IT Reseller met up with Mike Pullon, CEO of distributor Varlink, at the company's recent Meet the Manufacturer event at Whittlebury Hall, Northamptonshire, to hear about recent developments within the company, and how it continues to enhance its service offering to the channel.
Varlink, the York-based mobile computing and data capture specialist distributor, held its 10th Meet the Manufacturer event on 25 February at Whittlebury Hall, Northamptonshire, allowing key manufacturers to engage with resellers and showcase their latest products.
The event proved to be one of the distributor's largest gatherings of suppliers, including main event sponsor Honeywell and hospitality sponsor Trimble alongside Brother, Datalogic, Getac, Janam, Opticon, Orient, Posiflex, Seagull Scientific and SOTI. Extricom, now part of Allied Telesis showcased its Wireless LAN system and Motorola Solutions, now part of Zebra Technologies, who is the official gift sponsor, displayed its full IMC terminal range alongside Zebra's established printer range. MTM15 showed that Varlink has come a long way since it was first established in 2005 as a specialist distributor of AIDC solutions. Over the past decade, the range of products and services offered by Varlink has been constantly enhanced and reappraised in order to provide the most efficient, reliable and cost-effective product and service offering to VARs and systems integrators working in a wide range of vertical sectors, including retail & hospitality, healthcare, government & finance and manufacturing & logistics.
So, what have been some of the key developments at Varlink over the past year or so? Varlink's CEO, Mike Pullon, explained that one of the highlights for the company has to be Honeywell awarding Varlink a major distribution contract in early 2014. Furthermore, following Honeywell's acquisition of Intermec Varlink now has now been appointed as distributor for all Intermec products in the UK and Ireland. Over the past year, Varlink has also developed an even stronger relationship with Zebra Technologies. "One of the things we have done to enhance our relationship with long-term vendor partner Zebra was to establish an extra warehouse to accommodate an extensive stock of Zebra labels and ribbons," explained Pullon. "Indeed, we are the only direct distributor for Zebra that has a warehouse in the UK. Some of our competitors are based overseas and have sales offices in the UK, but if you're a UK reseller that needs guaranteed next-morning delivery at an economic price then were really the only game in town."
Varlink's Alliance Programme brings together the company's VARs, manufacturers and a select group of complementary product and service providers to the mutual benefit of all parties, enabling resellers to identify and meet user opportunities for the products and services available from these third parties. Pullon maintains that it is increasingly difficult for many system integrators and solution providers to create all the elements necessary to produce a deal-winning solution. "End users are looking to source a comprehensive range of services and utilities which enhance the core functionality of their software solution, and ideally this should be wrapped up within a single cost," he said. "It is our aim to deliver our resellers added value by building a network of outsource partners there to support them in fulfilling end user requirements helping to increase overall competitiveness." In terms of the services provided by partners active within the Alliance Programme, Pullon explained that this could involve anything from supplying mobile connections for terminals to wireless network site surveys, installation and maintenance.
The introduction of Varlink's online services has also proved highly popular with VARs. "VARs can place their order online and if the cost is over £100 they don't pay any carriage costs," explained Pullon. "This route to market has led to a substantial growth in our label and ribbon sales, and also good growth in Zebra printers. We've consolidated our value package around a traditional distribution model whereby we stock more products, ship within a very short timeline and sell at an extremely competitive price point."
Pullon added that Varlink has also improved the capability of its website. "Now, there is lots more information in terms of the range and technical specification of our scanners, terminals, software, printers, print media, EPoS systems – including a section on new products," he pointed out. "There is also detailed information about our Alliance Programme, technical support and warranties, plus industry news and much more."
In terms of training, Pullon explained that this service has now been brought back in-house, rather than a service that is available via some of Varlink's supplier partners. "In November 2014 we recruited Steve Archer as technology support manager, with responsibility for the day-to-day delivery of pre-and post-sales technical support. Steve's appointment has freed up our technology director Bill Gordon to manage the vendor relationships, make further investments in service support and also put in place a really well-developed company-wide training plan, which has upped the knowledge base available to our partners."
Back to basics
Pullon explained that Varlink is focused on continuing to develop what he describes as a 'back to basics' approach in order to best satisfy the requirements of its customers, and thereby further its own business growth. "I've come to the realisation that, no matter how innovative a new idea might be, if it doesn't create more tangible business opportunities for us and our customers then what's the point of doing it?," he said. "Although we are a growing business we are small and specialised enough to be able quickly to pull ourselves back when necessary from a route that is proving less than effective," he said, adding that this flexibility also gives the company some spare thought capacity. "If a vendor partner tells us it is currently facing a particular business challenge and would like our help or advice we are in a position to engage with them very quickly," he said. "For example, when Zebra came to see us a couple of years ago with a challenge concerning the distribution of its labels and ribbons in the UK, and when Honeywell contacted us with a challenge regarding UK distribution of their scanners we could sit down with them and discuss our routes to market and the capabilities of our VAR partners, and then come up with effective solutions within a very short timescale."
Taking the tablets
And what of some of the current key technology trends within the world of AIDC solutions? Pullon observes that tablet PCs are continuing to show steady market growth. "A few years ago the early industrial tablets were developed for particularly challenging environments such as military applications, and so were extraordinarily tough," he remembers, adding that more recently, companies such as Getac and Trimble have continued to develop tablets that have high levels of ingress protection and that have been rigorously drop-tested. "However, it is now widely recognised that while business-to-business devices need to be constructed to a tougher specification than their consumer-grade counterparts, they don't have to look unattractive or not particularly user-friendly," he said.
Pullon also made the point that a lot of warehouse operators are now required to do interactive work. "However, the large screen size of traditional tablets, such as those used as forklift truck terminals, isn't ideal for their requirements. The good news is that much of the functionality on these terminals is now available on a lightweight rugged tablet. This type of development is currently driving a healthy volume of sales."
Pullon adds that overarching all of these benefits is the increased level of comfort the average operator is now enjoying in the workplace. Moreover, he reflects that these operators are likely to have a consumer tablet or smartphone at home, which means they will already be largely conversant with how to operate a mobile device, thus reducing the need for training in the business environment. "The world of the consumer device is certainly having a profound effect on the business-to-business space, even in terms of the user-friendliness of the software and the development of the devices' form factor," he added.
On the pulse of change
According to Pullon, one of the main focuses of a business like Varlink is keeping abreast of customer's changing product and service requirements. "We read blogs, see tweets, read articles and regularly commission in-depth market research in order to gauge as accurately as possible what our customers or potential customers want from their distributor of choice," he said. "However, overall, it's quite clear that the main thing they require is a really well-executed distributional service with the provision of devices that are pertinent to their end-user needs. So I think one of our strengths is we are only concerned with the UK and Ireland. We can focus everything we do within these territories and therefore the cumulative experience of our 35 employees has been gained by working within this geographical sphere. Some of us have been involved in the industry for more than 30 years, and over that time we've seen a lot of trends and changes and we've got to know a lot of customers very well. Indeed, knowing your customers' views and market instincts is critically important in terms of keep on top of what are likely to be the next major trends in our industry. We think of it as a valuable partnership."