How Arco became UK's biggest supplier of safety gear

Achieving growth in a recession isn’t easy, especially when your business is aligned with the public sector.

We asked Thomas Martin, Joint MD of Arco, a supplier of safety clothing, workwear, safety boots and safety equipment, how he navigates the bumpy economic terrain.

This interview with was filmed at a Top Track 250 event, as part of Grant Thornton’s association with the Sunday Times Top Track 250. For text readers, we’ve also transcribed the responses below. We’d like to thank our interviewees for taking the time to give their views.

Q. You have diversified over the years, what have been your critical success factors?

A. It’s been a good journey over 126 years. It’s all been about the people, it’s about trying to be the best and, as a result of that, we ended up being the biggest. It’s about having the right DNA, the right values in place and I’m really proud to say that the same values that my great grandfather had, they are still evidenced today right throughout the business. It works.

Q. Arco is a very training and people intensive business, how has this affected your expansion?

A. The way we’ve expanded is organically and also through acquisition. We’ve followed our customers and we’ve taken some very brave moves and putting down some greenfield sites the length and breadth of the UK.

Training is absolutely vital. It’s a cliché but we literally are nothing without our people. We invest heavily, up to three-quarters of a million pounds per year, and the whole management programme is designed around performance reviews and making sure we give people the right kit they need to delight our customers.

Q. Where do you see growth in the future – in the UK or overseas?

A. Growth for us is going to be in the UK. If you have a look at our market share, we’ve probably got ‘teens’ of the market share but we’re predominantly a northern-based company; we’re not very well known in the south so we are pushing into the south. We’re also known as a big business outfit so we are looking at the SME market place as well. 

Something very interesting has happening with the internet and social media – the traditional lines are being blurred: are you business to business, are you business to trade, are you business to consumer? Guess what? The customer doesn’t care; they’ll buy any way they can. If you really understand that and not be too precious about your channels, you’ll get growth in the UK. And if you don’t get it in the UK, you’re going to have to have an away fixture.

Q. How will changes in public sector procurement affect your business?

A. We’re already being affected and have been affected since 2009. We spotted it and we aligned ourselves with the public sector. We understand their language, we talk their language and we make ourselves available for selection. Last year 350 public sector delegates attended the Reform conference, which we sponsored; perhaps it’s no coincidence that this year we are dealing with over 65% of the councils the length and breadth of the UK.