A far from fishy tale
07 May 2015
Few need reminding that the role of the fastener distributor is ever more complex, fast changing and demanding. Phil Matten visited Ekkehard Beermann in Gronau, Germany, to hear how Fastbolt is responding to, and indeed anticipating, the needs of its distribution customers.
The role of the fastener distributor has never been a simple one but in the last decade the complexities facing distributors have multiplied exponentially. Geopolitical issues impinge on the fastener supply chain from global manufacturing base through to equally global customer environment. Unprecedented economic crises test the mettle of fastener distributors throughout Europe. EU trade defence measures radically shift the pattern of trade and introduce huge levels of unpredictability in the supply chain. Increasingly complex and stringent regulatory requirements add to ever-tougher demands from fastener users for product performance, quality assurance and risk management.
Amidst all this flux the role of the importer wholesaler has also come under pressure, functioning as it does in a peculiarly transparent market where retaining customer loyalty is intensely challenging.
Recognition of the constant need to adapt and enhance its support to distributors is nothing new to Fastbolt. Throughout its now 33 years’ experience the company has demonstrated two distinctive qualities that many similar businesses have found singularly challenging to reconcile.
On one hand Fastbolt has remained true to the core values defined by its founder, the late Heinz Storch. It continues to have an explicit commitment to exclusively support and supply the fastener distributor. Although its ranges have evolved and grown substantially it remains a specialist not generalist stockist of fasteners: A key element of that specialism is its commitment to hold defined inventories in both depth and breadth. It is clear in its intention to be a successful long-term business, ready and willing to commit major investment in a targeted and carefully considered manner to enhance its service capabilities. It is equally and unapologetically clear that to sustain both investment and service, and be in the position to effectively support distributors in the future, it has to be a healthy, rigorously controlled and profitable business.
On the other hand Fastbolt has consistently demonstrated that it is attuned to the needs of its chosen market, fostering and maintaining a close and cordial relationship with its customers. Arguably more significant, it has demonstrated the foresight not just to respond to what fastener distributors need now but also to anticipate and commit to the introduction of services to meet the needs of tomorrow.
Last year marked the opening of FB Ibérica Unipessoal Lda in Portugal. “We were already servicing the Spanish and Portuguese markets,” says Ekkehard Beermann, “but our inventory was around 2,000 kilometres away from our Iberian customers. Now they benefit from extremely fast deliveries from locally held stock, as well as the personal support of our Iberica sales team and management.”
“Of course we have a firmly established customer base in the UK and Ireland, serviced from Milton Keynes, and from Germany we service central and eastern Europe as well as Scandinavia and the Baltic states. Looking forward I can see the potential to enter other geographic markets we are not able to service competitively or cost-effectively from our existing locations.”
Last year also saw the completion of a phased development of Fastbolt’s socket screw range, which now encompasses DIN 912 Grade 8.8; ISO 7380-1 and ISO 7380-2 in Grade 10.9; DIN 7984 Grade 8.8; and DIN 7991 in both Grades 8.8 and 10.9. The stock programme includes both plain and zinc finished screws. “The socket screw introduction is part of a strategic programme of selective range extensions,” explains Ekkehard Beermann. “We maintain all of the core values Fastbolt has held since its beginning, so our range extensions are thorough, covering an extensive set of sizes and stocked in depth to ensure the reliability of availability our customers expect of Fastbolt.”
Now, Fastbolt is looking at the next phase of range development. “Within our specialist ranges we are confident we offer more than our competitors. However, we recognise we must always achieve the right balance between our specialism approach and presenting our customers with opportunities for greater procurement efficiency.”
Major range extensions of this type, of course, demand both capacity and an effective logistics system. “The core plan continues to be to expand in Gronau,” mentions Ekkehard Beermann. “To use it as a central inventory holding and logistics centre, investing in expanded capacity but also in the technologies that allow us to gain efficiency and constantly improve accuracy and responsiveness to our customers.” FB Gronau has now acquired further space to expand existing racking space, as well as the approval for the future to develop a high-bay automatic warehouse.
Fastbolt has long held the reputation for having one of the most personable sales and customer service teams in the industry. In recent years it has been at the cutting edge of development in online enquiry and order systems. Ekkehard Beermann is clear that the two elements are entirely compatible and that FBonline delivers tangible benefits to Fastbolt’s customers. He also knows its further refinement and development will be an increasingly important element of Fastbolt’s overall customer service package.
“More than 60% of our German customers already use FBonline to check availability and their specific prices,” he explains. “Between 10% and 15% place their orders online – the majority need to use their own ERP system to generate the orders once they have confirmed the information from FBonline.” The latest system development focuses strongly on enhancing the ability for customers to see and manage their own order positions. “Using FBonline 2.1 customers can clearly see all their open orders, including when stock will be available to fulfil them. They can see both the weight and value of current orders allowing them to consolidate or add to them for immediate shipment or collection.”
“This transparency is increasingly important because distributors have to be more flexible and responsive to their own customer and to do that they need easily accessible, accurate and comprehensive information from Fastbolt.”
FBonline is effective in supporting not just customers’ procurement teams but also their sales departments. “Because we are specialists, many of the articles we stock as standard are not stock items for our customers – threadforming screws is just one example. FBonline allows the distributor’s salesperson to check availability, even outside office hours, on an item required by their customer, allowing them to commit to supply in the confident knowledge Fastbolt will support them.”
FBonline 2.1 also now includes volume related pricing, which means the customer can clearly and directly assess the advantage of placing a high volume order on a particular item. “Previously,” says Ekkehard Beermann, “the customer needed to call our sales office to discuss a volume related price. Now FBonline runs completely parallel to our sales office system so the customer can be sure they will obtain exactly the same deal, whichever method of contact they choose.”
The ultimate goal has to be a real connection between two ERP systems, with both customer and supplier operating purely within their own system but having full access to information from the other and exchanging documents securely. For customers whose buying volume and number of order line items justify the mutual investment Fastbolt is already proactive in both supporting and extending the capabilities of EDI connections to reach the highest level of process efficiency. “With some customers we already developed solutions which incorporate the functionalities of FBonline and use EDI connections to and from our SAP system to process orders, order confirmations, delivery notes and invoices electronically. Master distribution at its best!”
And there is more to come. Fastbolt has just hired the programmer of the latest version of FBonline as its in-house developer – a clear indication, were any needed, of the importance Ekkehard Beermann places on the role of FBonline in the future.
So the sashimi selection has never been so extensive, so varied or so readily available. But what happens, so to speak, if you are after the big fish?
“Our customers mainly see us as an importer wholesaler providing access to assured quality Asian manufactured stock from a German, UK and now Iberian warehouse. The need for distributors to meet cost down demands from major customers continues to increase, however, and in those circumstances the distributor may look at importing product direct. FB Trade Asia gives our customers access to Fastbolt’s manufacturing base without needing to take on all the costs and risks associated with direct import. It is very attractive to certain types of customers and is a serious and growing part of Fastbolt’s business.”
“Each customer’s motivation is slightly different. For some the risks created by EU anti-dumping measures are a big factor. They may not have the time or wish to incur the costs of personally auditing factories to ensure the integrity of the supplier. For some, straightforward economic and efficiency benefits are key and supply chain risk assurance is a bonus. For others, it is about quality assurance in the knowledge Fastbolt has its own factory audit team and can, if required, carry out comprehensive pre-shipment quality inspection.”
“This direct business is strictly focused on the products available from our existing supplier base – thoroughly quality assured and from proven factories with which we have a solid relationship and are committing substantial purchase volumes. The benefit to our customer is receiving the container direct to their door, without incurring the cost of being handled in the EU, or pallets being shifted around our warehouse, but with a transaction made with a European supplier, eliminating the risks of being a direct importer.”
The Fastbolt ‘menu’ has never been more extensive. A personable and qualified sales team remains at the core, as does the long-standing commitment to breadth and depth inventory to meet ex-stock requirements. On that robust foundation has been built an array of technological and customised solutions: FBonline, EDI, system integration, direct container supply and at source assurance, customised logistics and packing.
“We see the variety in business methods and solutions as THE KEY ELEMENT to our business,” Ekkehard really is that emphatic, “in order to be a supply solution provider to ALL LEVELS of fastener distributors, from two people businesses up to multinational players in completely different European markets. The fastener product always remains the same but the services attached to it and the way to sell it really does range from A to Z.”