The annual PC Europa figures make interesting reading, if only because they show the volatility of the reseller market in the UK. Yet even if companies, like empires, rise and fall, there's also some very good news for the channel with many of the big names recording solid growth.
Max Hotopf, editor of the report called PC Dealers and Vars in Europe, said the trend for the next year will be merger mania. 'I expect big American dealers like Entex, Inacom and Vanstar to follow Microwarehouse's example,' he said. 'Seven of the top 20 (European) dealers made significant acquisitions in 1995.'
But the European pattern is not necessarily the same as the UK pattern, even though we saw SHL Systemhouse buy Planning Consultancy. Last year the first five in terms of sales were Computacenter, SCH, P&P, Corporate Computers (now Info'products) and SHL Systemhouse. That's changed, and quite dramatically. It's no real surprise that Computacenter, with its half billion-pound turnover, continues to hold number one slot. But this year P&P has knocked SCH off the number two perch, while Technology shoots up from number eight to number three. SCC drops to number five while Info'products has been relegated to number seven.
But these figures need careful analysis. PC Europa's figures distinguish between the distribution function and the reseller function. The SCH group, for example, has several strings to its bow including distributor ETC and the Byte superstore group. Last year it split its divisions into separate profit and loss centres. With sales of u157 million, it's a considerable player in the corporate reseller market, and if you add in ETC and Byte, total turnover amounts to well over u300 million, making SCH one of the top three players. That shows the 50/50 split in the company pretty clearly.
Otherwise, the dealer charts are all a little reminiscent of Alan Freeman or Jimmy Saville on Top of the Pops, but there are corporate resellers bubbling under just like Boney M, Jethro Tull, or the Sweet. These are the resellers to watch. From nowhere, comes Michael Kianfar's System International. Unplaced in last year's figures, it now occupies number 17. Lantec continues to slip.
One thing the figures clearly show is the difference between the biggest companies like Computacenter and the smaller resellers. Computacenter, as everyone is aware, is way out in front, but profits are slim despite a massive turnover.
Martin Hellawell, head of marketing at Computacenter, said: 'If you look at our systems resources, our stock and our price we have a demonstrably better offering than the others.' Back in 1988, he said, the firm's founders realised they needed to plan the growth of the business.
'A lot's down to planning business processes. One of the owners has a management consultancy background while Peter Ogden ran Morgan Stanley.
The gap started to widen from 1988 onwards. We made a lot of investment then in logistics and systems.'
Hellawell agreed that competition in the reseller market is healthy.
'There will always be customers who like a specific company and there's still room for smaller companies.' In part that's dictated by the nature of corporate business. The way they order means business is put out for tender and there can never be just one runner in the race,' he said.
According to Hellawell, Computacenter is growing at an exponential rate.
'This year, we'll see a lot bigger growth than last year,' he said. Last year Computacenter showed 20 per cent growth but he expects it to be around 50 per cent this year.
The painful process of the early 1990s saw many names disappear while mid-range and smaller resellers experienced stagnant growth. That does seem to have disappeared. Hotopf said the top five resellers grew by 36.6 per cent, the next five by 47.3 per cent and the rest by 30.4 per cent. These are healthy figures and show that the UK channel seems to be over the worst of the recession and headed for healthy growth. More importantly, it shows that large corporations are beginning to spend serious money again.
But there are downsides to that, according to Harry Thuillier, MD of Fraser Associates. 'The PC market is tough and everybody is finding that very flat,' he said. 'PCs have never been so cheap but consultancy and value added is very busy, and that's what we're concentrating on.'
Fraser Associates is interested in growing profitability rather than sheer turnover based on sales of tin. Thuiller said: 'We needed to have our heads above the parapet, not so people could shoot our heads off but so they could see us. Our parapet position will be u30 million and you need to be there to be noticed.'
Thuiller said that last year Fraser Associates had deliberately decided to grow its turnover by a small amount. 'We aimed for small turnover growth but for a much larger growth in margin, which we've exceeded. We expect to make u800,000 this year on a turnover of u25 million.'
The move into higher margin business will continue in the coming year as resellers take up more of the slack left by vendors struggling to cope with the commoditisation of the server market. Whether resellers can cope with this depends on a willingness to invest in training in order to deliver the levels of service that users are demanding. (See Page 32-33 for full listing.)
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