Ken Simpson Says Cross-Border Partnerships Are Key to Overcoming Lingering Economic Troubles

The last several years have been challenging for the building materials industry, both nationally and internationally. We’ve heard a great deal about how U.S. distributors have weathered the recession, but it’s easy to forget that our northern neighbors face similar struggles. To hear more on how Canada’s building material’s industry is fairing, we spoke with Ken Simpson, General Manager at E. Roko Distributors Ltd. Based in Burnaby, British Columbia (BC), E. Roko has been in business for over 30 years. In addition to BC, E. Roko serves commercial and residential clients in Alberta and Washington State. This geographic imprint gives Mr. Simpson a unique perspective on the industry on both sides of the border.

Although Simpson says the economy obviously continues to be the biggest challenge for U.S. and Canadian distributors, he points out that it also offers the best opportunities for future growth. "The economy and the credit problems that have come with the recession have been a major hurdle, but it is now where we have the most to look forward to because we finally seem to be coming out of the downturn," Simpson says. As he tells us, British Columbia was one of the last areas to be hit by the recession, and he expects it will be one of the last areas to come out of it. 

In order to endure those persistent troubles, Simpson advises distributors to continue concentrating on building tighter relationships with all stakeholders. "At E. Roko, that means we have put more people on the road, literally getting closer to our customers to maintain and develop stronger connections." On the other hand, E. Roko has advanced on the IT front to ensure it becomes more accessible for customers on their schedule. "Even though it might be tempting just to tread water as long as times are tough, we’ve found that it’s been more productive to keep looking forward to what is clearly the future of the business." 

Customer partnerships are important, but keeping distributor-manufacturer relations tight during the downturn has been essential as well. E. Roko found that some manufacturers reacted to the recession by looking for more distribution and direct sales. "They too needed to get their numbers whether through existing distribution or other channels, which could have put strain on that connection." E. Roko, Simpson says, was able to work all the more closely with their manufacturers: a strategy that he says is now paying off. 

End users experienced similar challenges in the downturn as credit got tighter. "Banks in Canada started to look more to the distributor to be the banker, which put more pressure on us," Simpson observes. "As the economy picks up, we’re starting to reap the benefits of having taken on those challenges and endured that pressure because end users know they can count on us."

Despite these changes on both fronts, Simpson continues, cabinets, millwork, and furniture as products have not changed much. What has shifted is the global nature of the business, particularly in Canada. "We are small by population and huge by country," Simpson quips. On a more serious note, he says that the global turn the industry has taken, particularly with the rise of the Internet, has helped distributors but it has opened them up to more competition as well. "The influx of offshore products coming in has been tough, and to a certain extent we just have to continue to let them run their course." 

While that may sound like a passive approach, E. Roko is far from merely waiting out the competition. Instead, they have continued to build their Web presence and online purchasing capabilities, which is actually very new to our industry in Canada. "If you can believe it, we still have shops that aren’t connected to the Internet." E. Roko, on the other hand, is implementing new systems, complete with new hardware and software, but Simpson says that those investments are only part of an overall approach that has remained consistently successful. "In the last 25 years, we have been a true one-stop for cabinets, millwork, and furniture. Anything you need, we have, and we will continue to supply those products along with the best customer service in the industry."

Another thing that has remained consistent for E. Roko is the relationships it has developed through NBMDA. "I could see right from the get go when I became general manager the value being a member of NBMDA offered," Simpson says. The first of these advantages, he maintains, is the connections with distributors throughout North America. "We have to forget about the 49th parallel and deal as one big landmass because that’s what we are. NBMDA has really helped facilitate that approach." 

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