When Chris Honer bought his dream business, Staffordshire-based Swift Electrical, in March 2019, there’s no way he could have predicted what was around the corner. However, global pandemics aside, Honer has an ambitious five-year plan to turn Swift into an even bigger force in KBB distribution. Rebecca Nottingham finds out more

Having held top positions at a number of major distributors and high-profile brands during his 34-year career in the KBB industry, Chris Honer should need no introduction. Neither of course should Swift Electrical – the 43-year-old, trusted distribution business that he bought from the Swift family back in March 2019. 

“I’ve been in the industry since I left school at 17 – having started out as a direct sales rep for Moben,” he explains. “I cut my teeth in retail but it’s distribution where I really found my passion for the industry. What can I say, I’m quirky – I like warehouses and I like racking [laughs].”

Jokes aside, a quick glance at Honer’s CV and you’ll see that he’s a born-and-bred KBB man with distribution at the heart of it all. His first major role in the distribution sector came in 1989 when he joined Bolton-based Mark Two. But it’s his time at Wolseley-owned BCG that well and truly put his name in the metaphorical KBB distributor hall of fame. 

“I joined Wolseley as sales director in 2005 to  assist the group with its acquisitions of Broughton Bathrooms, Crangrove and Galley Matrix,” he says. “We then merged them to create one large distribution business – BCG. 

“I became the MD [of BCG] when it was turning over £54 million a year. When I left in 2013, the turnover had peaked at £115m. That has to be the biggest achievement in my career to date – by a country mile. 

“We had the deep pockets of Wolseley behind us, but they were also very progressive and supportive, which really helped me – and the dynamic team we had – to grow BCG. In the downturn of 2008, where a lot of our competitors pulled away from marketing, we actually did the complete opposite and ramped up our advertising.”

So, it’s perhaps no surprise then that two years ago he decided to take the plunge and buy his own distribution business. But what was it about Swift Electrical specifically that interested him? 

“It’s the longest established branded sink, tap and appliance distribution company in the UK,” he says. “It has a fabulous reputation, fantastic loyal customers and a brilliant brand proposition. It’s simply a great business opportunity for me and my family.

“Andrew [Swift – previous owner and son of founder Jim] wanted to retire from the business but, because it’s been going for over 40 years and it’s a Swift-family legacy, he was adamant that he would only sell it to someone who would continue the family-orientation of the business. So, I was the right fit – he [Andrew] knew me well, we had a mutual respect for one another having been competitors, he knew I understood the industry and, more to the point, the dark art of distri-bution, that I’m passionate for growth and that, ultimately, I would look after the business – and the Swift name. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Alongside the loyal and experienced team of employees that Honer inherited – which includes a number of staff members who have been with the business for more than 16 years – in keeping with the family-business theme, Honer has brought in wife Sharon  – whom he met in 1994 at Mark Two Distribution, where she was the credit manager of the Bristol branch – as customer service director, his son Ollie works in sales and, daughter Jess looks after social media and PR. 

To put the attractive proposition of Swift more into context, pre-Covid the business was turning over £22.5m a year making it, Honer says, the fourth largest traditional KBB distributor in the UK. But, if his achievements at BCG tell you anything, it’s that Honer is ambitious and, now that it’s his own company, his passion for growth is perhaps even more pertinent.

Despite the pressures of Brexit uncertainty and the challenges brought about by Covid during the two years since he bought Swift, to say Honer has made his mark on the business would be putting it mildly. 

“We have no exit strategy. We bought a successful business, but there’s so much room to grow it just needed a fresh pair of eyes and a new perspective,” he explains. “We’re a sleeping giant. I believe we can become the main distributor for branded kitchen appliances and sinks and taps in the UK – that’s the aim over the next five years.”

Honer outlines three strategic objectives to get the business to where he wants it to be in five years; to become the independent retailers’ distributor of choice, to deliver excellence through service and availability and to become its suppliers’ distributor of choice. 

Traditional distributors, like Swift, are rare these days, with many companies evolving into own-brand manu-fac-turers. Is diversifying part of the plan?

“I set the stall out early on – we won’t diversify,” he confirms. “I want Swift to be known as the expert in branded sinks, taps and appliances distribution – that’s it. 

“We will never become a kitchen furniture brand and we’ll never go into bathrooms and – something that really resonates with our suppliers – we will never design/manufacture our own products. We will only ever sell proprietary brands.

“My personal view is that, when you diversify as a distributor you run the risk of losing your competency across the board. We have to be good at what we do – and that is getting products to retailers when they need them. We have so many opportunities to grow – such as increasing our independent retailer base and expanding our merchant division – we don’t need a new product offering.”

That said, where Honer is open to changing the Swift portfolio is by intro-ducing new product categories and brands that comple-ment its offering and create more oppor-tunities for retailers.

“We’re the ‘Big Brand distributor’ – that’s our speciality,” he says. “I felt there were gaps in our range, so we’ve added some great brands to the portfolio too – Rangemaster, Falcon, Mercury and Carron Phoenix, Franke’s sister brand. As well as launching the new Franke extraction products as their exclusive national distributor. So, we’re expanding the portfolio in that way.”

Aside from expanding its portfolio, Honer has made several more signi-ficant changes to improve efficiency and make dealing with Swift even easier for retailers and suppliers.

“We haven’t stood still – despite going through two Brexit deadlines and a global pandemic,” he says. “We’ve refreshed our marketing and streamlined our processes to make things easier and more efficient.”

In keeping with Honer’s passion for traditional distribution – which is as much about logistics and customer service as it is about the products themselves – perhaps one of the most significant changes is the introduction of a completely new “dynamic” delivery system in order to increase the frequency of deliveries across the UK.  

“Most distributors will have set days where they deliver to certain areas,” explains Honer. “That means that no matter when they place the order, retailers will have to wait for their set delivery day to receive the goods.

“Our dynamic delivery service means we don’t just run the same routes on the same van on the same day every week, which means we can cover more of the country more often.

“So, we now go every–where twice a week, but that also means that, as the business grows, we’ll go every-where how–ever many times a week we need to. It makes us more efficient – using less vans and less time but actually delivering more goods – which is what our cus——–tomers need from us.”

Honer’s aspirations for Swift are clear but so is the fact that its customer – the independent KBB retailer – is at the heart of everything. It’s this attitude that makes his five-year growth plan seem achieveable. After all, a business is nothing without its customers. 

“Independent retailers are the backbone of this industry and everything we do here is to help retailers be even better at what they do. Over and above all of that, we provide them with a credit function, the importance of which came to light during the height of the pandemic.

“Our aspirations are clear – we want to be the main distribution business in the sinks, taps and appliance sector in the UK,” he concludes. “We will only achieve this by keeping our customers’ needs at the heart of everything we do and continuing to provide a good service and remaining loyal to
our suppliers.”

Perhaps in five years – or less – Honer will refer to Swift as the biggest achievement of his KBB career, by a country mile.

Fact file: Swift Electrical

• Established in 1978, Swift is one of the UK’s largest distributors of appliances, sinks and taps.
• It has long-standing relationships with some of the biggest brands including BSH, Whirlpool, Hotpoint and Franke.
• Its team of 54 operates from a 55,000sq ft site in Staffordshire – 45,000sq ft of which is dedicated to warehousing.
• It has 36,000 SKUs and operates with a rolling stockholding of £2 million.
• It delivers to all areas of England and Wales at least twice a week.

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