Expert Insight

  • Interview: Mark Penketh, Penketh Group

Interview: Mark Penketh, managing director of Penketh Group

Interview: Mark Penketh, managing director of Penketh Group

How do you maintain the values and ethos of a company for over four decades while making sure it moves with the times? Mark Penketh, managing director at Penketh Group, shares the secrets to his success.

Words by Christine Toner

When Mark Penketh’s father set up stationery supplier Penketh Group in 1976, the business world was a very different place. Being technologically advanced meant having a copier at your office, correspondence took place via letter writing, and stationery was king.

For former stationery rep Penketh Senior it made sense to start his own firm, a family business that his sons would eventually join – including current managing director Mark who came on board in 1977 – giving him more time to spend with his family and the chance to capitalise on a huge market.

Fast forward 41 years and the way businesses operate has changed drastically – technology rules. Letters have been replaced by emails, office files are now stored digitally and diaries and planners are kept online.

So what do you do if your core business is in stationery? Simple, says Penketh, you adapt.

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“I think the thing we’ve always done really well is embrace that, with an ability to change our direction,” says Penketh. “We were predominantly a stationery supplies business and over the years we’ve added a furniture arm.

“We’ve been doing furniture for 25 years but it has always been around 30% of our business. In the last two years, however, the stationery product has been in massive decline, falling 10% year on year.

“Everything has gone digital. Everyone has changed their attitude. Core stationery items in the office place are not needed anymore. So we took the position three years ago to reposition ourselves and to turn focus from being a supplier led business to now more of a furniture and interiors business.

“We have always been flexible enough to change. We’re not slow at reacting. We reinvented ourselves three years ago.”

The business now employs 80 people, along with a third generation of the Penketh family (Mark’s son is sales manager while his nephews work in interior design and logistics).

And Penketh says the relationship the company has with its staff is imperative to its success.

“We have always been flexible enough to change. We’re not slow at reacting. We reinvented ourselves three years ago.”

“We’ve still got the values of a family business,” he says. “We work very closely with our staff so we’ve got quite close relationships with them. We do an awful lot of charity work and fun days, and we have awards.

“We do quite a lot to make sure that we keep people involved and because they feel so much a part of the business, they represent the business so well.

“It’s really important to us to give them an environment that is nice to work in.”

But it’s not just staff relationships that matter. In order to move further into the furniture industry Penketh and his team have focused on building strong relationships with large scale suppliers in the sector. It’s a move that has paid off.

“We work very closely with a company called Steelcase, an American firm which is the largest manufacturer of office furniture in the world,” he says. “We are responsible for its brand within the North West and we sell its product in the region, hence the fact that we moved into Manchester at the beginning of 2016.”

The company also has its headquarters in Bromborough, Wirral and while there are no plans to extend to a third location at the moment there are plans in place to move to a bigger space in Manchester.

“We started in Manchester in February 2016 with a 2,000 sq ft space,” says Penketh. “We always wanted to make more of a statement in Manchester, so we are moving to new premises in March – a 5,000 sq ft space in the Neo building on Portland St.”

Penketh Group also has a technology offering, displaying another example of its success at expanding into other markets. The company provides products such as interactive boards, display panels, video conferencing and photocopiers.

Penketh says this allows the firm to offer a holistic approach to its clients.

“At the moment people have to go home to work as the space they have at work is full of distractions… You should be able to work in work.”

“A start-up business wanting furniture and interiors may come to us,” he says. “We can then address their technology needs too and, of course, a very strong part of our business is stationery supplies.

“So not only do we offer solutions at the start of the process, we’re also in their long term which is good for us and it’s also good for our customers.

“A lot of companies come in and do the job and then they’ll be gone but we have a long relationship and we want to make sure that relationship is good.”

It’s a strategy that has proved successful. Despite the upheaval and uncertainties most industries experienced in 2016 as a result of political chaos and, of course, Brexit, Penketh says his firm saw profits increase 15% on 2015 and he expects similar growth this year.

His big plans for 2017, however, are less about figures and more about helping clients to understand the importance of office design.

“The showroom we’re creating in Manchester is basically working around what we can offer customers in terms of design and how it improves productivity. That space will be showcasing leading brands and designs and various products but also how that impacts on the business itself.

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“One of our strengths is understanding not just the design but how practical it is in regards to making people more productive. In this day and age you can have wonderful furniture but ultimately, is that space going to help people work better?”

It’s certainly an interesting time to address this issue. The way in which we work is changing and Penketh doesn’t believe the current set-up in many offices is beneficial to workers.

“At the moment people have to go home to work as the space they have at work is full of distractions. People are investing all this money in the property yet people have to go home to work; it’s absolutely crazy. You should be able to work in work.

“By showing how you can influence that space and bring areas into an office where they can be focused, people will be able to improve their productivity which ultimately improves the bottom line for a business.

“A lot of CEOs and MDs are recognising the fact they need to get their employees engaged in the business to be able to perform when they’re in the business. It’s a really exciting time for us to be able to work on this.”

Indeed, 40 years after joining the family business it’s clear Penketh has lost none of his passion for the industry.