TS: First of all, thank you for your patience and kindness with taking the time to answer all these questions from some Traveling Salesman pestering you from the United States. In 2019, I finally got the opportunity to travel to Ireland and since then it has been of interest to me to interview an distributor based in Ireland.
I see from your website you have three locations located in Dublin, Belfast and in Glasgow in Scotland. And when I look at your site I see you distribute several specialty fastener lines. Of course, you also carry show a lot of standard products too. And you have been in business since 1967 so more than 50 years. That is outstanding. Tell us a little bit about Appian. Who owns the company? Share a little history.
Des: Appian Fasteners was founded over 50 years ago as the sole distributor in Ireland for Avdel UK, manufacturers of rivets and riveting tools. That was the only product sold for the first 15 years. It was originally owned by a private individual who sold it to an Irish PLC in the early 1980’s. The PLC was operating a number of very diverse sectors including manufacturing, oil distribution, shipping and even electronic chip manufacturing. In the mid 1990’s the board made the decision to sell off all the divisions and formally leave the stock exchange. The Managing director and finance director at the time approached me and collectively we put together a Management Buyout of the distribution division of the Group which included Appian, our sister company Jones Oil and a number of UK Oil Distribution businesses. This was completed in 1998.I know you are thinking what is the link between the Oil Distribution business and a fastener business and to be honest there is not much of a link. However the collective experience all three of us Directors has been a real asset for both business units.
Believe it or not I am with the company since 1985, when I joined as an internal sales administrator when the company was expanding the product portfolio. Since then we have grown and expanded and I was made CEO in 1995 and then Managing Director in 2001. Over the years we have had to cope with many changes in the market. In the 1990’s Ireland benefited from the growth of the IT sector and we have most of the global manufacturers with facilitates in Ireland. These included Motorola, Erickson, and large sub-contractors to Nokia. In 2001 that all changed, Ireland had become an expensive region for manufacturing, the country practically had full employment and large OEM’s started looking east to a cheaper alternative. In the space of a year we lost 40% of our customer base as these manufacturing sites closed and moved to Eastern Europe, and the Far East including China.
Some tough years followed, as we had to remodel the company, reducing the stock locations to one on the Island of Ireland whilst still offering the same level of service to customers.
We opened in Scotland in 2014 as we looked to expand into the UK and culturally we felt that the Scottish market was very similar to Ireland and the Celtic connection is one that has helped along the road.
TS: Excellent. Thanks for sharing the company history. Let’s bring things up to date and tell me a bit now about the company as it operates today. What markets and industries do you serve?
Des: We service the following sectors, General Contract manufacturers, Distribution, HVAC, Truck/ specialty vehicles, Electronics, Industrial machinery, Power Generation and Plastic Molding to name a few.
TS: Are you looked at more of as a specialty fastener house or a traditional nut and bolt house?
Des: We very much see ourselves as a Technical Distributor aligned with global partners to service the market. Our partners include POP/ Avdel, Southco, Pem and Dirak where we offer the full technical support to our customers which includes engineering support and advice from our technical sales team. We also have a fully kitted Tool repair center in Belfast for all the Pop/ Avdel tooling where we sell and repair all tooling in house.
TS: I often wonder if the same suppliers in the U.S. are suppliers to the European market or more specifically to you markets in Ireland and Scotland. For instance, where does a “typical” fastener distributor in Ireland go for the commodity standards?
Des: We would generally use larger UK importers for the standards and if the volume allows source directly from various manufacturers in the Far East. Following on from Brexit we are sourcing more items from Europe as there are increased customs requirements with goods moving through the UK.
TS: Is there a lot of fastener manufacturing done in Ireland?
Des: There is very little fastener manufacturing in Ireland other than some specialty manufacturers.
TS: I want to ask some questions about how doing business in Ireland or Scotland differs from how we do business in the states. However, that might be a difficult question because you may or may not know how business is done by typical fastener distributors in the states is done. So first, let me ask this, do you do any business with customers located in the U.S.?
Des: We supply some branded product to the USA on an ad hoc basis where someone in the US is looking to source branded product and we happen to have stock available to sell through our website.
TS: Do you run Vendor Managed Inventory programs for you customers?
Des: Yes we run a number of vendor managed inventory programs.
TS: How important is it for a fastener distributor in Ireland to be ISO Certified? Are there other certifications that your customers require of you?
Des: ISO certification is key to the success of any fastener business in Ireland and the UK. To be honest it is a requirement, as not having this certification would result in removal from a vendor listing. We have no other certification.
TS: In the states, right now it is difficult to find qualified people to fill positions. This is especially true for skilled machine operators and this is a real challenge for U.S. based manufacturers as well as distributors. How is your labor market?
Des: We have similar issues here in distribution getting qualified people to fill roles in our organization. Although I believe post covid there will be a bigger pool of talent available.
TS: What are your biggest challenges in 2021? Like us, you too must be recovering from challenges posed by the Covid virus. How has that changed the way you do business?
Des: We in Ireland are behind the curve compared to the US on our recovery from the covid crisis, We are only this week seeing some reduction in very tough restrictions. Everyone has to work from home where possible, all hospitality has been closed since December with no date for return as yet. All our office team work from home, our warehouse team work in small group’s under strict guidelines to try and keep everyone safe. I think the future will be a hybrid of office and home working.
TS: If I wanted to sell product to a distributor based in Ireland, what would be my biggest opportunities and what would be my biggest obstacles?
Des: The market in Ireland is quite small so the challenge would be managing expectations. There are no real obstacles as Ireland is a true open economy trading with the world.
TS: How important are fastener trade associations in Ireland and in Europe?
Des: I think it is very beneficial for us to part of BIAF, since we joined it has allowed us to have a voice at the political table here at home and in Europe.
TS: Your locations are in Ireland and Scotland, but not in England. Is that a separate marketplace or could that be an area of expansion for your company?
Des: The Scotland facility was opened with a view to expansion into the UK and we plan expansion into England in the near future.
TS: Do a lot of fastener companies in Europe also set up operations in Ireland, Scotland or England?
Des: Some have but others sell directly into our markets without supporting the local distribution sector. It is key for the survival of companies like ours to have a broad stock portfolio and continuously adding new lines which has become our unique selling point.
TS: How do you see Brexit affecting your business in the coming years?
Des: In my humble opinion, Brexit is a disaster for both the UK and the European Union. It makes no sense to me to leave one of the biggest trading blocks in the world and start negotiating new trade deals with other trading blocks. However, it is done now, so we have to get on with the consequences. I believe it will have an impact on the UK economy for the next 10 years.
TS: What trade shows do you attend?
Des: We attend the annual Hardware Fair in Cologne and the Stuggart Fastener Fair, both in Germany. We also exhibit every year at the Manufacturing Ireland Exhibition in early spring.
Note from TS:
I have a regular column in Fastener Technology International (FTI) magazine, called 10 Minutes with the Traveling Salesman, which can be read online at www.fastenertech.com. Subscriptions to FTI, print and digital editions, are free-of-charge for fastener manufacturers, distributors and users as well as suppliers to the industry.”