Workplace360: Let’s start with an overview of your career.
Adam Huttly: My entry into this sector was somewhat serendipitous. A friend working at an office supplies dealer thought I’d excel in sales, and that’s when I discovered a knack for connecting with people. However, over time, I grew disillusioned with the industry, so I made the leap and established my own firm, Red-Inc, in 2008 – a crazy move considering the global recession.
The mission was never about scaling a company with an army of salespeople peddling anything to anyone – it had to do with reshaping the industry narrative. Could I pioneer a business model with deeper meaning, value and purpose? I wanted to break free from the conventional dialogues around turnover and headcounts that dominated the conversation for decades.
I measure our success as a small enterprise by the impact we have on all the company’s stakeholders – staff, the community, clients and suppliers as well as the environment. Although we may not have recognised it at the time, Red-Inc essentially operates as a triple bottom line business, placing equal emphasis on people, planet and profit. It is a perspective guiding every decision made.
W360: In 2008, sustainability wasn’t even a ‘thing’.
AH: Exactly. Back then, sustainability was not part of the conversation, whereas now it’s used 3,000 times a day. While somewhat of an overused term, it encapsulates the complex discourse perfectly.
I aimed to construct something of value, rigorously considering everything from product selection and logistics to staff wellbeing. It also included ensuring a work culture free of the toxicity frequently associated with high-pressure sales environments. Reflecting on the early days of Red-Inc, our focus was very much on the green agenda – prioritising recycling and implementing initiatives that benefitted customers and the broader community.
W360: How does Red-Inc operate today?
AH: We’re a bit of a mix. We have our own warehouse, which primarily serves some of our larger clients with specific needs. It allows us to maintain a high level of control and deliver a platinum-level service. Despite being known for sustainable office supplies, the core focus is always on our customers – how can we consistently amaze, leave a lasting impression and provide unparalleled value?
This ties back to my aversion to an industry built on a ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ mentality. We all know that if you win customers based solely on price, you will lose them in the same way. I didn’t want to spend the next few decades of my career in this cycle.
While the decision to have the warehouse was prompted by client demands, we still rely on wholesalers for deliveries – particularly for our large national contracts with major corporations. As a small company, handling such logistics internally would be impractical.
W360: You mentioned serving large corporate clients while considering Red-Inc to be a micro business. How do you manage this?
AH: Despite being a relatively minor operation, we’ve cultivated an incredibly talented team. The size of our staff or sales figures is secondary. We’ve secured tenders with corporates because they are forward-thinking and seek something beyond the conventional office supplies dealer.
Red-Inc’s approach and language set us apart, as do extensive value-added services and a long-standing commitment to sustainability, with the latter positioning us as a leader in the field. For instance, our carbon footprint has been diligently tracked internally since 2016 and we’re also a certified B Corp.
W360: Clearly, your value-added services are a significant aspect of what makes Red-Inc unique. Could you elaborate?
AH: When we engage with clients, business supplies is never the primary focus of our conversation. The industry has historically revolved around two main selling points – next-day delivery and competitive pricing. I was convinced there had to be more to it, something which resonated on a deeper, more emotionally compelling level.
Over the years, we’ve created numerous USPs, allowing us to enjoy extensive discussions concerning our offering without even mentioning product. It’s so distinct customers are often surprised; some even ask if we ever plan to talk about selling office supplies.
I’m aiming for them to understand our operations, which encompass a wide array of programmes and innovative ideas. For starters, there’s our deep commitment to decarbonising supply chains. Then there is opting not to provide next-day delivery – a decision that often leaves people open-mouthed.
Obviously, we can’t just say we’re not doing it; customers need to appreciate why. So they are provided with data on the CO2 savings resulting from reduced deliveries; once presented with the evidence, they realise the impracticality of next-day deliveries. For Red-Inc, there are additional benefits, such as larger order values and not having to rush through picking and packing overnight for early morning dispatch.
We collaborate with clients to establish mutually agreeable terms of delivery. We’ve even transitioned to quarterly deliveries for some of the bigger corporate partners. The impact on the journey towards decarbonising the supply chain and achieving net zero targets is incredible.
W360: Let’s talk about your deliveries in the context of reaching net zero.
AH: Our primary service provider is DPD, and while certain segments of the delivery process utilise electric vehicles, it’s not perfect. Currently, having an electric service from start to finish isn’t feasible. There’s still a need for someone to trunk the products and the necessary infrastructure for electric vehicles is not yet in place.
Maintaining transparency and avoiding greenwashing is paramount. One of the first rules of sustainability is honesty and acknowledging what can be achieved and what can’t. Some of the most engaging conversations I’ve had with other companies revolve around the challenges they face, not just their successes.
We’ve aligned with DPD because of its vision of achieving net zero, which matches our target set for 2040. Back to my earlier point, it’s important to recognise that some tasks won’t be accomplished by some miracle tomorrow or even in the forthcoming years. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Hitting net zero hinges on us all moving in the same direction and the emergence of supporting technologies in due course.
W360: How do you ensure your customers fully grasp the significance of carbon reduction?
AH: In addition to furnishing clients with detailed reports on the carbon footprint of their purchases, we take the initiative to offset any remaining emissions at our own expense. It serves as a tangible demonstration of our commitment to addressing this critical issue. It is a topic we actively integrate into client conversations, reviews and collaborative efforts to drive improvement.
W360: Offsetting remains quite a contentious issue…
AH: You’re absolutely right. However, at present, it stands as a valid means of working towards achieving net zero. We’ve opted for REDD+, a United Nations-backed framework with the highest grade offset certificates available. As we continue on our path to net zero and achieve a 90% reduction in emissions, it is more than likely the residual 10% will necessitate offsetting.
My understanding from the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is that addressing this remaining percentage will undoubtedly require using permanent carbon removal technologies, such as direct air capture and advanced weathering. While these technologies hold promise, they’re not yet at a large-scale or cost-effective stage of development.
Red-Inc isn’t squeaky clean or does everything perfectly as we don’t have the capacity or the tools. But we are doing everything possible to mitigate our carbon footprint.
W360: This leads nicely to your recent milestone of having your net zero targets approved by SBTi. What motivated this decision?
AH: Mainly it’s because I’m overly bothered by everything. The Red-Inc model is meticulously crafted, and I’m personally invested in every intricate detail – from customer engagement to the user experience, and especially our sustainability journey. As a certified B Corp with substantiated claims, progressing to SBTi felt like the next natural progression, even though it’s traditionally associated with corporates.
I want to push the boundaries and serve as an inspiration to others through the strides my company is taking. It’s not about gaining a competitive edge but about leading the way and improving an industry. I genuinely want to be a disruptor and advocate for a better way of conducting business. While commercial viability is obviously crucial, it doesn’t have to be all about the money.
Red-Inc is at the coalface because of our client base and we get drip-fed so much valuable information. We’re privy to the imminent developments in the sustainability landscape. For example, it’s no longer only the corporate giants and major clients seeking answers on Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. The ripple effect is gaining momentum and approaching rapidly.
W360: Your SBTi targets are ambitious, aiming for net zero by 2040 and a 50% reduction in Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2030, based on your 2018 baseline. How do you plan to achieve these goals?
AH: To be honest, it’s not going to be a walk in the park. Managing Scope 1 and 2 emissions is within our control and is, relatively speaking, more straightforward. For Scope 3, however, the challenge is considerably greater, given that much of it lies beyond our direct influence. Attaining success in this area will require cooperation from every participant in the supply chain.
In recent years, the industry focus has centred on survival and, let’s face it, who in the business supplies sector really cared about sustainability until last week? Now it’s terrifying people and they’re running around like headless chickens. I’m committed to sharing my expertise through collaborations with Advantia, Exertis Supplies and the BOSS Federation. I need to get this conversation out to dealers and let them know what’s happening as they often operate in their own little bubble.
W360: At the manufacturer level, what steps should be prioritised to drive progress?
AH: Currently, there’s a need to refine and standardise product labelling and descriptions. Understanding the carbon footprint of products is equally essential but not an immediate priority – more important is material components and knowing a vendor’s net zero ambitions.
W360: What are the potential advantages of standardisation and more user-friendly data?
AH: When a product is labelled as ‘eco’, it’s crucial to provide a clear definition of what this means. One aspect often overlooked is the end-of-life options. Accurate data allows us to educate clients on product differences, especially as no one really wants to buy items that can be 20% more expensive. Having said this, for me, it isn’t just crunching data. It’s about advocating for environmentally friendly products and sharing the compelling backstory with clients.
W360: What role do wholesalers need to play in your view?
AH: Wholesalers must act swiftly and approach this matter with utmost seriousness. Their responsibilities mirror those of the manufacturers – implementing net zero programmes and providing essential data as well as addressing logistics and packaging. I sit on the steering group for Exertis Supplies, and while some manufacturers have joined, broader representation from all industry sectors is needed.
For me, sustainability is about future-proofing our businesses so all players can adapt and thrive in an ever-evolving world. As dealers, we can ill afford to dismiss this as irrelevant.
W360: How are customer perspectives evolving?
AH: We conduct quarterly reviews with our clients, incorporating their purchasing data to empower them to make informed product decisions. We don’t claim to possess all the answers, and not every product on offer is inherently environmentally friendly, simply because the market hasn’t demanded it.
However, our reporting options allow customers to align their purchases with specific sustainability goals. This approach is instrumental in identifying who is genuinely committed to net zero, as opposed to those who may regard it as merely a box-ticking exercise.
W360: When Red-Inc considers a new supplier or product, do you conduct a sustainability assessment?
AH: Carrying out a sustainability assessment poses a challenge for us, primarily due to our limited resources and position in the supply chain. It is an area where wholesalers can fulfil a crucial role. Collaboration is key, as Red-Inc doesn’t have the clout to drive change alone; we’re small fry.
I’m repeatedly asked why I share my strategies with other dealers. The truth is, there are no real ‘secrets.’ Red-Inc may be ahead of the curve, but there’s no harm in assisting others in getting started. It feels like a responsibility worth shouldering.
W360: I want to go back to B Corp as we’ve only chatted about this briefly. What impact has it had on your company?
AH: A fantastic question and I’ll be completely candid. Becoming a B Corp was a pivotal moment in my career. Back in 2014, Red-Inc was in the doldrums. There was a drive to instigate change, but being a small business, it often felt like our efforts went unnoticed. At times, I would even question if my vision was feasible.
B Corp reinvigorated my passion for what we do, and the credibility of being a B Corp has positively influenced how Red-Inc is perceived by clients, contributing to meaningful growth.
W360: Obtaining B Corp certification is reputedly pretty hard.
AH: To become a B Corp is fairly brutal and requires you to turn your business upside down and inside out, leaving no room to hide. It demands the running of a really great company. The beauty of being a B Corp lies in the fact it provides a roadmap and a toolkit for a wide array of initiatives you might not have known existed. It encourages a deep dive into the five pillars of governance, workers, community, the environment and customers.
In reality, from the beginning, Red-Inc embodied B Corp values; we just hadn’t realised it. Suddenly, it felt like we belonged somewhere, a feeling not experienced before. As I began to meet CEOs, environmental managers, and a diverse range of individuals associated with other B Corps, it became evident there were people who truly valued what we were offering.
W360: Any words of wisdom on how to best approach sustainability?
AH: I think the best piece of advice is for people to understand just how fast the pace of sustainability is accelerating. Relying on the excuse that you only deal with local companies and therefore don’t need to consider carbon footprints and Scopes is no longer good enough. In our sector, many companies are still in the early stages of their journey, presenting a unique opportunity to assume a leadership position. Invest in upskilling staff and learn what it takes to truly embody sustainability.
There’s equally good commercial value in this endeavour, although I’d like to see people shifting away from the notion that success is becoming a £10 million dealer and instead focus on being a good business which prioritises steady growth. It’s taken years of dedicated effort, but in the 2022/23 financial year, Red-Inc experienced a remarkable 40% uptick in sales against pre-COVID figures.
While we could pursue higher profits, redirecting a portion of them back into the community not only resonates with people but also draws them towards our mission. In turn, this attracts the right talent – a vital aspect in an industry considered unsexy. Recently, for example, I hired two young individuals who were interested in Red-Inc because of our B Corp status and the impact we’re having.
W360: Final question. What are your future plans?
AH: Our plans largely revolve around continuing what we’ve always done. Despite operating somewhat under the radar, we have the privilege of collaborating with some of the UK’s largest companies. I’m dedicated to constantly pushing boundaries and using our story to inspire others.
If even one person is motivated to believe there’s a better approach to conducting business, it would be immensely satisfying.