Fortunately, I didn’t try to be any more precise geographically. You know how unforgiving natives of Sunderland (like Geoff) can be if you muddle a Mackem with a Geordie. Alongside the vowels, it feels to me that Geoff has also brought with him a certain attitude to business - he’s “canny” as they would say as a compliment in his original home town. Maybe “savvy” would be a close translation in this, his new home, where he has been based for a long time now.
He’s been at Bettavend for very nearly three decades, with almost five as sole owner after his long time “partner in crime” John Ferguson decided to retire in 2015. John started the business way back in 1987, with Geoff joining him in 1991. Geoff and John then spent the next quarter of a Century, or so, growing and investing in Bettavend. Today Geoff is proud to be running a focused, thriving and profitable business.
His “canny” discipline - as I learn more about it over two days - includes:
• full, rigorous assessment of business opportunities in advance (wherever possible)
• clear understanding of relevant facts and data: “I want visibility yes, but not visibility of everything. I want visibility of the right things - the ones that actually matter.”
• relentless questioning of how things are being done currently, combined with a willingness to investigate new ideas via fact-based evaluation
• wholehearted commitment to change, IF the evidence supports that decision.
And constantly running through all of the above, is one of Geoff’s mantras, that: “when a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.”
And that’s where the car park comes back into play. Geoff points at it through the office window … reaches into his pocket for his phone … and shows me a photo taken through the same window back when the surface was being laid.
“This is what I mean. Look at the work - and investment - involved in making that car park so “proper.” If a job’s worth doing ….”
At Bettavend, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. Right down to laying the new car park outside.
And the same car park also links into Geoff’s decision to commission Vendmanager (Bettavend went live some 18 months ago):
“Your (SBS) guys came down here to see me. Simon your MD for the technical demo, and Robin on the sales side. I liked what I saw, but I told them to come back in a year. I explained that I needed to invest in a car park first - the big trucks delivering vending machines were even ripping up the old tarmac, if they did a tight turn. So you can see what we did in the photo. It was the same machinery that they use for building a highway. It wasn’t cheap. And it was well worth it. It was the right thing to do.”
“So, Simon and Robin went away. Then exactly 12 months later my phone rang and it was Robin, bang on cue. And I agreed that now the time was indeed right …. for Vendmanager.”
Geoff tells the tale with such aplomb, and quickly finds the exact photo on his phone with such ease, that I suspect I may not have been the first person to hear this account.
And I doubt if I will be the last - why shouldn’t we all be justifiably proud of achievements and successes?
There’s also a persistent - but unspoken and unverifiable - suspicion that over those twelve months Geoff wasn’t just letting his pristine new tarmac dry. I feel sure that he was keeping an ongoing watching brief on Vendmanager - through whatever channels at his disposal. Isn’t that just what a canny businessman would do?
And that’s a powerful combination: both canny and proud.
I enjoy the conversation that follows as we range from tarmac to vending management, and everything in-between.
We end up locking up the office, as the last ones to leave the building.
Before we say goodnight though, I risk a parting question about Vendmanager at Bettavend, and Geoff’s answer:
“Am I pleased we have done it? Yes. Because the improved efficiency leads directly to improved profitability.”
… leaves me looking forward to understanding how in more detail in the morning.
Friday first thing brings together Geoff with two more of the key players at Bettavend, who have been pivotal for the successful deployment of Vendmanager in the business (so far):
- Vicki, office manager
- Ben, operations manager.
And it’s a prompt start: Ben has a client visit in the afternoon to install a new machine. With customers always top priority at Bettavend, he wants everything else well out of the way beforehand.
Ben, Vicki & Geoff.
I have my notes ready to hand, including prompt-questions extracted from Geoff’s comments the day before, to keep conversation flowing.
I didn’t need them. The three talk easily together. Without gaps.
It’s simpler for me to keep up when they take it in turns to speak, contributing whole sentences each. But more often, they overlap contributions, or finish each other’s thoughts. By accident of the seating arrangements, they have me surrounded in their lounge area, so the effect is that words are bouncing all around. But it’s more than just an echo chamber: the ideas continue to build up in the process of being passed from one speaker to the next.
I like it.
It’s only later that I think I work out why.
Ben and Vicki themselves have been working together at Bettavend for 18 years. Ben is the “newcomer” - he first came on a student placement that he has never finished. Before that Vicki had already been in post 6 years. Combine that with Geoff’s own extended tenure, and their shared intense focus on the business, and you can understand how they might combine in a way that is so well grooved.
When writing, or editing, normally I am linking together the pieces, trying to join up the contributions from different speakers.
Here I am unthreading the strands.
Or separating the individual colour tiles in a mosaic, to understand how the overall picture has been put together. So, here goes ….
Ben (Operations Manager)
"Before Vendmanager we were using an old system created for tobacco vending. It wasn’t up to the job and we found ourselves forced to do more and more of the business on nothing more sophisticated than spreadsheets.
In deciding to make the change, your Datakey was a clincher. (Vicki and Geoff nod agreement.)
Datakey has removed errors, and gaps in our data. With Datakey, the benefits of accurate efficient easy meter reading are overwhelmingly valuable on their own, let alone everything else. Before Vendmanager staff kept on forgetting. Today they not only do what’s needed, they understand why.
Now we have gone beyond data records, we have forensics. Vendmanager was the right decision. No doubt.
But I would also say we had a necessary period of pain, or discomfort at least, making the transition. Because we needed to make changes in ourselves too - in the way we worked.
And that doesn’t stop after implementation. Or at least it shouldn’t. I am just starting a project now, for example, using two machines to demonstrate and prove the results.
I have thrown the rule book out on the layouts. And customised them to these specific sites. With Vendmanager I will then monitor improvement, whether on a busy machine or one with low usage. So, we are testing new layouts. Proving whether they improve performance. Then rolling them out at scale (if justified).
With merchandising, I like to try out changes (layout, product offering etc) then analyse the unit rate of sale per machine before and after I look for indicators like sellouts on a Monday (remembering that an empty spiral is not always a sellout now that we are increasingly double facing to maximise profitability, based on Vendmanager evidence).
Sell people what they want to buy!
It’s a good strategy. And Vendmanager can help us. The best example so far? Kinder chocolate.
To be honest, I only took them at first to show some willing with Ferrero. So I put them in a third of machines, and evaluated performance via Vendmanager.
And now? We have them everywhere.
They have even displaced altogether the best known bars there are on some machines - we have some machines without a single “old favourite” in them. Geoff was dubious at first, I can tell you - it went against his gut instinct, and experience …
… but he soon got over it when the data was proven right and converted into hard coin (or increasingly nowadays, online credit as cashless grows ever more important).
Another example has already progressed further down the line - we have changed flapjack supplier. The new product has the same weight, so it’s not obvious at first to the consumer. It’s also more expensive, which might deter people. But the overall profitability is better. We used Vendmanager to monitor performance, and help us make the decision, reducing guesswork.
Has Vendmanager cut stock? Not necessarily overall - we were tight already. But I do know that it ensures we hold the right stock - because of the improved visibility.
I am looking forward to next month. That’s when we are going to be integrating the warehouse team so that they are using Vendmanager themselves. Why haven’t we done that earlier? As with many of these things it is a question of aligning with staff fluctuations and employee availability.
At SBS, you always talk about making things “simply better” for your clients. But remember that around this neck of the woods, “better” is defined by Bettavend.
For us, filling a machine better does not necessarily mean faster (in total). We want a clean machine and good appearance. We take extra care with any date checks, and we are always careful with the fronting.
But however we choose to define “better," Vendmanager gives us the opportunities to improve, I’ll grant you that."
Ben: “Sell people what they want to buy! It’s a good strategy. And Vendmanager can help us.”
Vicki (Office Manager)
We can never ask too many questions - including questions of ourselves.
So, Ben and I spent the whole day yesterday out doing a route ourselves, and returned full of ideas. Ideas for further improvements.
My favourite question is always “Why ….” although Ben claims I say “Why isn’t ….” more often - because I tend to take things a step further and suggest solutions in the same breath.
That was one of the main benefits of being out on the route yesterday: using our eyes - then asking: “I wonder why ……”
Ben and I both understand that on some days it’s a good idea to “wear different uniforms” - sometimes literally - like going round doing a route, ideally Ben and I together. Because we see things from different but complimentary angles. Or doing a shift in the warehouse.
However good our understanding of the business, even after 18 years working together, it’s always that little bit better for extra contact with reality. I sincerely believe that we are very good at problem solving - especially as a team. But you can only solve the problems that you know exist. And Vendmanager helps us to understand more of what is really going on.
That applies throughout operations, and what Vendmanager has done for our service side too is phenomenal - especially with filters and preventive maintenance.
We aim to make operators’ lives easier. They feel it’s good for them - everyone likes it. And it’s good for the business too. But to be successful, we need to go beyond just training on how, to include the why as well. That way, we increase success both initially and longer term. Both are important.
And sometimes the best solutions are simple but effective. Nowadays for example our operators take photos of layouts on site. Then we compare them with how the machines “should” be (using Vendmanager).
Today, everything is different. Because we trust the Vendmanager system and the data/insights it provides.
There’s one thing I can’t forgive Vendmanager for though. Cheese and Chive Pringles. Plain Pringles are my favourite. And nowadays I have to bring my own into the office, because they have been displaced by Cheese and Chive in all our machines - on the say-so of Vendmanager. The system is right, I can see that in the better sales performance. But if I could find an override button…"
Vicki & Ben. Ben is the “newcomer” on this dedicated team. He only joined 18 years ago. He still has not completed that student placement …
There was very little daylight between the messages carried by each member of this team.
Instead, I felt that each was viewing the same shared objectives, seen through different lenses. Or from their own angle of responsibility.
Geoff had stayed with us throughout the meeting this far. As well as taking part in the flow of conversation himself, he was framing contributions from others by providing context or background. And distilling larger discussions into their essence, with pithy summaries.
"In deciding to go with Vendmanager we collected information in advance. More and more. Until it got to a tipping point. The accumulation of favourable evidence was overwhelming, and we went for it wholeheartedly. Including Datakey across the board. From Day One. If a job’s worth doing ….
Did we want to save a member of staff at the outset? No. That was never our objective. But we are now doing more with the people we have.
Our goal is to spend our time more wisely. Not scatter gun.
There is so much info available now that we need to remember why we are doing things and focus accordingly.
So, we have a hit list of sites, monitoring how profitable machines/locations are. This allows us to make informed decisions about options - for example rentals.
The fundamentals are not new. Know your machines. Know your site.
Keep asking: can you do better at the same cost (or lower)?
And remember, sometimes you don’t have to go to the site more often, you just have to have the right products/layout.
With much of this, Vendmanager helps. A lot. We have more insight than ever before.
And doing things better also extends beyond Vendmanager, throughout our company - new vans, new uniforms, getting workloads right. It’s all important. I started my professional career (a while back now) as an internal auditor. Doing financial forensics - investigating, analysing, monitoring and counter-checking.
That discipline never leaves you.
So, for me, integration of Vendmanager with SAGE was essential.
(Geoff admits to consulting spreadsheets going back 15 years. Ben says later that this is not true - it’s way longer: He can see how many tabs there are on Geoff’s screen!)
It was important for me to have the option to maintain my long-established systems, files and procedures. And because Vendmanager integrates so well with SAGE, I can do just that.
(Sarah, who I will meet later handles most of the interface between the two systems. That way Bettavend benefits from the power of Vendmanager day-to-day, and Geoff harnesses key data further via SAGE, using the tools he has honed over the years).
I believe with training, the way that we put things across is vital. It’s important to explain benefits and encourage operators to find their own solutions - in addition to the practices we advise.
It is always essential to explain why too. Why we are doing things. That’s the reason I invited all employees to a gathering off-site. And I started with pork pies. Real ones. Two of them. A big one and a small one.
And a knife. A sharp one. For slicing.
I explained about growing our business (from the small pie to the big one). And emphasised how the slice per person - their own share - would also grow. The bigger the pie, the larger their slice. And then when we achieved better results in the business itself, I put an announcement on the notice board: “You are all getting bonuses because of the improvements in efficiency” - and much of this is down to Vendmanager.
My top 3 reasons for liking Vendmanager?
#01: Datakey - for meter readings, saving time, avoiding mistakes, and eliminating anomalies, (plus deterring/identifying any shrinkage).
#02: Reporting - especially Profitability by Product/Site, analysing products (Bueno for example) and product groups (hot drinks etc).
#03: Improvements in Efficiency of Operation - especially snack machines, so far.
Geoff departs, and Sarah joins.
When Geoff leaves us to attend a client meeting, we are joined by Sarah, who works on special projects in operations support. She pulls no punches. And I soon start to appreciate that she feels very at home with numbers, and with Vendmanager as a useful tool, at a very detailed level:
We always check and verify. And we take every additional opportunity from Vendmanager that we spot (so, we have more engineers fitting filters at efficient times, for example). It’s all about ongoing improvement. “We will never be content - in the sense that the job is done. That’s not who we are. But we are very happy with the changes that Vendmanager has made possible for our people.”
By now our session is drawing to a close.
Ben, Vicki and Sarah have been very generous with their time and insights already. And Ben is now starting to get twitchy: he wants to get things finalised for that machine instal at a client site.
But before we part, the three of them are kind enough to agree to play a game together.
With our players all sitting together (Sarah, Vicki and Ben), each checks the 4 sample benefits of Vendmanager listed on the back of my business card:
I explain that for the cards, the sequence was actually settled simply by word length: with the shortest (visibility) at the top, stepping down to the longest (customer service): the visual layout decided priority.
I then ask each player to jot down, without conferring, what sequence they would choose themselves, in terms of importance to Bettavend. To put those benefits in priority order from the perspective of their own responsibility.
Each reports back, one by one. And we log their answers on a chart - openly for all to see:
I then just sit back, and wait for the “inevitable argument” to start between them.
The idea behind this activity is to understand how participants discuss their differing answers, and see how long it takes before players come to the shared decision/view … that the question itself is flawed.
All the benefits are important.
And fixing a ranking in concrete - even for one person at any one time - is not in the end useful.
On any particular day, one benefit might take front of stage, but the others will each come around to have their turn in the limelight too.
And all of them are interlinked anyway. For example, visibility increases efficiency, improving profitability and the opportunity to improve customer service… and so on. Each individually is improved by Vendmanager, and overall the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Given how accustomed these participants are to using information collaboratively together, and to sharing their opinions frankly and openly, it was … fast. Very fast. And it wasn’t even an “argument” at all, not in the usual combative sense.
Then not long after they had “worked it out," they were already moving on, thinking aloud together how they could put this idea of connectivity to use for the company …. squeezing even more gain for Bettavend out of Vendmanager.
This team’s ingrained instinct to look for the potential business benefit in everything is (dare I say, given that there was no longer a native of Sunderland in the room) “canny”. And as Sarah said, this lot will never be “content” in the sense of “satisfied” … they will always be looking for the next right jumping off point, the next best business opportunity.
So I leave them to it, after saying my thank you’s, and bidding them all farewell.