CI distributor AWE Europe has shown spectacular development in recent years, growing fivefold in the past six years. However, distribution is a relatively recent departure for the company, which has its roots in manufacturing. Paddy Baker spoke to managing director Stuart Tickle about AWE's past, present and future.
Q: AWE's background was originally in manufacturing - what was behind the move into distribution?
A: AWE is a privately owned family business whose direction has adapted to the changing markets over the years. In the late 90s our electronics manufacturing business was coming under pressure from increasing red tape and cheap imports. At that time my knowledge and interest was being gained within the small retail hi-fi shop we had and I focused on developing this, which included some trade sales to background music installers. We recognised the emerging CI industry as the place we wanted to be, and became members of CEDIA in 2002 with the aim of becoming established enough to hold our own when the big corporate distributors woke up and wanted a piece of this specialist market. I am pleased to say this worked very well indeed and it is this background that gives us a clear understanding of a dealer's needs.
Q: What are the main ways in which distributors can add value?
A: It's not just about price and availability, although they are of course both extremely important. Heavyweight brands are also key, but equally vital is a distributor's ability to understand its customers and what they need to be successful. AWE is a company that lives and breathes the CI business and this is reflected in the knowledge of our staff. This benefits all aspects of sales and support and is complemented by the fact we are nice people to do business with.
Q: To what do you attribute AWE's rapid growth over the past few years?
A: Over the years AWE has established a great reputation and a good team of people. There is no quick route to making this happen so we have grown consistently, but within our own means. We focus on the CI and installer retail market and have a clear market strategy and do not chase low-margin, high-volume sales at the expense of service. In addition, being privately owned means we don't have third-party investors or shareholders calling the shots.
Q: Is it possible for a distributor to become too big?
A: That depends on what your objectives are and who you are trying to please! If you are trying to please hungry investors and selling mainstream or low-tech products like printers or toasters, then I would suggest bigger is probably be better. However, within our specialist industry there is certainly point at which the relationship and understanding between individuals that makes a company a good employer and business partner can get overtaken by the pressures of a corporate sales machine. Although we have plenty of growth potential before we get to that point, it will not be at the expense of service.
Q: The company's name is AWE Europe - do you have plans to grow outside the UK?
A: The Europe element originally stems back to when we manufactured electronic products that sold across Europe. However, although it is true to say that the vast majority of our distribution contracts and sales are within the UK, we currently import Pronto and Cineversum direct from the continent. In addition, we are the European distributors of the Pronto Wall docks and accessories from Polar Bear, as well as the Flatline Acoustics Speaker range to other European distributors. So although we do not sell direct to European installers, we do trade within Europe.
Q: Sometimes, the people who would benefit most from training are the ones who find it most difficult to find the time for it. Have you seen this, and if so, how do you address it?
A: The best way to make sure they attend is by offering high-quality and regular courses - this way most realise the value and make time to attend. There are always one or two who can't make it on the day, but all our courses are free and we do not penalise individuals for the occasional non-attendance. In addition, AWE offers regular courses at our offices in Epsom to give as many opportunities to attend as possible as well as running training at CEDIA EXPO and several regional sessions per year.
Q: What have been the most revolutionary products or developments in custom installation in recent years? Please choose one that you distribute, and one that you don't - or wish you did!
A: The most dramatic development in the UK CI market has to be Pronto. The current generation of Pronto control system was the first to offer reliable two-way control with a high level of functionality for a fraction of the price of the two big playersÖlet's call them Brand A and Brand C! Not only does Pronto offer all the style and functionality that is demanded by customers and installers alike, AWE was able to work with the Pronto Team in Belgium to deliver an award-winning sales and support package to suit.
In terms of brands that we don't distribute but have had a huge impact, I think it has to be Sonus. Here was at launch a relatively cheap wireless multiroom audio system that nearly anyone could install including cover art browsing. Now there was something to give custom installers something to think aboutÖ
Q: What does the future hold for AWE, and for you personally?
A: AWE punches well above its weight in this industry and has plenty of room for growth, but our future success will not only be measured in turnover. Whilst we are planning on strong growth and have a strategy to do so, it is important that AWE remains an integral part of the industry and is both nice to do business with and to work for.
For me personally there is plenty to keep me occupied with a growing family as 'Ticklet number 2' is on the way. I would love to have time to get involved with motorsport but think I will most likely have to be satisfied with the odd track day in the AWE VX220!