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Lessons learned: A business owner putting suppliers to the test

Co-founder Luke Barlow had fallen victim to a bad experience in the past with a logistics provider, and was keen not to get stung again. We caught up with him to find out more.
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Luke Barlow, co-founder of Tufferman storage solutions provider, had a bad experience with a logistics firm – but here’s what he learned, and how he chose his new supplier.

Logistics can be a nightmare for many small businesses, from owning or leasing a warehouse, to pick and pack and fulfilment – it’s a complex process, and it can be expensive and time-consuming to boot.

Tufferman is an example of a business grappling with the challenges of logistics. The small Essex-based business provides storage services, which take up a huge amount of space. Initially, the business had one warehouse, but bought the warehouse directly behind it and knocked through to make more space. However, it wasn’t too long before Tufferman ran out of space again.

Co-founder Luke Barlow had fallen victim to a bad experience in the past with a logistics provider, and was keen not to get stung again. We caught up with him to find out more.

Once bitten, twice shy

“I used to run a footwear company years ago, and we outsourced all of our warehouse to a fulfilment house. Basically, over a period of about six months, they almost put us under,” said Barlow.

“The system integration was wrong, they were saying they’d fulfilled orders when they hadn’t. It was due to a system error on their part, and it just went on for months – we had hundreds of customers coming back asking where their goods were.”

The business was only small at the time, and it took a heavy hit – not only from the cost side of things, but the time and effort that went into getting it sorted.

Eventually, the fulfilment provider agreed Barlow did not have to pay the last invoice and offered an apology – but it was a lesson learned that he took forward with him to Tufferman.

Logistics at Tufferman

Tufferman recently agreed a fulfilment deal with a logistics provider – but it was not a decision made lightly. The company was used for warehousing facilities first of all, for a few weeks, before expanding into the fulfilment relationship.

Barlow was introduced to the provider on a referral, but he made sure to do his homework before taking them for a spin. Ultimately, he decided to outsource the company’s logistic requirements because, although it’s more expensive upfront, long-term it can offer savings.

“You pay more, but you’ve got that flexibility. When our sales dip in the winter because the domestic markets have gone quiet, our costs go down at the same time as well,” he explained.

“It saves costs in the long-run – especially as you grow. You don’t want to lease a warehouse, then six months later realise it’s too small and spend a load of money getting a new lease or realise you’re locked in for three years.”

Other than cost, Barlow looked at reliability, because any mistakes would ultimately reflect poorly on his business. Relinquishing any aspect of the business that can affect customer service to a third party is understandably nerve-wracking, which is why Barlow was sure to do it in baby-steps.

In addition, the provider is local to Tufferman, which makes it easy to arrange a face to face meeting when required – the lines of communication are always open.

Tufferman has ambitious plans for scaling up over the coming year, but for Barlow it’s important that the business takes it’s time and doesn’t rush things.

His advice to other small business in a similar situation is to get somebody local that you can visit regularly, and “give them a small amount of work” before jumping in.

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About Author

Letitia Booty

Letitia Booty is a special projects journalist for Real Business. She has a BA in english literature from the University of East Anglia, and since graduating she has written for a variety of trade titles. Most recently, she was a reporter at SME magazine.

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