Tow-ing the line at Unique Distribution

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Unique Distribution’s new chief executive Andy Tow is running a tight ship. Since joining the company in June, he has reviewed its procedures, stripped out its excesses and overseen its move from its old cramped warehouse space in Abingdon to a much larger facility in Hayes, Middlesex. It is a speedier vessel as a result, he claims, able to take advantage of new opportunities, both within the mobile space and beyond.

Formerly head of indirect sales at Vodafone and managing director at service provider Adamphones, Tow has quickly left his mark on Unique. Handover from John McFarnon was just one week. But Tow was swift to implement a new board structure at the distributor and tighten finances, without apology for the changes.

“The business did need running a bit tighter – I didn’t come here to make friends,” Tow says frankly.

He now signs every single purchase order, from stationery orders to 100,000 handset orders from Nokia. As a result, the number of purchase orders going out has halved. “It took a while for some people to get used to the fact the chief executive does this, but it’s important for people to justify what they’re ordering,” he says.

Getting the right team

The staff profile has also changed, with some people moving with McFarnon to new distributor Advantage. But in his own defence, Tow says some were staff that didn’t wish to relocate and none were in senior positions. A total of 25 voluntary redundancies were made, and the positions quickly replaced.

Tow also brought back old Unique staffers who had previously left the business, including his national sales manager Ron Wood and former operations manager Nick Thomas, who has been appointed operations director.

“I’m happy with how the staffing situation has worked out,” says Tow. “We’re left with a team who are totally committed to working in this new environment. We spent £12.5 million securing the freehold for this business, which is a secure investment for the future. People were chomping at the bit to move.”

The Hayes warehouse has four times the space of the one at Abingdon, and will be more efficient, according to Tow, who describes the old distribution centre as “creaking at the seams”.

Unique’s new place is also right next to the headquarters of parent company IGB, allowing for closer integration with its operations, which comprise fashion label distribution, car sales, airlines, mining, property and finance, to name but a few. All arms combined, IGB generated more than £3 billion in profit last year. “It’s really diverse,” says Tow. “The support of that organisation is what makes Unique different now, compared to the Unique people knew four years ago.”

He maintains that mobile – airtime, handsets and accessories – will remain Unique’s core focus, but he will take up distribution opportunities that arise through IGB. For example, Unique has signed its first non-mobile distribution agreement, to distribute workwear for retailer Waterstones.

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