Chris Sandwell talks to Irish Printer about creating a dedicated distribution network for UniBoard and why the future looks bright for the paperboard distributor
It’s been a busy couple of years for Elliott Baxter & Co Ltd (EBB Paper). In 2019, the UK-based paper merchant acquired UniBoard, a leading carton board merchant based near Dublin. From the off, the intention was to invest in the business and position the brand to the forefront of the cardboard supplier market. The first step on that journey was to move the business to a purpose-built, state-of-the-art warehouse in Rathcoole, thus increasing storage capacity to 12,000 pallets. Staff numbers at UniBoard have also jumped from 20 to 30, creating 10 new jobs in the process. “We moved from a mish mash of four or five warehouses to a facility where we can house our whole operation under one roof. We also launched a full stock range of paper products aimed at the commercial print sector, including many of Europe’s leading grades such as Sappi GalerieArt, Horizon, Soporset and Navigator. That move has allowed us to target different segments of the marketplace,” said Chris Sandwell, Group Sales & Marketing Director – UK & IRE, at Elliott Baxter & Co Ltd. In April 2021, the company also opened a distribution centre and sales office in Belfast, with the intention of creating a dedicated distribution network. “We used to outsource 85% of our logistics; from the 1st of September this year, we’ll be in a position where we can insource 90% of our logistics. To allow that to happen, we have invested in five large vehicles and two transits.”
Creating its own distribution network has given the company control over quality and timings. Excellent service is key at UniBoard; having its own distribution network has only served to strengthen its commitment to customers. “When you’re using third party logistics outfits, you can’t guarantee when they’ll deliver but in our world, we can deliver on that promise. Other factors also come into play; in the food packaging sector, maintaining the integrity of goods on a lorry is very important. If you’re using a third party, you can’t guarantee what else is going onto that lorry with those goods. There could potentially be a contaminant. When we’re distributing, we only distribute paper and board. We have implemented and continue to maintain a high level of compliance and integrity.” After significant investment in both products and distribution the aim, says Chris, is to be a market-leading stockist of board and paper, capable of getting orders to people quickly and on time, every time.
Investment alone won’t attract new customers, says Chris. Providing a wide supply of products and meeting customers’ needs in terms of efficiency, quality and delivery, will define the company’s success. “We’ve got to prove to customers that we’re good at what we do, that the products we supply are of the highest quality and that we can be competitive. We don’t expect an easy ride but we’re confident that we can deliver on all levels and we’ll be targeting both new and existing customers with our broad range of products.”
Despite Covid, 2020 was a good year for UniBoard. Ten percent business growth was attributed to a buoyant print packaging sector and an ongoing robust demand for products from this segment. Demand in packaging is, says Chris, being driven by the different ways people are consuming products. “Consumers were certainly buying more food products in supermarkets than they were in restaurants. Packaging requirements changed so that has created additional demand in that area. Pharmaceutical packaging, another area in which we operate, also seems quite buoyant.” The ongoing anti-plastic campaign, a movement that has spread worldwide, is also driving people away from plastic-based solutions to recyclable alternatives, says Chris. “Board paper is one of those alternatives. It’s cost-effective, it’s strong and we’re seeing a gradual transition in that area. That growing demand has led to a shortage of supply of wood fibre-based products into European markets. The consumption of those materials is rising on a global scale, a trend that’s putting pressure on demand.”
There are, says Chris, a myriad of challenges facing the different sub-sectors of the print industry, not just the oversupply issue outlined above. When it comes to commercial print, the main area of concern is around supply. “There’s also the transition from litho to digital, declining run lengths and making sure that as a product, we stay relevant. For the packaging sector, the challenges are quite different. As an industry, we would usually be operating on a five-week lead time from order to manufacture to delivery; today we’re looking at between 20 and 25 weeks. That’s a significant difference and an issue that’s being keenly felt in the sector.”
Over the next three years, Chris and the team are aiming to continue to grow the business by double digit percentage and above all, ensure that growth is sustainable. “We want to continue to build and invest in infrastructure and create local jobs and opportunities for local people. Part of that growth lies in commercial print; at the moment the paper side is a small percentage of our turnover.” At EBB in the UK, over 70% of its business is focused on paper. “We see a real opportunity to grow that side of the business at UniBoard. We’re highly experienced in the paper marketplace and we will bring that level of expertise and what we believe is a competitive buying advantage to the Irish market.” With significant investment having gone into distribution, stock and sales, now’s the time to knuckle down and ensure customer service is the top priority, says Chris. “Although EBB is a large company, it’s still a family-run, independently owned business. That ethos is central to how we operate and how we treat our customers. Right now, our job is to make sure we have excellent availability of our market-leading brands and a reliable service for our customers across Ireland.”