Family ownership, geeking out and CORE values: Ison on 28 years in the trade

Rebecca Morley visits Ison Distribution in Ely, Cambridgeshire, to find out more about the distributor’s ground-up approach to supporting independent dealers

As modern retail challenges continue to rear their ugly heads, it has become more and more important that larger companies throughout our industry support the IBD, and, judging from general trade chatter throughout the past year, it’s clear how significant an impact a strong distributor relationship can have on a local bike shop. Lloyd Townsend, managing director of Ison Distribution, has first-hand experience of many of the issues involved in running an IBD, from the showroom through to the office duties, and beyond into the workshop.

The family-owned company was started in Cambridge in 1895 by Townsend’s great grandfather, JA Townsend, who was making his own bicycles, which were branded as The Light Blue.

“I joined Townsends in 1978 as a Saturday lad aged 14,” Townsend says, “and learnt from the ground up what being an independent bicycle dealer was all about. After a two-year FE Business Studies course at Technical college, I started working in the family business full time, aged 18.”

Not long after starting, he became ‘factory-trained’ at Raleigh as a mechanic, back in the days of the Triumph Road establishment. “In the early 1990s, I travelled to several international cycle shows and soon realised there appeared to be a host of interesting and useful products that back then weren’t readily available in the UK,” he continues. “I wondered if we could successfully offer other IBDs some of the useful items that were available to us. For the next 15 years, we saw steady organic growth of the distribution business until we were operating on split sites within the city, with stock bursting at the seams.”

In 2006, a new bespoke facility was decided upon, the building was designed, and the ground purchased. On 31st July 2009, Ison moved into its present purpose-built office and warehouse facility on Lancaster Way, Ely. It expanded the warehouse capacity by another 75% in 2014 and also installed a 50KW solar power system to the roof.

Geeking out
Ison is not a mass volume bike distributor but is instead heavily focused on the specialist parts area of the market. Townsend explains that with his background stemming from the workshop in his career in the whole business, he’s got a bit of unusual passion for being a bit of ‘bike geek’.

He says the company is most interested in the successful distribution of sustainably modest volumes of high-quality, desirable bikes, being sold at competitive prices by full-service dealers that know and understand both the products and the customers’ needs. 

Its bike brands include All City, Surly, The Light Blue Urban, The Light Blue Sport, Identiti and Benno, the latter being new for 2020 and is Ison’s initial venture into the e-bike market place. Identiti began life as the classic ‘for riders by riders’ small bike company, and the current mountain bike range was spearheaded by former sponsored rider Pat Campbell-Jenner, aided in no small part by industry icon Michael Bonney. Ison has a stack of spacers, adapters, tools and all manner of specialist kit, Townsend adds. Put simply, he likes to offer solutions to problems for his customers, and says that “we even distribute a brand from the USA called ‘Problem Solvers’”. 

Ison exclusively distributes a significant number of component and accessory brands including Dia Compe brakes, MRP chain devices and suspension, Renthal handlebars/stems, Tioga saddles/tyres, HT pedals, TSG helmets, SP dynamos and Rohloff Speedhubs. It also distributes several newly emerging leading specialist brands such as Cush Core, Redshift Suspension stems and seat posts, and BZ optics. These brands are often “carving new sectors in the market,” Townsend says.

In addition to the brands it works closely with on an exclusive basis, Ison also has in-house brands that are designed to complement Ison’s exclusive brand partners. These include Halo Wheels, Gusset Components, Genetic Components and Passport Accessories.

The company has a staff base of brand managers, designers and engineers that are all passionate about the products they develop, and so Townsend says it’s not so unusual for Ison’s in-house brands to manage to score well against several other ‘larger’ brands in independent tests and reviews.

Ison holds around 11,000 different SKUs in stock and aims to ship the same day for orders placed before 1pm on an overnight service to UK mainland destinations. The ability for dealers to mix and match with so many options in one portfolio is a strength that the distributor offers. Townsend says: “We often find that we have the options needed by the dealer on the shelf that no-one else cares about, and I think that’s because we understand the needs of the IBD.

“In essence, we are aiming to offer the key benefit of one order, one supplier, one delivery, and one set of paperwork. This all goes to help make things more efficient for the dealer in handling specialist products, and in the process of delivering this, our dealers can, in turn, offer great products at competitive prices that their customers will appreciate.”

Improving Point of Sale items is something that Ison is continually developing for its house brands, and also working in closer cooperation with its exclusive partner brands too. It recognises that branding at the physical point of sale can make the difference in selection for the consumer. As such, it is happy to provide available POS for specialist dealers who want to commit to selling their products in-store. In addition, it is also happy to discuss bespoke co-op POS options where something may be applicable. 

Staffed by cyclists
With over 25 years of experience and with many knowledgeable staff, Ison remains on hand to provide expertise and advice, Townsend continues. It is staffed primarily by cyclists. This means that its sales staff, brand managers, warehouse staff, webmaster, designer and engineer, are all passionate about what they do on a day to day basis.

“However, being the boss and being more than a bit of a ‘bike geek’ myself, it’s also quite satisfying being able to have many of the ‘get me out of jail’ tools, adaptors, spacers to supply our customers,” Townsend says. “Those bits and pieces are often quite niche, and as such, they may not deliver us the biggest profits, but they do allow us to complete the full package of goods for the customers we serve. I feel quite fortunate that we don’t have to answer to venture capitalists or other financially driven paymasters for every decision that we take in business.”

He says he expects some of the design decisions Ison made with its building specification in 2009 may have been questioned at the time, but he thinks that now, its green investments are becoming “easy to understand”.  On recycling, he says it’s certainly a “big deal”, and one Ison tries to support, but it’s also important to re-use where possible. The distributor has always tried to re-use every box it receives goods in to ship out with instead of recycling them. Expert sales service and on-going local support can make a huge difference to the performance, enjoyment and safety of the products, and these factors have significant effects in the use of the bike and the long-term development of cycling overall. 

Hence, Ison’s primary customer base is the IBD, Townsend says. “That all said, of course, some customers are perfectly happy buying products remotely (and prefer to do so) – and that’s all fine if that’s their choice. In this modern world, there has to be a sensible omnichannel position too.”

As a small family-run company, it wants to be more than just a trading customer to the brands and suppliers it works with. It aims to be strategic UK partners to its key suppliers. Many of its relationships have evolved across decades of working together with mutual trust, and this aspect usually delivers stability, which filters through to the dealer network, Townsend says.

Market concerns
We are still seeing many high street retailers struggling to survive – a problem that is not only seen in the bike industry. Some say this is all down to the internet, but Townsend thinks it’s not quite that simple. 

“I believe the internet has its place, and it’s not going away either. The fact is – it’s often a good aid to everyone, especially so when talking about availability and convenience of some products. It’s also often used as a research tool prior to purchasing decisions. Of course, pricing is an issue that cannot be overlooked, but I feel it should not be about simply being the cheapest, it should be more about offering the best service and overall value for the consumer. I have some concerns with the position where some folks appear to have lost sight of the fact that turnover means nothing if you are not making any profit (and especially so, if you are losing money on every unit you sell). 

“The problem seems to be especially prevalent with some internet players who are haemorrhaging money on many of the products they offer. The far-reaching nature of the internet causes an additional problem that didn’t exist 20 years ago in retail. Before the internet, if someone decided to have a special offer or they wanted to move a bit of extra product, it was a relatively isolated affair. Now, with the internet, instead of being ten miles away, they’re a click away from all of the competition. 

“The old competitive stance of ‘if you find it cheaper then we’ll beat that price’ exacerbates the effect on the internet to become a national race to the bottom, and even global, within seconds. To be successful, I think dealers probably have to consider the mix of products they actively promote and sell to ensure they are able to service their customers’ requirements at competitive prices – sensibly.”

The beginning of 2020 sees the return of COREbike, taking place at Whittlebury Hall from 26th to 28th January. Ison will be present, back in its nominated room space, Townsend says. 

As one of the founding members, he explains the benefits of the trade show: “I do feel that there is still a significant interest for shows like CORE, where a dealer can take a couple of days out from their business at a quiet time of year and have a look at what’s new. Talking to the owners and the brands is something you very seldom get the opportunity to do. If you want to drive your business forward, as a dealer, I think you miss out if you don’t go to CORE.”

He says it is an opportunity to gain an insight into where brands are going and what they are thinking – there are bound to be new products that will be missed by dealers otherwise.  “I think we’re seeing a bit of a turn away from too many house shows,” he continues. “Five years ago it was more common for every larger distributor to have one. I’m still convinced that CORE has its place. If anything, it’s got more of a place than it had before. A rep can’t possibly bring everything to a dealer’s doorstep – even when we display at CORE, we all have to take only a snapshot of what we have to offer.” 

He says Ison plans to announce several new exciting additional brands to Ison’s range at this month’s show. Public shows still have their place too, as they may be one of the primary opportunities for the consumer to come into close contact with the products and the brand. Townsend concludes: “There’s more to business than just buying and selling something.” 

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