PMF interviews Patrick O’Brien, President of Solv-Tec, the USA distributor of K-Seal Permanent Coolant Leak Repair, to ﬁnd out more about what stockists and motorists in the US think about K-Seal and how it is faring in an intensely competitive market.
Q. What are the differences in promoting K-Seal to the American market compared to the UK? How is the US supply chain structured?
Patrick O’Brien (PO): It’s difficult to grasp the true scale of the US market. Fundamentally, the core message is the same in all markets; K-Seal is a safe, reliable and effective way to repair coolant leaks. However, getting this message across to the counter staff in the jobbers (motor factors), the technicians and the motorists requires a different approach.
Take for example just one store chain, Autozone, which has around 7,000 outlets. These numbers mean we simply can’t call on every store so we have to reach them in different ways. Most of the time we are dealing with a category manager in a huge HQ building which can be thousands of miles away from the stores that actually sell our products.
With our UK sister company, Kalimex, its motor factor stockists are always within an arm’s reach and the numbers are more manageable. The team over there make monthly contact with newsletters, phone calls and mailshots and their agents can call in regularly on most of their customers. There’s no way we could logistically pull that off in the US.
Q. How do you break down the door of a huge chain?
PO: Perseverance. The buyers are constantly inundated with all manner of products, and competition is particularly fierce in our stop leak category. If at first you don’t succeed, go back and try again. That being said, it can sometimes take years to finally break through. The secret is never giving up; you have to play the long game to win the big prizes! Thankfully, we’re a tenacious team. We take ‘no’ as meaning ‘not right now’.
Q. What is the size of the market in America compared to the UK?
PO: Officially, there are around 250 million registered vehicles in the US which is seven times as many as the UK. However, it’s estimated there are tens of millions of unregistered vehicles making the US market many times bigger than the UK. We also have a culture of frequent servicing, which is not as strong in the UK.
Q. What challenges do you still face in promoting K-Seal?
PO: The competition over here is immense. K-Seal often sits on a shelf with at least a dozen other coolant leak products, sometimes as many as 18. If the buyer doesn’t think your numbers stack up, you’re off that shelf in the blink of an eye. So we have to keep pushing the K-Seal message down the distribution chain and to the end users.
Q. What have been your greatest successes?
PO: The best one was when we cracked our first national account, Autozone. Everyone told us we couldn’t do it, not with just one product anyway, and in truth, it took us a few years to get there. But eventually we did it and it was a great feeling. More recently, another major national told us that K-Seal was its most profitable stop leak product. Whilst we don’t sell the volumes that some of the big brands do, at the end of the day the retailers want to make a profit. With KSeal’s premium positioning, we can offer this to every one of them.
Q. What’s the size of the average K-Seal order and what has been your biggest order to date?
PO: We still ship a standard case of 24 to our original independent customers who have remained loyal to us all these years (despatching began in 2007), but the biggest order so far was from Walmart. They opened their account with 24,000 bottles; a thousand times the size of our first order!
Q. You sell a product in a competitivemarket. Why have you succeeded so far? What’s the winning formula?
PO: First of all, we have a great product. It does what it says on the tin and customer satisfaction is second to none. Without this, no amount of marketing and PR helps because retailers will quickly drop a product that doesn’t perform. That being said, it’s important that we constantly reinforce our message, and we do this through a permanent presence in trade and professional journals, combined with a major digital campaign aimed at the motoring public. We remain focused on the coolant leak market and are known as the global specialists in coolant leak repair.
Q. Do you promote K-Seal at trade shows?
PO: The main show in the US is AAPEX/SEMA which attracts retailers and technicians from across the US. When we first attended, nobody knew anything about K-Seal, but now every buyer and technician who sees us there tells us what a great product K-Seal is. This is a great thing to hear after all the hard work we’ve had to put in to break into this market. It’s something we’ll never tire of hearing!
Q. What penetration would you say the K-Seal brand has in America?
PO: We are by no means the biggest player in stop leak products in the US. There are a couple of well known brands that have been around forever and who remain strong. However, we are safely in the top three or even the top two for most major retailers in the US, including Walmart, which, when you consider we were told we’d never crack, is an awesome result. We intend to keep pushing until K-Seal is the number one coolant leak repair brand in the USA. I am confident we will achieve this.