Colin Fisher, Marathon Warehouse Distribution’s director of sales, marketing and purchasing, was able to take some time out of his busy schedule to bring us up-to-speed with how the well-documented and current challenges surrounding the automotive industry has impacted the wholesaler.
Marathon began life back in 1979 and more than 40 years later, it comprises of more than 150 full-time members of staff. The senior management team are incredibly experienced – Colin joined the company in 1997 for instance.
Despite that history and experience, when Colin describes the last couple of years as “one of the most volatile periods we’ve been through”, one can appreciate the severity of the situation.
Of course, the pandemic and the consequences of that is what Colin’s referring to; however, he’s pleased to report that Marathon has bounced back extremely well and has already rebuilt its turnover to pre-pandemic levels.
Encouragingly, Colin believes that figure is actually modest: “I would say our turnover is circa 20% understated, based on availability today, compared to where we would have seen it before.
“The way we look at it currently is that if the business works (in this environment) today – and ours is working very well – then it can only get stronger and better as availability starts to come back from our suppliers and we continue to add more products.”
Naturally, the conflict in Ukraine is also having a detrimental effect in terms of pricing and supply; for example, oil suppliers are having to monitor and change their pricing structures “almost on a monthly basis”.
Well-placed to satisfy customers across the UK
With nine regional distribution centres, plus its national distribution hub in Redditch, Marathon is, geographically, well-placed to service its network of loyal customers; however, in light of the exponential rise in prices at the pumps, Marathon has restructured its delivery service.
Colin said: “Our goal is to offer a meaningful frequent same-day service to motor factors across the country. Factor customers, depending on their location and proximity to our regional distribution centres will enjoy up to three deliveries-a-day – early morning, midday and afternoon. In addition, we offer a nationwide parcel service to all customers via our Redditch national distribution centre, whose immense stockholding offers supreme availability on parts not available from our regional centres.
“I think the pandemic has also created an important ‘reset’ for the entire industry, a good thing, in terms of businesses looking even closer at their operations and objectives and how they could deliver improvements and efficiencies. Dealing with today and not looking too far ahead I think was a lesson learned based on the uncertainties at the start of the pandemic.
“I think the pandemic has changed people’s expectations as well, again a good thing. At Marathon we certainly took a long hard look at ourselves and what we needed to do in delivering a sustainable long-term business for the benefit of our staff, customers and suppliers, and that is what we have achieved over the last two years.”
Offering customers a choice but not “for choice’s sake”
In March, Marathon announced a “new strategic partnership” with First Line Ltd. The move means the wholesaler can offer frequent same-day access to a huge Borg & Beck range of brake, clutch and gear control cables, turbo hoses and breathers, engine mountings, a whole range of cooling products – to name but a few lines, with further growth expected.
But what makes a good supplier? What does Marathon demand from its suppliers?
Colin replied: “We don’t need to be the cheapest, but we do need to offer value for money, so key is ensuring that we can deliver a competitive offering to our customers, whilst enjoying a margin that works for our business. In addition, our suppliers need to be able to ensure that we are able to offer a strong overall position based on brand, quality, range and availability.
“Our ever-expanding product portfolio means we are also focused on filling any gaps in our ranges, so increasing our opportunity to develop our customer relationships and loyalty.
“On certain, key product lines, we’ll also have more than one brand offering our customers a choice based on their needs at any given time; we’ll have a ‘brand A’ and ‘brand B’ scenario.
“Obviously we don’t need to offer choice for choice’s sake, but it can be good to have an alternative supplier covering all bases – availability, quality, range and price – and this allows us to become very specialist in certain product lines and always able to deliver on our customers’ needs.
“At best, we offer a choice based on what the customer likes, whether that’s brand, quality, price, range whatever it may be, but it also ensures, given availability issues at the moment, it’s actually a case of “we’ve got ‘brand A’ but not ‘brand B’”, so at least we’ve got something to sell – without a choice on key product groups, the situation currently might be far trickier.”
With a target of at least 95% off the shelf coverage of the products Marathon chooses to distribute, not to mention its own EuroFlo emissions programme, this ambition and choice combined with its frequent same-day service is attracting more customers to sign-up and increase spend.
Emphatically, Colin expanded: “We’re delighted with the progress we’ve made over the last few years, despite the challenges faced by all, and we’re continuing to grow. We see so many opportunities moving forward. We’ve come a very long way since starting life as a specialist exhaust distributor in London to our position today as a national wholesale distributor of all products, not to mention our exhaust manufacturing facility in Portugal.
“Today, we find ourselves selling almost every product group; in fact, the Borg & Beck agreement has also allowed us to cover some of the more obscure product groups that were gaps in our previous stocked ranges.
“What’s more, a lot of what we do is supplying motor factors with the parts that they can’t stock themselves, because they’re either too slow moving or simply too difficult to stock based on space required, size of range etc. We have to stock full ranges going right down the pareto if we are to provide the availability that factors need from us and we do extremely well on difficult product groups that factors would not stock.”
“We’re really proud of EMPOWER”
EMPOWER is Marathon’s electronic trading portal for motor factors and this was pivotal during the pandemic, as it was the conduit between customer and distributor. As the wholesaler designed the EMPOWER platform, the tool can be adapted quickly, adding more and more features and its development has been rapid. Combined with its direct links with customers, via MAM, electronic trading has increased rapidly, now accounting for 90% of its turnover.
Colin said: “The pandemic and staffing challenges created a surge in our electronic business and allowed us to stay connected with our customers in even the toughest times of COVID-19.
“The pandemic actually proved a game changer in this respect, as it broke habits and pushed customers towards becoming more reliant on our trading portal in handling their enquiries. This increase in electronic trading and efficiencies now means that our call centre agents are able to offer a better response when a customer really needs us so improving our overall customer service.”
Colin added: “We’re just about to launch another major development, which is a fully automated returns system for our customers. This milestone is hugely significant, as it will help our customers in handling their returns quickly and accurately – we’re always thinking of ways to improve customer service and experience.
“Every motor factor that we trade with today, worst case scenario has access to EMPOWER and we see it as absolutely key to our continued growth and development ensuring our customers are able to get what they want – whenever they want it!”