Pooling resources

When Chris Pool, an importer of tropical fish, asked us for advice on expanding his company, we sent business expert Joanne Eccles along to help.

Aqualogy

The Lowdown

Company: Aqualogy

Service: Importer and distributor of rare and tropical fish, supplying aquatic centres and other retailers

Turnover: £330,000

CEO: Chris Pool

Website: aqualogy.com

The challenge

Tropical fish importer Chris Pool has his sights set on growth. He’s been in the business for 20 years and, by his own admission, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. But with the current incarnation of his company Aqualogy – which has been going steadily for two years – he feels conditions are ripe for him to increase his market share. “I feel like one of the early prospectors in America,” he says. “If I don’t have it, someone else will.”

Chris sources dozens of varieties of fish from all over the world, from koi carp to brightly coloured guppies. He then makes arrangements for them to be delivered to his customers – aquatic centres and other retailers – who then sell them on, mostly to the general public for use in home aquariums.

While Chris is confident that there’s potential for Aqualogy to expand, he’s also conscious that certain areas of the business need to be strengthened first. That’s where our expert, Joanne Eccles, comes in. Joanne has wide-ranging experience, having acted as a consultant for businesses from golf clubs to opticians. She now provides assistance to small companies, working as a business adviser at the Forum for Private Business.

To meet Chris, develop an understanding of how his business works and get acquainted with some of his products, Joanne heads to an Aqualogy customer – Blue Diamond Aquatics in Somerset. Then it’s back to his home office, a few miles up the road in the village of Wincanton, for an intensive session to strip down Chris’s operation and establish exactly what he needs to do if he’s to achieve his goal of doubling Aqualogy’s turnover within two years.

Financial strengths and weaknesses

Chris explains that his business model gives one week’s credit to his buyers (“pretty standard for the industry”), but he is granted a month’s grace by the aquariums and hatcheries in Singapore, Thailand and elsewhere. He also has the benefit of not having to hold on to stock. He simply logs the requests from his customers and orders exactly what he needs. In theory, therefore, Chris has the rare privilege of being paid by his customers before he has to stump up to his own suppliers. In practice, however, it doesn’t quite work out like that.

Indeed Chris’s cash flow situation is far from perfect. The main reason for this is the £23,000 he’s owed by his customers in overdue payments. It’s a huge amount of money for a business of Aqualogy’s size, but it’s also a symptom of a wider problem: Chris needs to have a firmer grasp of his company’s finances.

Joanne advises Chris of the need to put together a solid cash flow forecast in order to help him see what is viable for the business and how close he is to achieving it. If he wants to grow, he’ll have to stop playing it by ear. “I’ve had a business plan in the past,” says Chris, “but it’s never been more than pure fiction.” Joanne makes it clear that this needs to change.

Recovering debt

To start recouping some of the cash that’s owed to him Joanne advises Chris to take advantage of late payment legislation, which allows significant interest (eight per cent above the Bank of England base rate, calculated daily) to be charged on any payment that is overdue. Joanne also encourages Chris to start laying out his terms of payment, with reference to the fact that he’ll enforce this legislation, on all invoices. “Other people are charging this, and I’m not,” he says. “This is why I’m owed money.”

It’s agreed that Chris will send out letters to his debtors and then chase up any monies that are still outstanding either through the small claims court or with the assistance of Joanne’s colleagues at the Forum for Private Business.

Web presence

“These days,” says Joanne, “a good website is an absolutely crucial part of any business. If you have a professional-looking, user-friendly site, it makes a huge difference to how people perceive your company.” The Aqualogy website, she points out, could certainly do with some work – particularly with regard to search engine optimisation (SEO).

Type ‘tropical fish importer’ into Google and Aqualogy doesn’t feature until the third page of results. But, says Joanne, with some simple tweaks and the inclusion of some key words, that could be easily changed, boosting the site’s visibility and attracting traffic. That in turn could have a big impact on sales. To make the most of this, says Joanne, it might be worth shelling out for the services of a professional website designer. It’s an investment that could pay dividends.

Online communities

But that’s not all that can be done, says Joanne. The increasing prominence of specialist online communities within sites such as Facebook and Twitter offers tech-savvy business people the opportunity to generate publicity for free. Well-placed messages – or simply being part of an online dialogue – provide an easy way to target the kind of people who might turn out to be customers.

Marketing

Chris says he’s already started to attract some new business thanks to his presence at a recent trade show, but is conscious that he could be doing more marketing.

Joanne points out that there is scope to alter his customers’ buying habits – why not push people towards his more profitable products with special offers? Why not capitalise on the current trend for garra rufa fish (which are used in spas to provide aquatic pedicures) by telling people all about it? He could even consider breaking from his policy of just selling to the trade by approaching spas and office blocks directly.

Know your enemy

Chris has also recently picked up business by providing a reliable service when his competitors had failed to do so, but it emerges that he could be more clued up about how his fellow importers do business. “Competitor analysis can be really helpful,” says Joanne. “The more you know about what they are doing, the easier it is to offer something better.”

The final analysis

As the session comes to a close, it’s time to reflect on the day and weigh up Aqualogy’s prospects. “It was great,” says Chris. “I found it really useful. Joanne’s been quite specific with what I’ve got to do, and a lot of it was what I was expecting, but these are the details that make the difference. I’ve got the impetus now to make the changes and take the company forward.”

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