Venlo, Netherlands. Meanwhile, local teams oversee critical responsibilities such as customer service, sales, supply chain, and local marketing.
RAJA’s involvement has been transformative in all the right ways. Under private equity ownership, if I’m honest, I think we had lost autonomy as an organisation. Now, while we stand on our own two feet, RAJA provides invaluable support, allowing us to invest in key areas for growth. We didn’t have that before. We work closely with RAJA Office Managing Director Alain Josse, who is a member of the Executive Committee of RAJA, reporting directly to our Group CEO Danièle Kapel-Marcovici.
Alain ensures we are living and acting on the values and beliefs that define RAJA, so of course our strategy is developed with him. Our overarching principles extend beyond a mere drive to succeed, they encompass a commitment to conducting business ethically and respectfully in all interactions with vendors, employees, and customers. During the ownership of Aurelius, I think it’s fair to say our relationships with vendors experienced great strain.
W360: That’s a polite way of putting it.
SA-B: Yes, and I have to maintain a degree of diplomacy about it. However, there was undoubtedly a notable degree of frustration. RAJA took proactive steps to rectify this, ensuring we approached our relations with vendors with fairness and respect. The group’s first act was to promptly settle the outstanding debts that had accrued under our previous ownership. We now stand in a position of considerable strength with both our supplier and customer base.
W360: Tell us about the autonomy that RAJA gives you and how it’s helping deliver the turnaround strategy.
SA-B: Viking UK & Ireland has always possessed the core elements essential for success, but there was also a need for a cultural shift, having been oriented heavily towards online and European markets.
RAJA has set out a playbook with clear fundamentals to achieve, with the onus on us to execute locally. But autonomy was given to us from day one. The team essentially handed us the toolbox and empowered us to make decisions while in the process, offering guidance and support. Essentially, RAJA steps in where needed but pushes us to deliver when we should.
W360: What have been the priorities and the key accomplishments so far in reshaping the business and changing the Viking culture?
SA-B: Shifting the organisational culture has been paramount. While there was a strong external perception of the business under the prior ownership, internally, we may have lacked clarity. The previous management team had kept a very tight lid on the true state of where we were as a business. This became very clear when RAJA took over.
RAJA’s initial focus was to overhaul the prevailing culture, transitioning from a mindset of accepting failure and stripping out cost to one of investing in growth. Fanatical customer service is something that Viking has always been famous for, and we had to bring the customer back to be central to the decisions we were making. We had lost sight of that.
Building upon this customer-centric approach has meant establishing closer customer proximity. By this, I mean more frequent customer interactions, reinstating excellent customer service, and assembling a dedicated field sales team.
W360: You brought customer service back from…
SA-B: We had previously outsourced our customer service operations with a location in South Africa. However, as of 31 March this year, we’ve successfully transitioned to a 100% UK-based customer service team. By the close of this year, each of our EU territories will have the same.
We can see that we are benefitting from the emphasis on close customer proximity. We’re growing our large client base here, prompting the reinstatement of a dedicated field sales team, and welcoming Peter D’Amery back as Sales Director has been instrumental in this effort. He’s working in collaboration with Brian Hall, our International Commercial Director.
W360: Let’s talk about customers and sales. Many people best know Viking for the catalogue mail order business and an emphasis on smaller clients. Office Depot for the contract space. It sounds like you’re going for everything.
SA-B: Spot on. RAJA has a clear multichannel strategy serving small, medium and large businesses. We are strong in capabilities to cater for large customers and this was the strategic focus the group wanted us to reinstate across all regions, although we had divested the contract business here in the UK.
This year, I’ve invested in a local team, allying them to the strength of Viking Group’s internal infrastructure and centralised resources. This means we are approaching the market confidently and delivering service excellence to customers. We’ve got the skill set, knowledge and know-how, and we are executing it under the Viking banner.
W360: You’re essentially competing with the business sold to OT Group.
SA-B: Exactly, and we make no bones about it. We are re-entering this market relatively aggressively as it’s a pivotal area for our expansion. While Viking is renowned for online and catalogues – and that model will not change – there is now a secondary focus: our resurgence in the large customer market. We’ve only been reinvesting in this area since April this year but we are winning business already.
W360: Who are you running up against besides the obvious OfficeTeam and Lyreco?
SA-B: They are our primary competitors, but Banner is another one, along with Complete, under its new guise within EVO Group. I believe we can succeed because we cater for small businesses as well as large corporate entities. It’s an advantage we hold over competitors that don’t have the luxury of a robust online business.
W360: What are you going to do differently?
SA-B: While it’s true that there are limitations on how much deviation is possible in this industry, we’ve made significant departures from the former owner’s approach. In previous times, the online segment operated independently from the contract and large customer divisions.
I hold full responsibility for the P&L statements across all business segments. This is crucial, as it ensures that every facet of the company is intrinsically linked to the overall growth strategy. Moreover, we possess a comprehensive 360° view of our customer base, with every team member aligned towards achieving the overall revenue goal rather than just having their focus on isolated elements.
W360: Could you share some key financial figures?
SA-B: Last year, our combined top-line figure for the UK & Ireland stood at €202 million (£175 million). Specifically, the UK contributed €185 million, with Ireland just shy of €18 million. Presently, a substantial 85% of our turnover stems from online operations. I would go as far as to say that, barring Amazon, Viking is the largest online reseller in our sector. The remaining portion consists of the sizeable corporate clients retained by us after the sale to OT Group.
We faced profitability challenges due to the tough years of the pandemic under the previous ownership. However, the Viking turnover has been strong and is very quickly turning the corner. The target is to return to profitability as a group this year.
W360: With inflationary factors in play, does growth remain viable?
SA-B: Absolutely, even when accounting for inflationary impacts. We’ve worked diligently to optimise product performance, particularly in strategic areas such as furniture. We’re very lucky to have the advantage of gleaning valuable insights from our RAJA Office sister companies like JPG and Mondoffice, enabling us to adopt effective practices that contribute to our growth.
W360: You mentioned Amazon. It’s a formidable competitor in our industry.
SA-B: Amazon is a formidable force with the potential to reshape the landscape at any given moment. That said, we’re fortified by a base of exceptionally loyal customers in the online sphere. Our Viking One loyalty programme demonstrates our distinctiveness against Amazon, adding tangible value to the customer through offerings like Nectar for Business.
Acquiring new customers against Amazon remains tricky, particularly with the new generation of buyers who tend to gravitate towards Amazon first. Adapting to ever-evolving buying preferences is essential.
W360: You just showed me a warehouse full of boxes being shifted. With some companies moving focus from products to services, how does this factor into your business plan?
SA-B: Currently, we need to focus on what we’re good at, and that’s shifting boxes. Last year alone, we dispatched over four million boxes, equivalent to more than 250,000-300,000 pallets of products to our customers. While some regional players are diversifying into services, we don’t see an immediate priority for such a change.
W360: You’ve transitioned from ‘office supplies’ to ‘workplace supplies’. Do you see these new categories as sufficient for the coming years?
SA-B: Our attention on expanding beyond traditional office supplies aligns precisely with the evolving nature of workspaces. This is evident in our recent launch of the business showroom, recognising the multiple ways workplaces operate. Our diversification encompasses a broader range of categories within the working environment – furniture, jan/san, work-from-home, co-working spaces, and more.
W360: In terms of growth categories, where does the major emphasis lie?
SA-B: Our focus is on the furniture and interiors category, influenced by the evolving dynamics of office and home office environments. Then, there’s also jan/san. What’s interesting is the shift towards companies taking direct charge of their cleaning supplies, with employees having to chip in and clean the kitchen and put the dishwasher on now. We see these two category segments as the largest opportunity.
But we also remain committed to upholding our legacy in office stationery. We need to remember that heritage while simultaneously looking at how to drive innovation in this area. Over the next few years, we’ll be closely monitoring which manufacturers are leading the way.
W360: Staying with vendors, what’s your priority in terms of branded and own-brand products?
SA-B: We’re currently embarking on change with our own-brand offerings, and while I can’t give too many secrets away, it will be a big push for us in 2024. This will not only allow us to elevate our brand awareness in the contract market but is also a prime opportunity to provide high-quality products at competitive prices. This will give us an edge, certainly in that small to medium sector.
Having said that, I also think that vendors have an opportunity to retain and grow market share based on ingenuity. They will continue to expand, develop and challenge their product ranges, particularly in the area of sustainability.
W360: The old Office Depot business had a well-deserved reputation for ESG leadership. How do you ensure these attributes remain central amid the cultural shift you mentioned earlier?
SA-B: It’s a distinct advantage that, although we divested the old brand, Viking retained the invaluable talent and expertise that contributed to its past success. Our ESG and CSR team, based in Venlo, has been strengthened. Danièle [RAJA Group CEO] has underscored this commitment by appointing a CSR director at group level.
We’re securing contracts based on the robustness of our ESG commitments and the results achieved across the whole of RAJA and RAJA Office. At a local level, this commitment forms a cornerstone of the journey we’re embarking on with our large customers. We’ve brought on board individuals who possess a deep understanding of this critical aspect of our business.
W360: I want to talk about technology because I believe you’ve got a fairly new tech team.
SA-B: Technology is pivotal to our operations. We maintain a sizable tech team based in Milton Keynes that serves all seven of our EU territories. Their responsibilities are threefold:
Firstly, they ensure the internal systems and infrastructure run smoothly, encompassing vital functions like managing laptops and email services. Secondly, they provide critical support for our supply chain operations. As you’ve seen walking through the warehouse, it is 50% automated and 50% manual.
Lastly, we have a dedicated team of architects who keep Viking at the forefront of technology, ensuring we stay current with best practice for e-commerce platforms. This intelligence is then channelled into our marketing efforts.
W360: Are you utilising AI in your business?
SA-B: Yes. More recently, in our supply chain operations, it’s been instrumental in predicting delivery patterns and strategically determining where to collaborate with final mile providers on a geographic basis.
W360: AI’s the future, yet you maintain a catalogue.
SA-B: The catalogue remains integral to our marketing strategy. It’s a visual tool that customers find easy to navigate and a useful additional resource for our customer service teams. However, we’re equally committed to substantial investments in our online platform.
W360: Let’s finish by talking about broader industry issues. There have certainly been some interesting developments over the past year or so.
SA-B: I don’t think anyone saw the EVO-Complete deal coming. Let’s also not forget that the disruptive influence of COVID prompted businesses to reevaluate their strategies, leading to exploration in various sectors and services.
We might witness some businesses committing wholly to the services they’re venturing into, finding greater opportunities in those areas. This could pave the way for increased consolidation. Over the next 12-24 months, it wouldn’t be surprising to see attempts to replicate what former CEO Richard Coulson tried with Complete. As businesses rebound, now might be the opportune time to do that.
I’m particularly intrigued to see how Spicers and VOW position themselves from a wholesaler standpoint and keen to witness Antalis take a more assertive stance in the market. On the reseller side, I can see further consolidation. What that looks like, I’m not 100% sure.
W360: Does that make Viking/RAJA an active participant at some point?
SA-B: RAJA Group likes to acquire businesses. If the right opportunity arises, we may consider it, as any good organisation should. Our present focus though is on being brilliant at what we’re good at and assessing the landscape from there.