Counselor

International Persons of the Year 2021: Matt Franks & Miles Lovegrove, Fluid Branding

When Matt Franks, who had a background in the promo market, and Miles Lovegrove, who was in the leisure industry, met through mutual friends and playing soccer, they realized quickly they had a similar work ethic and business priorities and knew two things straight away: one, they wanted to start their own promo company and two, there had to be a better, more streamlined and creative way to satisfy clients, attract/keep top talent and build a company they could truly be proud of.

So, with that in mind, Franks (the more extroverted one) and Lovegrove (slightly less so but a master at keeping the train on the tracks) started Fluid Branding (asi/195718) in 2006. Fast-forward 15 years, one recession, a Brexit and a global pandemic later, and Fluid Branding, still led by these two friends, is the U.K.’s second largest distributor – and a shining example of Darwin’s theory of survival.

Because leadership at its finest is revealed when the veneer is stripped away and things get messy – and calling COVID “messy” is an understatement of epic proportions. But that’s when Franks and Lovegrove, leaning on their differences and what each brings to the table, really shine. “We’ve always had great communication, trust and respect,” says Franks, Fluid Branding’s CEO. “We often see opportunities and challenges from different viewpoints which allows a more rounded view – but we’ve always had each other’s back.”

Matt Franks

“When many of our competitors battened down the hatches, we held our position and continued to invest in our team, our systems and our processes with a view to growing market share when the recovery started.” – Matt Franks

It certainly paid off in 2020, as Fluid pushed sales up 190% to 31 million pounds ($43 million in U.S. dollars). The two main factors contributing to the distributor’s success over the last 16 months are its people and its supply chain, says Lovegrove, the firm’s managing director. “How we’ve led and managed these areas has been critical in a really turbulent environment,” he maintains. “The culture we developed within the company prior to COVID allowed us to adapt quickly to the changing conditions when the pandemic first hit and gave our team the confidence and tools to do what they do best. We’ve always believed Fluid is more than just merchandise. Our standard is to offer clients Meaningful Merchandise supplied and supported by Exceptional People.”

Lovegrove recalls that when the previous recession took hold in 2008, the British promo industry saw a 30% dip. By comparison, March 2020 saw a 90% drop off in activity and orders. “Businesses have needed to adapt and pivot extremely quickly,” he says. “This has had a significant impact on our supply chain, with a number of companies sadly closing down. We’re now seeing a rebound in the market, but in new ways based on changes in the post-COVID world. Clients are continuing to work from home as companies exit from office space, leading to a change in working conditions, recruitment and workforce engagement. There’s a sense that productivity has increased due to the flexibility of remote working, which should lead to more employment and businesses investing in growth.”

Franks points out that these factors have created a shift toward personalized products, individual gifting, shipping, fulfilment and logistics. “On-demand gifting is inefficient if the systems and technology aren’t in place. Therefore, we must continue to invest in software and systems to cope with changing times,” he says. “Add to this the regulatory changes from Brexit also affecting the U.K. market, and it’s difficult to compare the promo industry from a year ago. Some areas of the market are back to pre-COVID levels already while other areas are far from it. Past years have been predictable regarding client sectors, which products they favor and how they use them. This has all changed over the COVID pandemic and will likely never return to the patterns we once knew.”

Both Franks and Lovegrove have been planning for many of these changes within Fluid for some time while establishing offices across mainland Europe with further expansion in the pipeline. Fluid is now seeing a return to inquiry and order levels pre-COVID, however this is against the industry trend in the U.K. currently which is still tracking below the levels seen 16 months ago.

Refusing to Compromise on Quality

Marketing spend is often the first thing to be cut in a typical recession, and Fluid encouraged clients to maintain their marketing presence where they could, leading by example. “There’s more opportunity for growth and increased market share during a recession than at any other time,” Franks says. “It’s just not that obvious to most companies.”

With a singular and focused plan in place to keep the Fluid team together and stay prominent in clients’ minds, Franks and Lovegrove went into fight mode. “When many of our competitors battened down the hatches, we held our position,” Franks recounts. “We continued to invest in our team, systems and processes with a view to growing market share when the recovery started.”

But it quickly became apparent the merchandise sector wasn’t going to recover in the near-term, and they needed to adapt. The distributor had access to PPE, and the culture of empowerment within its leadership team allowed the company to act quickly and decisively with its supply chain, ensuring it would never compromise on its values of supplying high-quality products. “We set up two specific ‘COBRA’ teams who met daily, discussing sales and marketing, procurement, order management and compliance,” reports Lovegrove. “We decided we’d focus on our approved supply chain, and vet any new supply lines thoroughly. Our pricing was always competitive, reduced in line with supplier cost reductions and then passed onto customers. This enabled us to supply large U.K. organizations like Tesco and the NHS.” Fluid also remains the global provider of PPE for Netflix, distributing the items that allows the company to continue its production and filming schedules.

Lovegrove also reveals that the key areas of Fluid’s emphasis over the next 3-5 years are revenue, service, culture and technology. “We’re focusing on both strategic accounts growth,” he says, “with larger multi-territory organizations needing a European or global-level solution, whilst our marketing activities will support an increase in online sales and transactional business. Key acquisitions will also form part of our growth strategy.” This follows a five-year trend of three acquisitions, the most recent of which was in April, when Fluid purchased Reflex Marketing & Promotions, a top 25 distributor in the U.K.

David Long, CEO of Sourcing City, the technology-driven service company that serves the U.K. market and is a founding member of Promo Alliance with ASI and PSI, has known Franks and Lovegrove for years and watched them grow as colleagues and clients. Says Long: “Through impressive organic growth, strategic acquisitions and innovative marketing, Matt & Miles have built Fluid Branding into to one of the largest and most respected distributor companies in the U.K.”

Giving Back & Paying Forward

Fluid has a defined structure within the company which Franks and Lovegrove call their three pillars: Fluid Friends, Fluid Family and Fluid Futures. “These cover internal and external relationships and our impact on the world around us, governing how we operate and ensuring our growth is aligned with our company values,” Franks maintains. “We nurture this through considered recruitment, training, mentoring and progression. This will enable us to grow quickly, whilst disrupting an industry to think about our environment, community and the sustainable future impact of our products.” 

Lovegrove says Fluid was the first in the U.K. promo market to become a certified B Corporation, which recognizes companies that define success not just by financial profit, but also through its people, community and commitment to the environment. “B Corps are leading a global movement using business as a force for good,” he acknowledges, noting that the community includes disruptive brands from across the world, such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s.

“Becoming a B Corp didn’t change the nature of our business, it just helped articulate our values and demonstrate commitment to our social and environmental responsibilities,” Lovegrove says. “It also enabled us to join forces with likeminded companies promoting sustainable business. There are two major benefits: it demonstrates to clients our principles as a modern and purposeful business, but also keeps focus within our team on our ongoing responsibilities.”

In addition to growth in profit and revenue, Fluid’s B Corp status has encouraged the company to work toward other achievements, such as committing to reach True Net Zero with its carbon emissions by 2030 – not just offsetting, but genuinely cutting emissions. “We’ve made huge steps forward with our team’s wellbeing and health, ensuring their experience at work is fulfilling and meaningful,” Franks says. “We’re also launching our Fluid Training Academy, focusing on personal growth and development, and we’ve engaged with our community and raised thousands of [British] pounds, and donated huge amounts of food to various food banks across the U.K. through our association with the Trussell Trust. Success is not all about profit. Achieving B Corp certification is an acknowledgement of the ethos that runs through our DNA; to be exceptional for the business, the wider community and ourselves.”

The Power of Partnerships

Leaning into the duo’s desire to run a true global promo company, Fluid Branding is a founding member of Brand Unbound. Formed last year, it’s a global network of best in class promotional product distributors – such as Counselor Top 40 distributor Overture Promotions (asi/288473) in the U.S., Tango in Canada and Capsa in Mexico – that work together to support customers that need global thinking and management, with local knowledge and execution, through a process that ensures collaboration and communication, and buying and shipping optimized for cost efficiencies.

Jo Gilley, CEO of Chicago-based Overture, has been impressed by Franks and Lovegrove, both as distributor competitors and colleagues in Brand Unbound. “Matt and Miles are creative and strategic thinkers, always ahead of the technology curve,” she says. “They were both very involved in the creation of the Brand Unbound global network and have been responsive and generous partners in the projects we’ve done and are doing together.”

Franks maintains that when it comes to global customers, servicing at a local level is vital. “Knowledge from regional merchandise consultants allows products to be sourced locally, meaning clients receive regionally relevant merchandise,” he says. “We won’t deliver clothing with buttons and zippers on the ‘wrong’ side. We understand that 56% of French consumers favor products made in France, and 65% of German consumers want environmentally friendly products. These nuances make all the difference, as very few companies in our sector can claim they are truly global.”

Miles Longrove

“Becoming a B Corp helped articulate our values and demonstrate commitment to our social and environmental responsibilities.” – Miles Lovegrove

Aside from the U.K. (where Fluid Branding is based) and the U.S. (where the distributor has a the partnership with Overture), Franks points to Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Middle East, Africa and China for global markets where he sees the most potential for growth.

The Upside of Screw-Ups

Franks and Lovegrove are quick to admit that what you learn from mistakes is much more important than how many you make. “All leaders make mistakes, yet some go on to achieve success and others fail,” Franks says. “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying anything new. We’ve made plenty along the way and learned from all of them.”

Lovegrove recalls that in the early days, Fluid set up a company called Chilli Source in the Far East to help with its sourcing requirements and offered these services to other U.K. distributors. “It was an epic fail as we tried to cross into the established business supply chain and act as both distributor and supplier,” he says. “We needed to focus on what we do best which is managing our client relationships rather than trying to offer a service to competitors that we had little experience in.” But in hindsight, both Franks and Lovegrove consider it a valuable experience. “Most of the major drivers that game-changed our business were off the back of a big mistake,” Franks says. “If you can use your mistakes to become better, you’ll have a huge advantage over competitors.”   

Michele Bell is ASI’s vice president of Editorial, Education & Special Events. She has been with ASI for 24 years and focuses on global markets and their impact on the promo industry, and has won numerous awards for her coverage of China, supplier-distributor relationships and personality profiles of the industry’s top leaders. Tweet: @ASI_MBell; email: mbell@asicentral.com