Aligning for Growth

June 12, 2017

Sometimes market conditions change, sometimes you have to change the market conditions.  Regardless of which form of market transformation you face, successful navigation through choppy waters requires alignment.  That’s a broad term, so what do I mean by ‘alignment.’

In one sense, alignment is a go-to-market term.  Alignment of tactics and message across all touch points.  Making sure your point-of-sale programs are aligned with your online efforts.  Making sure your email campaign syncs up with your Groupon programs.  Making sure price points and product assortments are optimized across all platforms.  Tactical alignment is critical, but that can fall apart if there is not alignment of mindset.

Mindset alignment means those developing the strategy and isolating the opportunity fully grasp the reality.  It also means those on the front line (sales) can accurately explain the needs of the market.  The more you align mindset, the better the chances for success.  Those that are truly aligned and share the same vision can adjust to unforeseen situations with near flawless clairvoyance.

In business, going against a large player with a traditional approach is a recipe for disaster.  You’re walking right into their trap as they are massive and built their success on size and scale.  That doesn’t mean they cannot be beat!  To win, you must commit to a changed approach and align to it.  

In our experience, smaller players have a real opportunity as their business model is not predicated on massive in-store traffic.  Buyers have not stopped buying.  On the contrary, they’re buying more than ever.  It’s just that they’ve changed their buying patterns to include a healthy dose of online.  The mega retailers are too committed to their historic approach to adjust.  Much like an aircraft carrier; it takes a long time to turn.

Speaking of naval history, the Battle of Trafalgar is a great example of aligning to a new strategy against a much larger opponent.  That battle pitted an outnumbered British fleet commanded by Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson against the combined French and Spanish armada.  Rather than line up and blast away at each other (where success always went to the larger fleet during this battle of attrition), Lord Nelson saw an opportunity to change market conditions.  He explained his plan to his supporting captains, who then implemented the tactics that forever changed naval warfare.  

Lord Nelson split his battle ships into two parallel lines and T-boned their opponents in two spots, breaking their ranks and leaving them open to their soft spots.  In the end, Lord Nelson sunk or captured 19 enemy ships and lost none and over 13,000 enemy sailors were killed or injured compared to 1,500 for the Royal Navy.  This battle forever sealed Britain’s naval superiority and protected the homeland from imminent invasion from Napoleon.

Sometimes conditions change.  Sometimes you have to change the conditions.  To win in either scenario, alignment of mindset is the first condition that must change.

Bob O"Gara

Running icon

Setting ourselves up to fail

May 30, 2017

This week… Run to the Stop Sign.

Setting ourselves up to fail?

I went jogging with my daughter this weekend.  I use the term “jogging” lightly as it’s mostly walking with a few jogs in between.

Keep in mind, she is a very fit 21-year old, and I am a semi-fit fifty-something (we don’t need to get more specific on either front).  In my mind, I had already determined, I would lag behind and she would win.

Close to a mile in, she challenges me, “let’s run to the stop sign.”  Instinctively, I say, “I don’t like to make goals… it just sets me up to fail.”  Did that really come out of my mouth?  It was exactly what I was thinking.  If I don’t actually set the goal, then I won’t fail. 

How often do we do that in business - avoid making forecasts or setting milestone goals - out of fear of not being able to achieve it?  We won’t feel as bad in our failure if we didn’t set out to do it in the first place.  Yet, will we ever achieve greatness without goals?

She asks me, “why do you stop yourself?”  It’s not that I’m so tired I can’t keep going.  It’s probably because I normally only go this far in one jog, or maybe because I’m bored and just stop?  Is that parallel to my comfort zone?  Maybe I can go a little longer.  Just because she’s 30 years younger doesn’t mean I can’t keep up.

I decided to change my mindset.  “Let’s run to the big yellow sign ahead.”  Keep running… you don’t have to stop… just a few feet more… I can do it!  And, guess what, I did. 

It’s the same in your business and professional life.  What are your limiting beliefs that hold you back?  What more can we accomplish when we set lofty goals, and confidently push through our comfort zone? 

Other than 10,000 steps on my Fitbit, this morning’s jog taught me to:

1.       Set milestone goals

2.       Change to a winning mindset

3.       Push yourself

4.       Surround yourself with people better than you - smarter, faster, fitter

And, then as we neared the end of our jog, she admits her legs hurt.  Yay!  I win!

Janet Collins, a strategic advisor in the office products industry and a long-time collaborator with Highlands.  She works with business leaders to develop growth strategies and mobilize teams to take action and achieve results. She's a coach who's been in your shoes, most recently as President of GMi Companies (Ghent, VividBoard and Waddell). 

Contact Janet at [email protected] or visit www.linkedin/in/collinsjanet.


Do what is right image

The time is always right to do what is right

May 8, 2017

I think it was Tom Hopkins who said sales is “the easiest, lowest paid job in the world, or the hardest, highest paid job”. I’ve probably misquoted the great man but the essence of it is, in my opinion, completely true.

The reference, I believe, was towards hard work and having to deal with rejection.  We all know that high activity rates tend to generate more sales.  We also know that until you ask “the question” you’ll never get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.  Many people are so scared of getting a ‘no’ they never ask “the question”.  Great salespeople will ask “the question” knowing full well they risk a ‘no’. And, rejection hurts…deep.

Because sales people are, of course, always looking for a ‘yes’ they tend to steer the sales process down the path that is most likely to get them an affirmative answer.  Even if it’s not necessarily the best thing for their customer.  I know; shock, horror!

This approach may, or may not, get you the sale. And, in the short term, everyone might be happy -  especially the salesperson.

However, we know that in the mid to long term this is not necessarily going to be right for either the salesperson’s company or their client.  Eventually something will go wrong, and then everyone dives into the contract detail and relationships fall apart.

I write this blog in the final stages of preparing for a big client pitch. The client wants to enter a new (to them), and highly competitive market with their existing brand proposition.  We’ve done extensive research on the client’s behalf and we think they need to make some fundamental changes.  One of those is to adopt a new brand for this market.  And, to complicate matters, they love their brand - of course they do.  We love their brand too, just not for this new market.

So, we have a dilemma.  Do we pitch for what we think is right, or do we pitch what we think they will say ‘yes’ to?

We really like the client and the people we work with, and would like to work with them for many years to come.

Easy then.  Pitch what we think is right.

Watch this space….


The Promise of Upselling

April 19, 2017

For some time, the traditional OP industry has been bifurcating.  Non-traditional suppliers are enjoying incremental volume, reasonable profitability, and a new market with new customers.  Traditional main line OP suppliers, on the other hand, are finding it treacherous.  Too many competitors, customer RFQ’s, and apathy among dealers add up to an increasingly challenging channel. 
As Highlands was conceived in the traditional OP space, it’s painful to witness so much dysfunction.  While there are some shining examples of growth and success, the entire channel is under duress.  The most frustrating part is that everyone resorts to the same bag of tricks - dropping price and further lowering cost of goods.  That just takes everyone down. 

How did we get here?  Generally, large resellers have had the most influence on category health, and many have changed their SOPs with merchandising wielding a larger influence.  Couple that with a lack of product/brand differentiation and oversupply in many categories, and we find ourselves awash in mediocrity.  Unless we can sell more volume to offset the lower cost, this is a zero-sum gain.  Consolidation may create opportunity for the strongest to sell more into a declining market, but let’s be clear it’s a declining market especially if your product is dependent on paper.  To regain footing, we must dramatically change how we do business.  We have no choice.  

As I see it, the only way out is a focus on upselling.  If we can’t sell more units, we must make units sold more valuable.  To do that, we need to alter our story and how we target the consumer.  Identifying consumer needs, building a compelling value proposition against that need and then properly targeting that consumer must be at the heart of any program. 

At Highlands, we work across the leadership of our largest partners to push this message - and it’s working.  It’s requires us to be extremely proficient in back-end program structure because that’s where the value lies.  We also help refocus product lines to illustrate the benefit of bundled solutions and efficient product assortment.  We help them leverage data - theirs and the reseller’s - to show both what they’re missing.  We help them to embrace online solutions, not shy away.  We help grant access to field sales to create cross-selling and upselling opportunities.

It’s time to re-build profitability and influence.  The programs we’re implementing are doing just that.  Working the traditional market with new approaches, while encouraging the players to do things differently, will work.  We’re seeing it work.


Bob O'Gara


Nothing Sells Itself

March 28, 2017

Low-involvement categories are best defined as “needed purchases” that rarely evoke passion.  Unlike iPhones, buyers are not waiting overnight to buy soap, salt, staples, or paper.  These products only get purchased when existing supplies run out, and a trip to the store (or online) is needed to replenish.  If no one explains the value of branded products in a compelling manner, it’s easy to understand how buyers can migrate to private labels.  

Compounding matters, resellers make money on either option - branded or private label.  Their objective is increased traffic. If buyers perceive value is the same, they will typically purchase the less-expensive option.  

This is the dynamic private labels hope for.

How do branded players in low-involvement categories combat this?  The key is NOT to rely on traditional product benefit sales techniques and personal relationships to push, but showing resellers business opportunities they’re missing.  Our proprietary process has been very effective in driving sales of higher-margin branded products.  Key to success is data, segmentation, customized marketing, and measurement.

While there are many aspects to our market test program, the key is customer engagement &mdash on all sides!

Resellers know the value of increased sales activity whether that’s driving traffic to their website or store, or creating interest amongst their business customers.  More shoppers mean more sales.  Selling more high-margin products increases profits.  Reseller confusion crops up when deciding which products to sell, at what price point, and what marketing programs to deploy that drive traffic to higher-margin SKUs.

Manufacturers need to look beyond their own product line(s) and be more reseller-centric.  Not all products matter, especially today as traditional business models (and supporting supplies) have forever changed. 

Understanding and analyzing data - from the reseller, manufacturer, categories, and from partners - is where value is created for both.  When done well, it isolates opportunity gaps.  In some cases, you reduce SKUs to sell more volume.  In others, audience segmentation reveals buying patterns that can be leveraged.

This approach helped one of our manufacturers better understand what sells to whom (end-users) and why (which promotion works best), and increased total sales by 143% during the test period.  Two-thirds of the incremental sales came from customers that previously were private label buyers!  Once new buyers are in your system, strong loyalty programs can keep them forever.  Best yet, the cost of this program was dwarfed by the value it provided and is now deployed throughout its geographical footprint.

This is where outside marketing partnerships can make all the difference.  These experts can help resellers make data-driven decisions, and then execute multi-faceted campaigns that deliver results.  Most manufacturers don’t have the capability or relationships to help resellers commit to such analysis.  

Nothing sells itself especially in low-involvement categories like office products.  Spit-balling promotions in a “one-size-fits-all” manner does not maximize ROI.  Smart market analysis enables dramatically improved sales and profit margins.  While this approach may not require Big Data Analytics or IBM’s Watsontm™, it does require sharing data and committing to do better.  



Great Questions

March 22, 2017

Great questions - especially the ones you ask yourself -" are hard to come by. But great questions help you think more clearly. They make you pause. They interrupt old ways of thinking that are getting in your way. They stimulate and provoke.

Great questions make you curious about yourself, your company and even the industry. It’s the kind of curiosity I remember when my daughter was five, and she kept asking, “why?”  While it annoyed me at the time, asking “why” is quite powerful.  
In manufacturing, it’s called root cause analysis or “five whys.”  By continually asking why we do it that way, why we care or why it matters, and then ask why to that answer we can peel away at what’s really going on.  In many cases, we just live with things because we haven’t dug deep enough to figure out what needs to change or how to change it.

And, it’s not just “why” questions, but also “what if” and “how” and “which” that could give us insight into key improvement areas.  The key is to ask open ended questions -" not just those with a yes or no answer.  Questions like “Are we…” or “Should we…” or “Does this …” don’t give you enough context to stimulate appropriate creativity.  You’ll get rich discussion by asking better questions.  

Examples include:
  • Why do some prospects not buy our products?
  • What is unique about our business? How does that uniqueness solve a customer problem better than anyone else?
  • In which markets or products should we stop investing? Why?
  • What could we outsource that we are not good at so we can focus on what we do best? How might we do that? (Examples might include: marketing, website/digital technologies, content development, strategy development, logistics)
  • What am I doing as a leader that is contributing to a particularly negative situation?  (Constantly asking yourself open ended questions will increase your own self-awareness and your personal ability to take accountability and influence change.)

How to get started

Write down one area in yourself or your company that is causing you worry or feels like a bottleneck. Then write down a few good questions. Work with your team to brainstorm and discuss the answers.  You’ll find richness in the dialogue and the discovery.  Good Luck.

Janet Collins, a strategic advisor in the office products industry and a long-time collaborator with Highlands.  She works with business leaders to develop growth strategies and mobilize teams to take action and achieve results. She's a coach who's been in your shoes, most recently as President of GMi Companies (Ghent, VividBoard and Waddell). 

Contact Janet at [email protected] or visit www.linkedin/in/collinsjanet.


Janet Collins

TurningPoint Strategy


Field Sales for the Future

March 9, 2017

25 years ago

Reseller: “Hey Bob, what do you have for me today?”
Manu.:“A fantastic new product.  Check it out!”

This process worked great when there were hundreds (if not thousands) of resellers, each possessing strong relationships with local office products buyers  large and small.  Back then, manufacturers had a strong upper hand as the economy was strong and resellers sought additional SKUs.  Big Box retailers had not yet infiltrated the office product segment and inventories were not complex.  Times were good.  To support this fragmented and highly local dynamic, manufacturers and rep firms would set up regions and assign individuals to call on specified accounts to drive sales.

Key to success was a strong, personal relationship between the sales rep and the buyer.  Diversification was not rampant, nor consolidation, technology, or home-offices.  Channels were clearly demarcated and the supply chain was firm.  

Increasingly however, we now see that personal relationships alone are not enough.  Channels have blurred, product offerings have exploded, workplaces have transformed.  The old way of doing business no longer works.  Today, resellers don’t need a broader product line.  They need better data to enable better decisions.  Those manufacturers not adapting to data-based decisions and analytics are falling by the wayside.

Fast-forward to Today

Reseller: “Hey Bob, what do you have for me today?”

Today, it’s less about reselling but applying retailing best practices.  Big difference.  Offices are smaller, denser, and far more dispersed as companies rely heavily on freelancers and home-offices.  To support this transformed the workplace, local players and big boxes alike must now sell to consumers and corporate customers, each with wildly diverse needs, access, and sophistication.  This means that the personal relationship paradigm won’t cut it.  Today’s buyers are no longer old friends, but sophisticated business experts who now answer to Wall Street.  “Trust me” is now “prove it.”

So how can you prove it?  Don’t take a product approach, but a reseller’s approach.  What do they need to succeed?  Are they over-stocked on high-priced products that don’t turn?  (Margins could be great, but dusty products create no cash flow and year-end inventory headaches).  Be honest about how your products can help them succeed, and where to best market them.  Share your data, overlay their data onto yours, isolate gaps, show opportunity.  Building a partnership predicated on analytical success creates a new kind of relationship, one that is just as powerful and profitable as the one enjoyed by our predecessors 25 years ago.
BO + GC for opi Blog_edited

opi article - Outsourcing Sales Xtra: The whole package

March 2, 2017


Heike Dieckmann from OPI speaks to sales and marketing agency Highlands CEO Bob O’Gara and Gordon Christiansen, Managing Director Europe and SVP of Marketing, about the challenges that exist and how the company is addressing them.


In line with the evolving nature of the business supplies sector, the role of manufacturer rep groups is changing. OPI has been following their progress over the years. But while outsourced sales reps continue to play an integral part in our sector and nowhere more so than in the US, the pressures facing both the manufacturing as well as reseller communities have taken their toll and highlighted some of the perceived cost/benefit challenges that exist.


US-based Highlands is arguably the best-known sales and marketing agency in the global business supplies market, with a strong nationwide presence in the US, an expanded regional presence in Canada and a solid footing in the UK, with developing plans for the rest of Europe.

OPI: The business supplies sector is changing massively and, by default, so are manufacturer rep groups I believe?


Bob O’Gara: Yes, absolutely. If you talk about manufacturer rep groups, or a sales and marketing agency as we at Highlands prefer to be viewed as, you need to consider the macro environment and what’s happening in the broader industry.

Consolidation is happening at both supplier and reseller level and that’s inevitably going to impact rep groups. We’re still in the early stages of this consolidation which is largely driven by the decline in traditional office products. The resulting margin pressure affects independent rep groups the most, as these manufacturers are struggling with overcapacity and need to assess how much money they can afford to spend and on what specific sales and marketing activities.

On the reseller side, scale matters now more than ever before. To be an effective B2B service provider you need to have scale, invest in websites and all manners of technology to drive your business. And you need to have a partner that is familiar with that technology and can help you with that.

It’s a challenging time to be in this space, but I think there’s still plenty of opportunity because many of our legacy suppliers are actually in greater need of these types of services. 

OPI: Can you give an example?


Bob: A great example would be assisting suppliers with the creation of digital marketing assets. We have a number of clients that use Highlands as a marketing resource as well as a sales resource. Everyone knows that to maximise sales you need great copy, great product images and great videos. It’s not one-size-fits-all.  For those suppliers that don’t have the internal resources to create great digital content, Highlands can step in.

Another example is diversification of markets. Manufacturers accept that if they’re only selling into companies like Office Depot, Staples, SP Richards, Essendant and the large OP independents of this world, it is becoming ever more difficult to achieve significant growth. The question is: How can we as a sales and marketing agency assist those suppliers in terms of penetrating mass market channels, the MRO sector or the education vertical? How can we spread their business out into other channels to help them find other paths to growth?

Gordon Christiansen: We are in the same boat. At Highlands, we’re diversifying in terms of the types of accounts that we service and how we service them. This diversification is happening in three specific areas. The first one is different distribution channels, as Bob mentioned.

Then there are new product categories that we represent, such as jan/san. This now puts us into the same boat as other resellers and wholesalers. Like them, we need to broaden our scope in terms of the brands we represent and into what channels we represent them.

Third - services. Yes, field representation is still a critical part of what we do, but we also need to provide a wider range of services including technology. This will greatly help brands increase their channel penetration and volume. 

OPI: Where do you see the greatest traction in your manufacturer relationships?


Bob: Again, its not one size fits all. Highlands is built to allow manufacturers to work with us in a variety of ways, based on their unique set of needs. That said, some of our most effective engagements are deeply strategic. We work with clients to help them to shape their strategy and product development, and then map out the best and most cost-effective paths to market right through to the end user. It’s a completely different type of engagement than we had in the past.


OPI: The channels you outline mass market, MRO sector, education…Are these within the realms of a manufacturer rep groups generally? I assume size matters here as well?


Bob: In the US and Canada there are reps working in all of these channels.  Generally, these groups focus exclusively on only one channel and are regionally focused. With respect to office, facilities and MRO, we are seeing increasing overlap that will present challenges for suppliers and agencies.

In a blurring marketplace, what is the distinction between a jan/san dealer and an office products dealer? Generally, the suppliers of janitorial products hire groups on a national basis to service the office channel. This should give those groups an advantage over the regional rivals in other janitorial and MRO markets.

OPI: Amazon, do you have a relationship with them through the brands you represent?


Bob: We do. We have a robust online business. But it’s not all about Amazon.   What’s unique about Highlands is that we serve the totality of the e-tail marketplace, rather than Amazon only or Overstock only. This is important as it involves managing the interplay between these accounts that lets you maximise online sales.

With respect to Amazon, this is not a relationship company but rather an analytics company that prefers to do things over email. Plus, it has a high staff rotation, so you never see vendor managers in the same seat for very long. 

We are effective with Amazon because we’re really good at the technical part. We have a team of people that really understands how to promote and maximise our suppliers’ product exposure, how to manage the e-tail marketplace, how to work with the complex pricing algorithms" and in the process drive considerable growth for our partners in that marketplace. 

OPI: You have a unique advantage in that you are very well known through your international presence?


Bob: We have derived great benefits from being in multiple markets. We have significant opportunities coming to the US business based on our Canadian and European presence and this has worked in the opposite direction too.

The best part is that we are discovering new suppliers to drive incremental business not just for Highlands, but for all of the customers we sell to across all of the markets served.

OPI: You now have a solid presence in the UK I believe, representing a variety of brands including RB very successfully. What about continental Europe" what’s your experience there?


Gordon: Europe is very much on our radar and we are well-positioned to make it a success. We have the expertise to help brands from the US, for example, that have no experience in the European markets to introduce them to the key resellers and wholesalers across the continent as well as help with product information and promotional activities.

That said, it’s not been easy. There are a couple of manufacturers, British and US-based, that would like to have some representation in Germany, for example. The challenge is pure economics. You can’t just do it for one or two manufacturers, you need ten to make it economically viable. We don’t quite have the traction we need yet and maybe the model in continental Europe will need to be adapted somewhat, away from a pure field sales model.

We currently represent a number of brands across the whole of Europe and helping them sell into German resellers, pan-European wholesalers and online marketplaces. The office channel for them is an exciting place to grow and we believe we’re the ideal partner to help them do that.

By the same token, having a European presence provided us with the opportunity to help manufacturers from that geography be more successful in the US. Having a footprint on both sides of the pond has really worked for us because of the interactivity between the US and Europe, and many manufacturers wanting to move both ways.

OPI: In our recent article in OPI we talked about commission-only agents that are still pretty prevalent in some parts of Europe and also the associated cost that comes with dealing with a company like Highlands. What’s your view?


Gordon: I think there’s always going to be a market for the commission-only concept. For some manufacturers that works well because it’s a relatively low-cost, low-investment model.

Our model is different. We tend to represent large brands that are well known in the marketplace. It’s about creating a point of differentiation for the reseller to incentivise them to focus on the brand we represent rather than a competitive one.

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How will the love be shared?

March 3, 2017

The future of dealer groups is something I have contemplated for some time.  Recently I received the Office Power Dealer Group Survey and it made for insightful and interesting reading.

Office Power is a pretty cool tech company based in London, UK that helps small to medium office products dealers consolidate and leverage their purchasing under one umbrella as well as giving them an industry leading technology platform (amongst other things).

I mention this not as an advertisement for their business but rather to put some of their opinions into context.  Whilst they are not like-for-like competitors to dealer groups they do compete. That said, many of their conclusions resonated with me and are as relevant for markets outside the UK as they are within. 

Increasingly we are seeing margin pressure within the office channel especially in more traditional categories. This trend is unlikely to reverse. Manufacturers are forced into making choices about where they share their love. Even partners they have successfully worked with for years will be under scrutiny.  These choices may be easy to make where ROI is not apparent but more challenging when cuts are made where value is being delivered.

A key question is whether manufacturer rebates paid to dealer groups, whether directly or through wholesalers, are sustainable?  If so, the current dealer group model has longevity. If not, it is unlikely that wholesalers will financially support the activities of dealer groups themselves on an ongoing basis putting the current model under threat.

What happens to the dealer groups when this funding stops? Will dealer group members be prepared to pay the full cost for the services provided? I suspect many will not and the knock-on effect will be three-fold:

1.   There will be fewer dealer groups. 

2.   Dealers will need to invest directly in key business areas to stay relevant and survive.

3.   Opportunities open up for consolidators, be they acquirers or service / technology platforms.

This is the link to the Office Power report.  You do need to fill in your details in order to download but it’s worth a read.

Gordon Christiansen

Influenster infographic header v2

Why reviews are critical for e-commerce success

February 28, 2017

A poll of over 11,000 women in the US conducted by Influenster shows how women use social media and reviews to make their purchasing decisions.  A staggering 67% of reviews were sort using mobile devices, clearly demonstrating the need for a 'mobile first' strategy when creating your e-commerce platform.

We shouldn't be surprised by these results.  We've always trusted our friends to provide a tip for the latest trendy restaurant.  Now, we have millions of 'friends' all over the world who can provide us with insight into restaurants, hotels, airlines, taxis... everything.   Social media and specialist apps like Trip Advisor and Yelp make these reviews easily accessible.  And who doesn't look at the star ratings on Amazon or eBay to help with your decision process?  

The lesson for retailers and etailers is simple.  Earn great reviews, get those star ratings up and you will sell more.

Influenster women-use-reviews-shopping-infographic

Flight Kit 2

Who cares about the English language?

February 26, 2017

Language is important.  My business partners Bob O’Gara and Shannon Blake must get bored when I keep harping on about this.  But, it is, and they agree…really.

As an example, we recently rebranded from The Highlands Group to Highlands.  OK, not a radical name change however there were various reasons for this, one of which was that Bob really disliked the company being referred to as THG.

Easy, kill the “The” and kill the “Group”.  THG becomes Highlands.  Boom!  Well it’s not that simple because despite Bob’s dislike of “THG” it had become endemic both inside and outside the business.  Sure we could tolerate (with a pinched smile) clients calling us THG but we must be able to get it right internally.  Slowly but surely we are weeding out and changing all those documents lurking in the deepest recesses of SharePoint and we’re truly becoming Highlands.

Once again my daughter inspired me to write about this topic.  For my recent flight from London to Chicago my Flight Kit included a book called F****** Apostrophes by Simon Griffin, a copywriter from Leeds in England.  It’s a witty and informative rant about the correct use of apostrophes.

Those who know me well will fondly remember those fun and invigorating conversations about the correct use of grammar and punctuation.  Particularly rich from a Danish born Australian who went to a middling comprehensive school in the suburbs of Perth.

Simon says, “The single most important rule of any punctuation is to help the reader understand what it is you’re going to say.”  Too bloody right.  As Lynn Truss says in her 2003 book there is a big difference between “Eats shoots and leaves” and “Eats, shoots and leaves”.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not linguistic expert, perhaps just a bit of a smart-arse pedant, however if you want people to understand your message is it not unreasonable to spend the time to try and articulate it properly? You never know, if you take that time people might actually understand what it is you’re trying to say.

That’s why all the best organizations take care to get their communications right.  Governments, charities, businesses, media companies all employ highly qualified people to help get it right.  Sure, nothing works all the time and sometimes so much care is taken not to offend that a message can become too bland and lose its meaning.  That’s not a reason to shortcut the process.

Well-articulated messaging is only part of the journey.  What we say has to be backed up.  A friend called any brand “A promise, delivered”. I really like. As an example, with the Highlands’ brand refresh we stated that our number one determinant in the recruitment and retention of staff would be cultural fit.  We have articulated this well into the business, now we have to deliver against that promise.

Reading Simon’s book and thinking about this topic has reminded me that we need to continually reassure clients that as we create their brand’s communication strategy we will take every care to ensure their “voice” is communicated clearly.   Whether it’s a website, a corporate brochure, a product flyer, advert or a promotional piece we will ensure their voice has clarity, is effective and resonates with the target audience.

And we’ll do that by putting the apostrophes, commas, parentheses, semicolons and colons in the right place.

If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right.


Gordon Christiansen



Taming the Beast

February 15, 2017

Ecommerce has dramatically effected retailing forever and, in time, may overtake brick and mortar. It’s easy to imagine such a shift as ecommerce continues to grow at double-digits while traditional retailers do their best to hold on. Even categories not normally associated with etailing show promise. Carvana lets you buy a car online! They deliver on a flatbed, you test drive, you buy or return it for a different car. Mattresses can be bought online. Couches, refrigerators, frozen foods - you name it. Even groceries are moving toward ecommerce with 29% of U.K. grocery sales coming online!  In the U.S., online grocery sales is expected to exceed $18 Billion by 2020.

These behaviors have transformed the office category as well. Staples relies heavily on ecommerce with over 50% of its revenue coming online (source: emarketer). Amazon just reported 2016 revenues of $136 Billion, of which Amazon Business contributed heartily. As more B2B players market online, Amazon will continue to take share from etailers and retailers with its powerful brand presence, support, and pricing model. Like it or not, Amazon is a hungry lion that can eat at your margins, prices, and customers.  

But there are ways to tame the beast.


. Understand what Amazon does well and clearly define where and how it can help you. Same for the other etailers (Wayfair, Hayneedle, Staples, Tesco, John Lewis, etc.).  Many of our partners find value in Amazon’s fast-turn, free delivery capabilities. Others leverage its easy-to-use storefront option on the world’s best-known etailer. That said, Amazon is not a cure-all. Make sure you understand why you need Amazon -- and why you don’t.


. Consider white-labeling products you feature on Amazon, and other ecommerce sites, with different pricing strategies. Amazon charges upward of 20%, which undermines the investment made in your brand. White-labeling allows you to leverage multiple etailers while maintaining strong branding and higher margins on your own site. Remember, Amazon is a price follower, not a leader. Margin erosion can be avoided with effective pricing strategies for each online reseller.


. Social media can make all the difference. Depending on your brand and product line, platforms such as Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter are fantastic ways to extend online marketing efforts.  


. Amazon is no longer the only mega-player. WalMart’s acquisition of Jet creates an interesting opportunity as it charges lighter fees (stronger margins for you) and does not require an annual fee (ala ‘Prime’) to get free two-day shipping. Plus, you can usually get same-day pick-up at your nearest WalMart.  FedEx is also taking on Amazon, recently announcing plans to warehouse and distribute online purchases for small to medium-sized manufacturers. More and more, strong alternatives to Amazon are appearing across the globe.

These are very disruptive times, exciting times. Those willing to take a smart, strategic, clear-eyed jump online will be rewarded. But jump in with an informed, committed strategy or risk getting eaten alive.


Cheryl Whyers

SVP New Business Development


Think Backwards

February 10, 2017

Think Backwards: Sounds counter intuitive, but many business owners forget about the most important part of their business the customer.

How do you present yourself to your customer?  Think about your website.  Is it all about what you offer?  What you do?  Who you are?  We love what we do and our products and services.  Problem is… our customers don’t care unless it’s overtly clear how you can solve their problem one that is particular to them and one that you can solve better than anyone else.  

Journalists call that burying the lead.

The opportunity here is not about website design. It’s about the relationship between you, your products and services and your customers.  We typically lead with our stuff and hope our customers like what we offer. Our sales message often has the same logic.

And then we wonder why it always comes down to price.

Instead of starting with your offering, begin with the progress your customer needs to make when they interact with you the essence of "thinking backwards." Here is how it works:

1.  Focus on your most attractive market segment, the one where you get 80% of your profits.  

2.  Ask a few customers in that segment what progress they were trying to make when they chose you for       this category. (This is not a customer service interview where you ask 'how is our company doing?')  

3.  Then ask them what frustrates or annoys them when they try to make that progress.

Use what you learn to edit - and TEST - a new message and selling approach or a fresh idea to improve your service.
Think backwards. Lead with a promise that your customer really cares about. Then show them how you can deliver on that promise better than anyone else. In this market, we all know we need to differentiate every day, but rarely do we take the time to understand the problems and the value from the customer’s perspective.

This Week:

Call two customers.  Ask, "In your role as ________ what gives you the biggest headache when you try to do your job better?" Be sure to keep asking, "What else?"
I bet you’ll be surprised by the insight and nuance you’ll discover.  

Janet Collins, a strategic advisor in the office products industry and a long-time collaborator with Highlands.  She works with business leaders to develop growth strategies and mobilize teams to take action and achieve results. She's a coach who's been in your shoes, most recently as President of GMi Companies (Ghent, VividBoard and Waddell). 

Contact Janet at [email protected] or visit www.linkedin/in/collinsjanet.

Janet Collins
TurningPoint Strategy

For the love of a notebook

February 7, 2017

Inspired by a fascinating article by Alison Birrane from BBC Worldwide I thought I would share my own OCD about notebooks and the need to write, write and write some more .  

Alison explains that even in this high-tech world the need to write things down on paper to help articulate thoughts and plan your schedule still prevails.  She interviews some really interesting, young professionals who have a need to use notebooks, sticky notes, whiteboards, coloured pencils and marker pens. 

Everyone is different but I still love my notebooks.  We all know the tremendous success of Moleskine but other quality notebook manufacturers such as Leuchtturm1917 and Il Papiro to name a few are doing really well too.  The notebook, alongside your mobile phone is becoming a way of showing who you are, just like the pen you use.  It's a statement.

I have to confess that's not where my obsession started.  Quite simply if I didn't write it down there's a very good chance I would forget.  I believe this is true for a lot of people and am always cautious when people turn up to meetings without a way of taking notes.  Will they remember what we discussed?  More importantly, will they remember the action points they agreed to (and there's a good chance they'll have a few)?

I was kind of pleased when I read in the BBC article that research proves that written notes are better than those taken electronically.  #JustSaying

As well, when I'm trying to work through a complex problem or put together a program for clients (and even when I'm preparing a Blog post) I will invariably find a quiet space, get out my pen and notebook and start writing.  I find writing down my stream of consciousness just helps me to get where I need to go.  It's easy to refer back to, to scribble on, to cross out and to add to.  Like Word and a keyboard just much, much better.

My budget allows me to use a nice notebook, even to convince my company to invest in nice notebooks for us to use and give away to clients.  And, with every new notebook I write my name, contact details, reward information and start date at the very front.  As my notebook comes to the end I ensure every outstanding action point is transferred from my old notebook to my new one, and I write the end date in the old one.  Very OCD, I know.  Even worse is that I keep them all.  I have boxes full in the shed.  My wife wants me to throw them out from time to time but I just can't.  I just can't.

So, thanks Alison :-) , and you can read Alison's article here.

Gordon Christiansen
Partner & SVP Marketing, Highlands

Online Challenges

February 1, 2017

By all accounts, 2016 was a good year.  U.S. unemployment fell to its lowest rate in 10 years, wages rose, and consumer spending was up.  Fixed nonresidential investment, a measure of business spending, rose at a 1.4% pace in Q3 and spending on structures rose at a 12% pace (source: Wall Street Journal, 12/22/16).  

And yet, Sears is closing 150 more stores.  Macy’s is closing 100 stores.  Limited is closing all 250 stores and filing for bankruptcy.  Even Walmart laid off 2,000 employees last Fall and hundreds more face pink slips in 2017.  Sadly, U.S.-based retailers are not alone. British Home Stores (BHS) is going through the U.K. equivalent of Chapter 11, and must determine what to do with their 164 stores and 11,000+ employees.  All over we see exurban malls turning into ghost towns and in-town malls struggling to keep tenants.

If the economy is doing better, why are retailers suffering?  

We all know why and are complicit in contributing to the problem.  Amazon posted revenues exceeding $30 Billion last quarter and expected to top $120B for the year!,,, all had record years.  German online reseller Buromarkt Bottcher saw 54% growth and Alibaba continues to extend its reach.  And it’s not just virtual retailers.  15 of the Top 25 U.S. eCommerce retailers are brick and mortar brands.  To wit, over 50% of Staples’ annual sales comes from ecommerce (source: eMarketer).

Staples is just one example of how the office products marketplace has transformed.  As buyers shift their purchasing patterns, we must meet them there.  Unfortunately, we now bump into new competitors.  In April 2015, Amazon launched its business channel in the U.S. and achieved over $1 Billion in less than one year!  Amazon leverages extreme brand awareness, the #1 shopping platform, free two-day shipping, and very low pricing.  For manufacturers, Amazon makes a very compelling offer.  The problem is that Amazon is very predatory particularly if unprepared or uninformed.  

Daunting as it all sounds, this should NOT keep manufacturers and resellers from entering the online waters.  On the contrary, embrace the opportunity.  But embrace it with a clear, informed strategy.  

The online channel is certainly a growing tidal wave of change, getting bigger and bigger every day.  And Amazonian sharks exist.  These concerns should not keep sellers out of the digital water.  Rather, grab a surfboard and hop in.  With some deeper understanding and careful planning, online marketing can effectively extend your reach beyond the shores of brick and mortar!

My next blog will showcase some examples and strategies on how to win with online marketing.

Cheryl Whyers
SVP New Business Development


What I learned from 1944

January 27, 2017

Like many I have been consumed by articles attempting to predict how 2017 will turn out.  I have to admit that I’ve not normally been so slavish to these articles but with Brexit and the election of Trump it has seemed more pressing.

In January 2016 I accepted a full-time role with Highlands as Managing Director for Europe and Senior Vice President of Marketing for the group.  This has resulted in quite a few trans-Atlantic trips. 

My beautiful daughter (26 years old and a Senior Account Manager at J. Walter Thompson in London) dreamt up a Christmas present for me.  She created “Flight Kits”, each containing a book, a puzzle, some sweets (candy) and a gin and tonic additive.

The first Flight Kit contained The Royal Navy Officers’ Pocket Book, first published in 1944 to help train new officers.  Given the timing I presume there was a definite need to provide quick and accessible guidance to young men being thrust into challenging and unforgiving environments.

I wasn’t sure what I would get out of the book at first but thought it would be quite fun to have a read.  As I worked through the pages my interest levels grew.

Many business people are obsessed with learning and adopting new leadership and management techniques form the latest business guru that will transform their careers and the fortunes of their companies.

Well this book from 1944, which contained learnings from hundreds of years of what was the most powerful navy of its time was truly insightful.  Here are some of the quotes that really struck a chord with me.

- Never forget that the Ratings have few rights but they have the right to a good Officer.

- Do not despise advice tendered to you by your subordinates.

- Never be afraid to ask questions.  Bluff is a trait of the bad Officer.

- Do not harshly deal with a man solely for the sake of making an example of him.

- Loyalty can start only from the top and grow downwards.

- Do not risk giving…a hint of criticism of higher authority.

- How well you did things in your last ship is of no consequence.

- Should a man come to you for advice do not let the matter drop or be forgotten.

- There is a quality called tact, a very misused word in many ways, without which no Officer can          succeed.

- Look ahead; do not wait until something goes wrong.

- is not possible to write a handbook on how to be an Officer and a leader.  We have each to find out for ourselves the best use we can make of those particular qualities possessed by each of us in varying degrees.

35,000 feet over the Atlantic, gin and tonic at the ready and I was enthralled by this book.  OK the language is a bit outdated and women didn’t seem to exist however I was intrigued by the relevance in today’s world.

So, I will keep an eye on those predictions for 2017 but equally I take on the learnings from this handbook from 1944 and try and become a better and more effective leader; for me, for the people I work with and the clients I serve .


Gordon Christiansen

Partner. MD Europe. SVP Marketing


The Challenges of New Opportunity

January 18, 2017

We all see what’s happening.  The merger that wasn’t (Staples and Office Depot), Newell grows larger, Safco buys Mayline, WalMart acquires Jet (to take on Amazon), Amazon surpasses $1B in B2B sales - in under ONE YEAR!  Add in Brexit and Donald Trump and we see a category in full transformation.  Some will survive and thrive.  Others will not.  

Looking forward in 2017, we see large suppliers aggressively looking to acquire (more consolidation), buyer groups merging, large accounts looking to acquire (fewer resellers), product diversification, and further migration to Amazon.  These are tough times and it will not be easy for any of us.

That said, let’s consider the broader market.  The collective opinions of CBRE, JLL and NREI (National Real Estate Investor) show tight commercial vacancy rates within the US office sector through 2017.  Leasing rates continue to rise, albeit at a slower pace, and new inventory is expected to come online.  This dynamic likely exists in Canada and Europe as well.  The office sector is poised to grow, and will need our goods and services!

It’s just that traditional sectors no longer drive the economy.  According to JLL (, tech remains the largest contributor to office leasing activity (24% of the market) -- larger than the next three sectors combined (finance, government, law)!  This dependency on technology, both personally and professionally, exists for all western economies.  It’s incumbent upon us (suppliers) to accurately meet their needs, and to abide by the new methods by which they shop and buy.

It’s also important to understand the issues driving or impeding their success.  There is no shortage of new, breakthrough technologies across every sector.  One big problem is a limited supply of qualified employees to bring these technologies to life.  Qualified employee acquisition and retention is a tech firm’s #1 priority (just visit any tech job board).  Couple that with dwindling employee supply (boomers retiring faster than new employees replace them) and you get a tight labor market and rising wages.  

My point is that old approaches and structures are less and less effective. New technologies offer better and more cost-effective solutions, but traditionalists create obstacles that block our ability to move in this direction.  As a supplier to this sector, we must adjust to the market and help end-users succeed.  Those that lead will reap the rewards.  Those that wait will experience tough sledding.

Seismic change always brings challenges.  Change is hard.  But opportunity remains.

Bob O'Gara
Highlands CEO


Do What You Do Best

September 9, 2016

In today’s world, every company has a core competency: the primary focus of the business and the thing that they do best. The majority of company resources are concentrated in this space, and rightfully so. But other necessary components for success exist and cannot be ignored-things like brand development, identity management, and of course sales and marketing of products and services.

In today’s dynamic business environment
knowing who you are as a company and developing a strategy to let the public in on that information is essential to success. Experts in the fields of Sales and Marketing provide unique insights and a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms and levers involved in making a company stand out and become the recognizable and reliable choice for an audience with a multitude of choices.

Consumers today are expecting an experience
…a journey that will take them through the process of simply understanding a company’s goods and products to desiring their use in everyday business and life. Successful companies use compelling stories to encourage customers to dive in and engage in a digital conversation that is interactive and shareable. Developing the narrative requires a master storyteller-an expert who understands marketing insights, consumer behavior, and the pieces necessary to cultivate, captivate, and keep loyal customers.

In the past, agencies took on the role of service providers
In today’s dynamic, tech-focused, and increasingly online business environment, the relationship between a manufacturer and an agency needs to be a partnership. It’s about working together to develop a strategy and create an experience that will not just inform an audience, but captivate them with compelling content and keep them engaged. Manufacturers and suppliers need help navigating the ever-evolving digital landscape that makes up the marketplace of today. The agency becomes an extension of the supplier, and there’s a trust that allows for a seamless collaboration between the two.

Finding the proper channels is just the beginning
Getting products through the proper channels and into the marketplace is just the beginning. The most successful companies know that managing their portals, producing the right content, and promoting and controlling the promotion of products is essential to long-term success.

The traditional office market is no longer easily definable
Manufacturers need to focus on innovating, updating and creating their goods and products, while letting the sales and marketing experts develop strategies that will propel the company brand, image, and identity to the next level. At Highlands, it’s our job to give manufacturers and suppliers the freedom to spend their time and energy doing what they do best, while we take care of the rest.
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