In a market dominated by a handful of large key players, Bespoke Stairlifts has bold plans to become the largest stairlift supplier to UK dealers in the next five years.
Speaking about Bespoke Stairlifts’ plans for the UK market to the man heading up its business development, there is no pussyfooting around: “We see ourselves as being the biggest stairlift distributor to the dealer network in the UK within the next five years,” says David Dodsworth, who is confident turnover can be increased by between five and eight times what it is now.
These are indeed bold claims but not wishful thinking, according to Dodsworth, who notes: “You’ve got to aim high. Nobody ever goes to the Olympics just wanting to make the final.” His words echo those of plenty of high-aiming businesses, but how realistic are these ambitions and how does Bespoke intend on reaching them?
Many dealers will already be familiar with Bespoke Stairlifts. It has been operating as a seller of reconditioned stairlifts for a number of years, primarily dealing in Stannah products, but changed its model three years ago. Manufacturing its own-brand stairlift, the Infinity, from scratch was the real step change for Bespoke that marked the beginning of a period of substantial investment in plant and skills.
The initial growth sparked by Bespoke’s Infinity stairlift eventually plateaued and the company was forced to bring in new skills before it could take the expansion any further, says Dodsworth. To increase the volume of sales, the company began taking on individuals in key roles and bringing on experienced team members from other manufacturers. It was also important to invest time in developing apprentices and trainees, says Dodsworth, who has found that this strategy allows the firm to build its culture into staff.
“From the very outset you’re not inheriting other people’s attitudes or approach to work. It’s about the personal service and making sure staff know that our reputation relies on every part of the process. Those behaviours we can instil into them ensure the product that comes out of the back-end is successful. Quite often, when you start going through the scaling process from a 15 man operation to a 50 man operation you can lose a lot of what you are. We’ve been very careful to keep our key players involved in the business and pass on their pride of work to the new members of the team.”
One of the key individuals appointed was David Forsyth who was hired as a director and who has been a managing director in the stairlift sector before, working with the likes of Platinum Stairlifts. Dodsworth explains how Forsyth instilled direction and impetus at the firm.
“He injected a bit of structure in terms of back office systems, getting the knowledge into people’s heads and into documented processes and increasing the team. Since I’ve come on I’ve engaged with a new tranche of dealers; dealers we’ve not worked with before.”
Bespoke’s strategy is to offer dealers an alternative to the mainstream suppliers already on the market and in providing niche products like heavy duty curved models and outdoor products, the company has been able to rapidly expand its dealer network.
Dodsworth comments: “We might not be getting 25 to 30 cases a month off every dealer but we’re getting three or four a month off another 20 or 25 dealers. It means that we’ve got to tailor our approach to how the individual dealers work. We have to tailor it. So for example, we do service, ply and fit for the people who have traditionally been doing Acorn units and they can start bringing the skills back into their own businesses instead of just referring the customers away. It’s hard work tailoring what we provide to the individual companies but for the last six to eight months it’s been working.
“For instance, some partners need us to do the servicing for them, others need the installation, others need the whole process, others just need the stairlift. We do joint installations with every new dealer we get and we’ll take a training rig down there and do a course for free so we’re not charging them to train their engineers. We’re kind of like a stairlift provider used to be 10 years ago before they all started to go direct to the consumer and not caring as much for dealerships.”
Dodsworth’s final point about avoiding direct sales is absolutely key to the company’s strategy for growth. He insists Bespoke will never be a direct-to-consumer brand and instead the business will rely solely on dealer channels. This will naturally be welcome news to retailers and Dodsworth says the policy has, unsurprisingly, been received well by mobility dealers.
He says that it can be frustrating for businesses who have been working with a supplier for a long time who then “undercuts” them by selling direct to the consumer. He concedes that he did initially look into a B2C offering, adding that in a previous role he built a direct sales force. But he says that method “is not bespoke and not what we’re going to be about”: “It’s not the way we’re approaching the market and we won’t be competing for local authority tenders; if we get a lead from a consumer we’ll pass that onto our dealer network.”
Aside from its strict trade-only ethos, Bespoke must find other ways of setting itself apart in the face of competition from giants like Stannah and Acorn. In this way, Dodsworth says that the firm steps in to take on jobs others might not, including custom and heavy duty designs. It must also set its service apart and Dodsworth says that can mean doing the whole job from install to servicing six months after, and over those six months train partners to install and maintain properly and provide them with surveying tools, all for free.
It would be logical to ask how easy it is to maintain such a tailored approach. Even for a relatively small and flexibly company, limited manpower and resources can lead to some becoming overstretched and service is compromised. But Dodsworth insists that once the skills are in place and the groundwork has been laid, it begins to take care of itself.
“The initial investment a couple of years ago in the mechanical tools was probably that hardest part because you’ve got to invest heavily before you see the reward. It’s at this point with the sales expanding and reputation increasing that we’re seeing the benefits of three years of intense investment and skills building to get to this point. For the time being it’s about us giving the dealers something different to the manufacturers who are selling against them.”
Bespoke firmly believes that its attempt to be ‘the good guy’ among stairlift suppliers is a winning formula. The rate at which its dealer network is expanding would certainly support its theory. Of course, it will take some more time before its model is a proven success but so far it is hard to argue with its strategy. It is refreshing for some dealers to see a manufacturer not tempted by direct sales and who promises not to refer to its clients simply as customer reference numbers. The true test for Bespoke’s strategy will come as it upscales and attempts to keep its culture, philosophy and ethos central to its process from manufacturing through to sales and after-service.