Customer Story: Bearings Warehouse


2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the Sheffield-based company Bearings Warehouse. The company was founded back in 1988 by Martin Sowter. Chris Parish, the current Managing Director, was its first and only employee back then. Chris recently visited our office to tell us more about his experience for the last three decades. One of most important milestones for him was certainly the digitalisation of his entire business. No matter that BWH has always been ahead of the curve, Chris wishes he had embraced the Fourth Industrial Revolution earlier. Delegating the IT side of things to Decode Studios freed him up to do what he is good at - selling bearings. Chris can now manage his entire business out of the comfort of his office because the bespoke stock control system, the accounting system, the online store and all supporting software solutions were built to meet his specific needs. This means he can sell bearings faster and dispatch them everywhere around the globe before his competitors - be it Europe, Africa, South and North America, Asia or even Australia.

Chris shared lots of inspiring stories with us that is why we are publishing his interview in its entirety. As a successful Managing Director he has a lot of advice to share related to why to digitalise your business, how to conquer foreign markets, what is going on in the manufacturing industry, how to motivate your employees to enjoy working for you, what to do when a business starts decaying and many more. Enjoy the reading!

Decode Studios: Hi Chris! Can you please tell us more about BWH, your customers and your business in general?

Chris Parish: Bearings Warehouse is a company that has been around for more than 30 years. We sell all types of bearings and their associated products. We are based in Sheffield, but our customers are world-wide – Europe, Australia, South Africa, the Americas. We will keep on sending our bearings anywhere. If we get an inquiry, we will quote it, get the order and ship it. We do a lot of importing too, we bring about a container every quarter out of the Americas and we have daily shipments coming in from Europe. We are bringing a lot of goods in; a lot of goods are coming the other end as well.

DS: How about the UK market? Is it a priority to you?

Chris: Our customer base used to consist of 100% UK customers. It started to change a while ago and now it’s about 50% overseas and 50% in the UK. We used to trade only, but now we are dealing with OEMs, massive electronics companies like Bosch and end-users. We have a lot of projects in Scotland related to the steel and gas industries. Our products are going everywhere at the moment.

DS: Bearings Warehouse is now a successful company with many years of experience. You have a clear vision for the future, how did you get this far though? Did you found BWH 30 years ago with the idea to turn it into what it is now?

Chris: I am not one of the original founders. I worked for a kitchen and bedroom company in Unstone for 2 years. Martin, the founder and CEO of BWH, was a customer of ours, I was in charge of dealing with him. He knew my employers. When they went into liquidation, he was starting Bearing Brokers, the old name of our business. He offered me a job because he needed someone in the office. I used to do the orderings, I used to talk to customers, to do the drawings, to deliver the goods, to clean up the site, to organize the fitters and whatever is needed in order to get everything going. I used to work in the office, in the stores, in the factory, on the phone. I was already trained up. I had all the knowledge that he was looking for in order to start the bearing company. He offered me a job in October 1988. Which means that I have been with BWH for 30 years exactly. At the beginning, it was me and him and we had a couple of lads helping us. Martin, the founder of the company, made a very clear offer: “I will give you the training and everything that is available for you to go all the way. If you don’t want to do it, that’s fine, you don’t have to, I will bring other people in.“ I was very young myself, I had just turned 18. I chose to stay and I have been growing professionally ever since. The business has been growing at the same time . Our old office in Sheffield used to be only about 6 000 sq. foot. Now it is 40 000 sq. foot. We have been expanding outside of Sheffield too, we have branches in Bristol, Worthing and Dublin. Now I am running the whole business, it’s my fourth year as managing director. I have full control. It has been a full turn from selling bearings as surplus, i.e. redundant stocks from companies, to where we are now - we distribute for manufacturers from Germany, Canada, Spain, England, etc. It’s a lot of work, but I am enjoying it really! Every day is different. You do not know what is going to come, it could be busy or just a steady day. I could be in a van picking up loads of stock, I could spend the day on the phone. Things have been changing in the environment too. Before we used the telephone and fax only, now everything goes via the email. The older generation constantly ring you, but the newer generation is just email, very little chatting, you never hear their voices.

DS: What are your specific responsibilities, Chris? Are you still in charge of what you used to be in charge of before you became Managing Director?

Chris: The business has been changing a lot during the last 30 years, but I keep on being active on the day-to-day selling, I am a big part of the sales force. I deal with all the exports. I am also trying to run the whole place. Besides sales, I take care of the supply, accounts, computers and what every single one of our 18 employees is dealing with. Most of our people are in Sheffield, we also have 3 in Bristol, 2 in Worthing and 2 in Ireland. Small amount of people, but high efficiency.

DS: Which ones were your happiest moments for the last 30 years? What do you consider your biggest achievements?

Chris: To me personally, opening new markets was a big milestone and a big achievement. When I joined the company, we used to get the word out only using traditional advertisement – sending brochures by the post or by the fax machine. Now it’s mostly email advertising, but we also use google, social media, etc. Bringing in new markets, for example the Brazilian one, was very important to me. We have seen some very big orders coming from Brazil. Early on, we never thought we would open branches, but now we have 3 outside of Sheffield. This is one of the happy moments during the last 30 years. We thought we would deal with surplus only but now we have distributor ships; this was never envisaged. Putting another string in the bow, doing the loose balls and rollers that’s a very niche market.

We have achieved a lot, but still there is a lot to be achieved. There is a lot of work on a daily basis, but I am one of those who love going to work. Some people can’t get the concept of it, they would rather retire and stay at home. I enjoy dealing with the new challenges coming my way on a regular basis. Whether it’s getting parcels out at night, finding stock, getting the stock away, dealing with a temperamental customer or something completely unexpected. There are so many interesting things happening all the time, I just really enjoy what I do. It does not feel like a job any more, it’s a part of me. If you took it away from me it would leave a massive whole. The social effect of all these interactions is also inspiring. I speak to people from all over the world every day. We discuss football, sports, etc. I have first-hand information about everything that is happening in the world from people living in the respective countries.

DS: According to our information, football and sports in general is one of your big passions…

Chris: Yes, it is. In my free time I tend to be doing the sports. I am in the gym every morning and during the weekend if I am not working, I am cycling. Football is the sport that I dedicate most time to, though. I train a local team of kids, all of them are around 18 years old. I started working with them when they were under 8. We’ve been together for 10 years already. I saw them grow up. BWH is the sponsor of the football team. When the holiday does come I enjoy switching off my job and my hobbies and just relaxing at home.

DS: We talked about BWH’s path to where you are now, we talked about the successful moments, let me switch the direction now and let’s look into the future. What comes next? What are your plans for the next 5-10 years?

Chris: One of our most important goals is to increase our online presence and have an online store. It is obvious that the younger generation buys everything from the internet. Things are changing now. Most people nowadays do the Christmas shopping online. The online purchases in every sector and industry will be going up and we believe that the bearing market is not an exception. Most of the existing business can be done online that is why growing our online market share is one of the big challenges but also a big motivation to keep on improving our services. We want to be able to offer the best to our customers and we are ready to work hard till we get there. We do not expect customers to stop ringing for the product knowledge and that is why we will keep on being on the end of the phone too. But people now want brand new stock, they do not want an old box or an old bearing unless they need a particular old model of bearing that has been discontinued. We can now get in touch with the manufacturers and have something made per our request, there will be, of course, a minimal order time, minimal delivery so we need to look at different venues, different supply, etc. All these actions are easier done online. It saves time and we can do more without leaving the office. That is why our online presence is such a priority. Decode Studios is at the verge of launching our online presence for us which again means we are about to open new doors and new markets. Exciting times are coming!

DS: Going online is certainly a huge advantage, there is no question about it. But some business owners are reluctant to accept the changes. If you were to convince them to go online, what kind of  business benefits would you mention?

Chris: Going online means more revenue, this is a benefit no business should ignore. It also means you can go into different markets easier, make your products available to people you would never come across using the traditional ways. Being online means you can deal with both the end user and the OEM. Another important advantage is the time you save - we are able to take a lot of business without any interaction because our customers go online and buy directly. On our end we only see their order and we dispatch it. Some of the online orders are very small value, talking to somebody on the phone for a small value order isn’t cost-effective. Pushing the small orders into the online store means we save some of our employees’ time.

Selling online has another important advantage related to your own knowledge on our own customers. When people buy online you can pull the statistics very easily and you know exactly what has been sold, how many of each item, where your customers come from, how often they open your online store, etc. All the data helps you be prepared for what to buy, how to organize your stock, etc. Customers who fill all the fields in make our lives easier because the more information we have, the better marketing strategies we can set. Without this kind of knowledge, it would be hard to take advantage of Google Ads and Google AdWords. We used to be focused on sales through eBay, but it comes with a higher cost for us because of the high fees of PayPal. We would like to avoid these fees and sell online on our own.

DS: It’s 2018. We live in the Digital Age. Everything is changing around us. The manufacturing industry is not an exception. But still, there are a lot of companies staying behind.

Chris: I was listening to the local radio in Sheffield this morning and the owner of a shop in Penistone was being interviewed. He updated the audience that they have started accepting credit card payments only a week ago. Only a week ago! Everything was cash just a week ago. I know that within our industry there’s a lot of companies that don’t have an online presence. They are falling further and further behind. Companies like ours and some new and innovative businesses are starting to overtake them. The market is becoming smaller and smaller. With the Digital Age you’ve got to have an online presence. If you have not, you will fall away.

DS: How about the internal digitalisation of your company? A lot of companies still use paper and pen for most of their operations. What is the situation at Bearings Warehouse?

Chris: This is something that we have already dealt with. Decode Studios have been doing various things for us in that respect – the computer system, the messenger system and similar things. Decode wrote a new fully bespoke system for us and now we can do online quoting. There is still room for pen and paper as such, but nowhere near as much as there used to be. We now send quotes over the internet whereas before we used to type them out on a processor and put them through the fax machine. In addition, you get a record of everything so that everyone in the organization can see what’s been quoted and pick up off that order if need be. Our system is available for everyone in the organization now while before the orders would stay visible only to the respective branch and no one else would be able to access them. If you needed any information you would have to ring up and spend 10 mins chatting and finding out what is available and where. In that respect the business has changed a lot: we started using a new software to manage the orders, the stock, etc.; we also started using a modern phone system, new and faster internet connection, new computer system. Bearings is coming into the new Digital Age altogether.

DS: Sounds like BWH is a very innovative company.

Chris: We are very innovative indeed. Our IT manager Rob takes care of our technology strategy. He is young and motivated to keep everything within the company up to date. We’ve let him run this part. He really lives in the Digital Age, not everyone is like him. The older generation needs to catch up to what people like him are doing.

We try to keep our company up to date in every respect, besides having Rob in our office, we have been working with Decode on our digital strategy. Years ago, the problem used to be that if a computer broke down in one of the branches, I would have to get in a car and go there and deal with it. I met Dan Brennan from Decode Studios and he offered to take care of the maintenance. If a computer breaks, he can log in and fix it online. Suddenly overnight I realised “That’s a day-saver!” It would save me days of travelling around. Since then Decode have helped us in many respects including building a bespoke stock system for us. It has been improved on a regular basis to meet our growing needs. There’s a lot more growth within the system since we launched it and there will be more upgrading in the future.

DS: How about the stock system itself? What does it do? How does it help you run your business on a daily basis?

Chris: The stock system is actually very useful to get the full picture of what is going on with the organization with just one click. It tells you what we have in stock, how much we have sold it for, what condition it’s in, where it is, etc. Anybody within the organization can log in and see it at any time from any part of the world. Whereas before we couldn’t do any of these. We used to leave the offices at night and we wouldn’t know in the morning if somebody else had sold something while we were not at our desks. If somebody asked you for something specific while you were not behind your desk, you would either have to drive to the office or you would have to take the risk of saying “yes, I think we have it” and then go back to work later and find out you don’t have it. Now I can be anywhere sitting here talking to you for example and I can give accurate information to anyone regarding our stock. All I need is a computer and I can start quoting. The new stock system changed things dramatically. We can literally work from any place on Earth.

DS: What was the situation like before you had the stock system? What were the challenges for you and your team?

Chris: We used to operate our business from an old DOS-based system. It was limiting in what sort of information you could put in the system and what sort of information you could pull out of the system. When you start looking for a new stock system, you find out that the market is saturated by off-the-shelf products. Our buying process is not an off-the-shelf buying process. We never went down buying an off-the-shelf package. We went with Decode because Dan could build something to our specification. There were problems down the line with the old system because as soon as we left work, we didn’t know what was what. Now you can be working at anytime from anywhere in the world. Before 8 am every day I am talking to Australia and New Zealand. In the evening the Americas come online. I am constantly quoting. With the new system that is of course very easy. I can quote somebody take an order, take the payment for it and dispatch it the following day. Whereas a lot of our competitors don’t offer that service. They leave work at 6 pm in the evening and they don’t open the doors till 8 am. The companies that have not digitalised their processes are already behind the curve. I’ve done it before they are even awake. By the time I get to the office it’s been shipped; while my competition is only about to start quoting. This is actually a part of the service that we offer. We tell people that this is how we do it – we can send a quote right after we receive an inquiry. I only stop doing it when I really have to turn my computer off and that’s it.

DS: What are the main business advantages of the system in your opinion?

Chris: At the moment, it gives us a lot of flexibility. We can see what we are selling, which means we can do a lot of reports and target according to the purchases. Whereas before we couldn’t. We would have to go to the warehouse and see what is there. Our old system was unable to provide similar information. Our old system would have problems dragging any information out, because our stock information is so vast. Whereas now it is a lot easier to do the reporting. We can easily see what’s selling, what is moving fast. We can go to the manufacturers and see how their stocks are going. If we see their stock is running down, we can put a bigger stock order. 6 months later, let’s say, the manufacturers are running out of goods, we don’t have to wait, we can predict what we will need and when.

DS: Is there anything else that you would like the system to do?

Chris: At the moment we have regular meetings with Decode. During the meetings both sides come up with ideas where we can look at and put one thing or another into the system. It is constantly evolving. Whereas before the old system was just the way it was and we couldn’t do anything about it to make it better or update it to meet our growing needs. Now when we say we need this new feature, we sit down and discuss it and we all come up with ideas on how to do it better. That is how we ended up having the reporting features in our system, we can now see what we are actually buying from the distributors. Which means that we can target properly, we can also plan and be prepared for the future. We can see where our stock has been sold, in which industry. All the information is now in the system, it was not there before. We can target through advertising in google specific markets. Analysing our customers and predicting their behaviour is a lot easier now. It was not possible before at all.

DS: Do you use the system for accounting purposes too?

Chris: Yes, we do. We have somebody employed who does all the bookkeeping behind it. The system affects everything. Every single employee is affected in a way.

DS: What would you tell the people who are wondering whether or not to invest in a new software solution?

Chris: If a business owner wants to take the business forward, they have to invest in new software products. Now we can honestly say that the benefits out of investing are far greater than the amount of money actually invested in a solution. The new stock system gives you more free time to concentrate on what really matters for your business which is new overseas markets in our case. The system takes a lot of the hassle away. You have to invest in new technology if you want your business to prosper.

DS: Do you think that you invested at the right time?

Chris: I think that we should have started working on our IT strategy earlier. For example, we should have had an online presence a lot earlier. We are a bit late in the market when it comes to being online. We can still catch up easily. Because we keep massive stocks and our competition do not keep stock, they rely on our stocks to keep going. We can very much overtake them or catch up with them in a short period of time as long as we have everything within our organization right. When we launched our website, we wanted to make sure that the staff is able to dispatch the items. We didn’t want to start using the new systems and figure out that once we have accumulated 300 orders, we are not able to dispatch them. We want to make sure that everyone is ready for the changes so that we get all the benefits.

DS: Both Bearings and Decode are from Sheffield, an area full of traditional manufacturing businesses. What would you tell the other manufacturing businesses from Yorkshire, Derbyshire, etc.?

Chris: A lot of businesses are short of IT knowledge. In Sheffield factory after factory would open many years ago. Now there are fewer factories open. Now it’s all specialist steels. McLaren is moving into Sheffield. Many of these companies are specialized in a very niche market. This is not exactly the business that used to be available. People have got to diversify, they have to look at their business model and tweak it. Nowadays the business model has to be tweaked all the time. The business owners have to keep on innovating. If they don’t – they are going to be left behind.

DS: There are people in the UK who consider the manufacturing industry a thing of the past, they see it as a dying one. Do you see things the same way?

Chris: The manufacturing industry is definitely going. We went up to Scotland a few weeks ago, one of the massive ports that handle all the coal to go to the power stations is about to shut down. It’s a massive industry. Of course, power stations have been shutting down for a while now. That business is going, you can’t go and replace it. It’s not as if a power station is shutting and there is another one opening next door. The business is just gone.

DS: Is there any way to cope with these changes or obstacles?

Chris: Yes, diversify! 10 years ago, we were operating in a completely different way. We have changed a lot. We are looking at different markets. Different countries. Different ways of operating the business. You find out that your clients need a different product, you start looking for different products that could go within that market and new ways to supply them. We only sold bearings, that’s what we did. But now we are getting involved with all the add-ons, which we never used to do. Again, the innovations are bringing in revenue that was never there before.

DS: Do you tend to be more optimistic or more pessimistic about what is going on with the businesses in Yorkshire?

Chris: We do not deal that much with businesses in Yorkshire. We do deal with businesses in the UK. When it comes to the UK, it will just keep going, we just keep going further and further afield. Hopefully the storm will let us tap into new markets. Never give up! Just keep going, you never know what’s around the corner. Keep on quoting everything. It might be that you are accepting a very small order of £10 today but next time it could be £20 000. You have to quote everybody. You never say no to a client. A lot of companies within our industry were one-man bands like Hayley Group, one of the biggest bearing companies within the UK. They were just bought by a massive European company for a lot of money. And they only started like Martin Sowter (the founder of BWH) started 30 years – as a one-person company.

DS: You are a businessman with 30 years of experience, you have learned a lot when it comes to managing people or expanding to new markets. What is your advice to the businessmen who are just starting their companies?

Chris: Just go and work hard. That’s all. You can be lucky with some deals every now and then, but that’s an exception. Things don’t get given to you without hard work. You have to put the hours in. 30 years later I am still putting many hours in, maybe not as many as at the beginning. I do not need to work as hard anymore because I am seeing the rewards coming back, but very early on I was working 7 days a week and a lot of hours to make a difference. I do not regret anything, not even one minute spent at the office.

DS: What comes next? Would you start another business in the future?

Chris: I think that we will keep on working the way we always have. We will keep on working with bearings and we can sell any kind of bearings, it does not matter really what you sell. We will focus on the online presence and we will expand our markets as much as we can.

DS: Your history is a history of success and going uphill all the time. Do you feel like having a rest from time to time?

Chris: No, no. I would drive myself crazy if I stayed at home. I need something to keep me busy and going. My job at the moment is that drug. I love what I am doing!

DS: You are a very motivated person yourself. How do you motivate the people in your team, especially the younger ones? Many employers have problems motivating the millennials, for example. What is it like to be working with millennials compared to working with people from the preceding generations?

Chris: We have an apprentice who just started with us. One of the incentives was that he would work in all departments within the company. It’s important how you treat other people. Yes, they are a little naïve to start with. So the first few months they start with smaller tasks but later you start diversifying, you send them to different departments, you give them more interesting tasks, etc. You have to show your team through your actions that you are committed to people, that they are an important part of the organization and that what they do even if it’s just emptying the bins is just as important as me selling bearings. If the bin hasn’t been emptied in the evening on the next morning it will be full of rubbish and everybody’s work will stop until it has been emptied. You need to explain on a daily basis to the youngest employees that what they do is important. A lot of companies do not do that and that’s how they demotivate the young ones. Managers just give the young employees the jobs that no one wants to do, and that’s how they lose them.

DS: Do you actually spend time with people explaining how their actions affect the whole organization?

Chris: Oh, yes, that’s exactly what I do. I do spend time with people explaining to them how important their tasks are. I have been there. I’ve swept the floors and emptied the bins, I’ve made the cups of tea, I still do. I know what it’s like, I know that people think: “Oh, why me?!” If you tell them how what they are doing is important to the company, then they will realize it. They also want to see some rewards for what they are achieving. Then they will work with you. People have been with us in excess of 10 years. We must have done something right because we have been able to keep them. We only lose people through retirement or unfortunately death. We had to let one person go once, but I have a strong personal bond with the rest of my people. Besides spending about 8 hours per day in the office, we do a lot of entertaining together. Regular trips into town and drinking together. It’s not only work that connects the people in our team.

DS: Do you want to see BWH turning into a massive corporation?

Chris: No, I do not think that that’s the way we are going. All of us like it the way it is. We may open another branch in Scotland or in the north of Sheffield, but I do not think that it will ever be bigger as an organization. The sales will improve hopefully but that will come through different markets. I don’t think that we will ever be a massive company. Unless someone buys us.

DS: Are you open to similar ideas?

Chris: You never know. If somebody knocked on the door and said look “You are doing great, do you want to be a part of our corporation?”. Why not. Who knows. That’s the path a lot of bearing companies went. They were bought by the big boys in the bearing industry. A lot of Europeans are looking at our market at the moment. All the major players within our market have been bought by European or American companies. So let’s see what happens! 😊

DS: Would you like to add anything else? What are your final words to our audience?

Chris: We have a very good bond with Decode now. I wasn’t looking to have someone doing the IT side of things for BWH. I think it’s strange after so many years that you let someone subcontract and have control over a part of your business. But after I did it, I found out “Oh, I needed to do it 10 years ago!” Because it does free you up to do things that you are good at. I am good at selling bearings. I am not good at writing computer programs. I delegated that bit to the professionals; Decode built our software to meet our specific needs, now I am free to sell the bearings faster and dispatch them anywhere around the globe. If anything goes wrong, I just pick the phone up and Decode are there for me. That means I can sell my bearings.

Dan Brennan