Hotline to the future: why Clearline Distribution is fast gathering momentum

Hotline to the future: why Clearline Distribution is fast gathering momentum

Friends Richard Norris and David Lyttle teamed up six years ago to form their own distribution company – and now Clearline Distribution is gathering momentum. NR finds out more.

As long term friends they stayed in touch as they diverged in their careers. But six years ago Richard and David joined forces to set up Clearline Distribution in 2016, and now the company is going from strength to strength with coverage across Ireland.

Their backgrounds complement each other perfectly – David went into retail after university, then started his own business supplying LED lighting and other energy saving technologies 8 years ago.

Meanwhile, Richard started his career with Coca Cola HBC, before working at Kerry Foods and then Proctor and Gamble.

New challenge

Richard explains: “We’ve known each other a lifetime – the two of us have always been in touch. David had his own business going on but could see opportunities with LED lighting within retail: I was representing Proctor and Gamble and was ready for a new challenge.”

Out on the road as he was, Richard could see opportunities and space for a new distribution company as retailers were asking him if he could source particular products.

“I could see that there was an appetite for brands that weren’t available due to lack of coverage from other distribution companies out there,” he says.

David adds: “We’d both seen there were opportunities out there within the convenience and grocery sector and we wanted to explore it further.

“Initially we focused on non-food brands. Richard came from a battery background with P&G – he sold Duracell in NI. We approached the German brand Varta Batteries, Europe’s Number 1 battery manufacturer, and successfully got them on board.

Innovative proposal

“After visiting one of the trade shows during our initial product sourcing phase we had initiated talks with Yankee Candle. We presented a proposal to bring the brand to the convenience and grocery channels which they as a brand hadn’t explored before. They bought into the proposal and an initial agreement was put in place.

“To tie up a signature brand like this at an early stage was a great start for our company. With Yankee and Varta on board along with some of the LED lighting brands already at our disposal we had a good base as a company to start developing solid trading relationships with new customers. We were also able to secure our Central Billing status with Henderson Group and Musgrave Retail Partners quite quickly which was very important to us as a company to allow us to roll out the plans we had put in place.

“As we pushed forward the main thing for us as a company was bringing challenger brands, products that were new and innovative to the market and that others weren’t doing,” Richard explains.

Diversify to grow

With this in mind and a focus on continued growth, Clearline decided to diversify into food and drink brands in 2018.

“The business has since grown from lightbulbs, batteries, air fresheners and candles, to gifting ideas, food and drink,” Richard says.

Clearline now distribute around 600 lines from around 50 brands, dealing with all the major retailers across Ireland.

“There’s no real ‘me too’ brands within our range, so we’re not following the herd,” Richard says.

“Every brand has to have a point of difference. All of our food brands have a healthy eating element – they’re either gluten-free, vegan, lactose-free, low calorie, less sugar etc.

Healthy proposition

“For example, ActipH Water was the first drink we ever took on – it’s an alkaline based water that hydrates up to 88% faster than your standard drinking water.

“The vegan and gluten free sector is obviously growing at a substantial rate and we’re having wins because of the work we have put in over the last couple of years. It’s not following everyone else, that’s the big difference – we’ve seen an opportunity here.”

One opportunity that presented itself recently is that retailers are now looking to find lines to replace the large amount of space previously taken up by the protein sector, creating an opportunity for plant-based brands like Candy Kittens, Tribe, LoveRaw etc.

“We’re obviously taking the opportunity to offer products that are healthy and suit a certain sector within society,” says David.

Veganism on the rise

“Veganism is growing quite rapidly – for instance we do a brand called LoveRaw which is currently the number one fastest growing vegan impulse brand in the UK with 5 of the Top 10 vegan chocolate bars in terms of value sales coming from the LoveRaw brand.

“We are constantly researching behind the scenes to make sure we are securing brands with serious growth potential and consumer appeal that our customers can benefit from in terms of sales.”

Richard adds: “It’s funny because David and I are very different with our tastes, but 9 times out of 10 we’ll say ‘Here, you know what, I like that’ and then it’s in.

“Low calorie is another big one. We do Flower and White Meringue Bars and Bites. A year and a half ago we were seeing a lot of people trying to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle, so calorie count is a big thing as well.”

New premises

In January 2020, having outgrown its original warehouse in Waringstown, Clearline Distribution moved into new premises in the same area.

“We’re going six years now and we’ve been on quite a fast growth trajectory since day one,” says David.

“Turnover has been increasing year on year, business is growing, staff numbers are up and we’ve just added another new rep in Southern Ireland with more planned over the next few months to further increase our coverage.

“We’ve established a strong level of retail coverage across NI and are now trying to increase our distribution coverage within the rest of Ireland.”

“The new premises in Waringstown has offered us more warehouse and office space – and a greener footprint.

Carbon footprint

“The warehouse is powered by solar and wind, and heated by biomass. Before we moved premises we wanted to make sure we were selecting a base with sustainability in mind and making sure we kept our carbon footprint as low as possible,” David says.

Another key USP is their leading use of technology.

“All our reps are equipped with Ipads where their orders are done online. There’s no pen and paper – it’s all touch screen,” David says.

“We’re adding onto our website and developing a new online portal at the minute which will go live on June 1. We’re constantly investing in the technology and making sure we’re at the forefront of what’s available.”

Range and service

Meanwhile, clients are delighted with the range and service they receive.

Sophie Templar, regional coordinator with Applegreen NI, says they’ve been working closely with Clearline Distribution for around four years after the previous manager brought them on board.

“Their product range has significantly grown over that time and within our five sites in Northern Ireland, the Clearline range is quite extensive,” she says.

“Their rep, Jason, has a really good relationship with a lot of colleagues and he’s brilliant at what he does. He’s always upbeat, very enthusiastic about the products, and it’s great for the guys to see because that enthusiasm crosses over to our colleagues.

“They would contact us with any new ranges that they bring on board, but they wouldn’t phone us with just anything – they bring their ideas of what would work in our stores. The products they supply us are brilliant and we get quite a lot of good feedback from our customers.

Great feedback

“The majority of it is the gluten-free and vegan ranges which is something that has really grown in the market. It’s great that we can have that offer available to our customers. I do genuinely believe they are a really good company and the offers they supply to us have really helped us grow the business.”

Meanwhile. Graham Douglas, general manager at Fruitfield Supervalu in Armagh says he’s known Richard through retail for nearly 20 years and has been sourcing products since Clearline launched.

“They’ve always been very, very good to us, be it batteries or cleaning products,” he says.

“The good thing about them is that if you’re running short, it’s just a matter of a phone call and the next day it’s there.

“Richard’s always been very switched on too and they’re always implementing new lines on a regular basis. Even in the last two or three months, instead of washing powder they have introduced a new washing sheet which is meant to be the next big thing and it has sold well for us.

“The company are going from strength to strength and are a good company to deal with. It takes out a lot of paperwork for the girls – instead of having five different suppliers, you have one.”

Hard to get

Sinead Gormley, manager of McKeagney’s SPAR in Tempo, says she’s been dealing with Clearline for around five years.

“I met them in my previous site – they came in with product and we started it, and every few months they seemed to have more and more products.

“They seem to dip into stuff that is hard to get like the vegan ranges. There’s a good vegan range, the Bliss bar that all the slimming people like, and different bits and pieces that you can’t get from a lot of other suppliers. He’s always ringing up with new products as well.

“In terms of stands, there’s always good merchandising to get them seen in the store. The Yankee candles are good to tie in with the cards and Mother’s day and Valentine’s day etc – they seem to go well then.

“Richard does a good bit of seasonal stuff so when one switches out there’s a new one ready to come in. They’re good lads and they give you the range and the service would be there.”

On the road

After the pandemic arrived, Clearline Distribution was in a relatively fortunate position whereby reps were able to socially distance out on the road and continue to service stores.

“It was a key sector where people were trying to get their everyday essentials and we were still able to deliver and keep our business going, so we were very thankful that not only our business was able to keep going, but business was also good,” David says.

“Certain products were in high demand. Demand for batteries increased quite significantly because kids were off school, parents were working from home, and suddenly toys etc were being used more. Not only did demand for batteries increase quite significantly, other essentials like cleaning products, face masks etc were also very popular.”

Richard adds: “Demand was very high, and supply was very low in certain instances, so forecasting stock became extremely important.”

Forward planning

With new challenges arriving such as supply chain problems, they say forward planning is key.

“We import products like our light bulbs directly from the factory in China and our shipping prices have gone up significantly. We’re probably paying somewhere in the region of three or four times more per container than we used to pay,” David says.

“Lead time from order has stretched out as well. It’s very important for both of us at the minute to forward plan and make sure that during busy times you have your stock secured and allow for the additional lead times that we’re being hit with all the time.

“Additional planning and forward thinking is very important at the minute in the business to make sure you’re not running into stock difficulties and able to maintain the levels of service our customers expect.”

Star products

Standout products at the moment include cleaning brand My Fabulosa, which are number one in their category for brand growth; Varta batteries which have been named Which? Best Buy three years in a row; and plant-based confectionery brand LoveRaw.

“With the HFSS coming in October here there’s a lot more spotlight on this sector and a lot of our brands within our portfolio fall below this tax that’s coming in. We’re hoping there should be a large growth spurt in the latter half of this year with this tax coming in as people have to reevaluate how HFSS products sit within their store,” Richard says.

David adds: “As far as LED lighting goes, we like to think we’re offering the best quality, best value lighting alternative that there is available on the market. You’ll see our LED lighting brand TCP within all the key retail groups in NI – they’re the brand of choice in Henderson’s and Musgrave, and we will be looking to push that further as we further establish ourselves in rest of Ireland. We have a very high quality, great value alternative for customers to buy into.”

And the plan for the future is simply to continue on their growth trajectory, Richard says.

“Our plan is to continue to grow throughout Ireland and establish ourselves as one of the key distribution companies in Ireland,” he says.

To read the full feature in May’s Neighbourhood Retailer, click HERE.