Amanda Bagley is president of Bedford Specialty Sales, Inc., a Massachusetts-based distributor of specialty chemicals. Founded 16 years ago, its six employees serve all the New England states and upstate New York.
What have been among the most significant changes in the industry since Bedford was founded?
I think the biggest change we’ve seen is the consolidation among chemical producers and as they merge, their distribution plans normally change. It’s become a trend in our industry to increase your footprint. A lot of distributors have also merged in recent years so we’ve seen a lot of these super regionals and mega-sized multinationals appear. However, we’ve found the larger distributors can’t provide the same levels of personalized service, particularly for the specialty chemicals side of the industry. We’ve found this has actually been an opportunity for Bedford as this is where we excel. We’ve built our business around personalized technical service. As a smaller company, we’ve found our niche.
What do you see as the major challenges facing distributors?
We continue to see regulatory pressures, which lead to higher costs and prices, as well as margin pressure. But we feel most emphasis is on safety and security – most of the audits we’ve participated in have focused on this. We think NACD membership and participation in Responsible Distribution is going to be more critical in the future. Competition is going to continue to be fierce, so we think companies that comply with all the security, environmental and regulatory requirements and safer practices are going to come out on top. Being an NACD member definitely gives us an edge over our competition. Many chemical producers nowadays require all their distribution partners to be NACD members.
After the tough economic times of recent years, is business improving?
We think 2015 will be a strong year and things are recovering but it seems to be at a much slower pace than previous downturns. I think 2014 has been an improvement over the year before but it hasn’t been a steady increase. We’ve seen large peaks and valleys – one month can be great, the next is not so good. This makes it difficult to forecast and maintain the correct inventory, which is one of the biggest issues distributors face. Our customers are operating very cautiously and wanting shorter lead times, while our principals are requiring longer lead times meaning we end up carrying much larger inventories so we can respond quickly to customers’ needs.
Are distributors still having difficulties hiring skilled staff and keeping them?
It’s always difficult to find good people these days, specifically to find those who are interested in the chemical industry and distribution. There’s not a lot of glamour in the work so it’s always challenging. Our people need to have a technical understanding of the products they’re distributing to sell them effectively, but most importantly they’ve got to be good with people and have a strong work ethic. We’ve been pretty successful these past few years and have recently focused more on younger people coming out of school to train and teach them our business. Finding good people is going to be critical to our survival. We don’t make any products so what we provide is our service. We’ve built our company and our reputation on providing superior technical service, so it’s critical all our employees are committed to that. I’m confident the people we’ve got will stay with us for the long term. I think they see I’m looking to them as my succession plan.
What are your ambitions for Bedford?
We definitely want to continue to grow the business. Probably the best way for us to achieve that is by adding new specialty lines to complement what we already offer. We’ve found over the past 16 years that we continually have to re-invent ourselves to continue to grow, so we always try to talk with our customers to find out where their focus is and get them the right products. You always have to be willing to make changes and adapt. So far that philosophy has worked well for Bedford and we hope it will serve us well for the future.