When Dominique Lyone founded the Australian office supply firm COS 45 years ago, typewriter ribbons were among its most popular products. The Sydney-based company, then called Complete Office Supplies, was a humble project he started with a friend.
Dominique kept the business private and in the family, gradually expanding its product range and customer base until his children were old enough to begin learning about the business. Then, about 20 years ago, his two daughters joined the company.
Amie and Belinda both took jobs outside the company first, to gain skills and hone in on their strengths, before joining the family business.
“In our family, you go and do something else first,” Belinda says. “Figure out what you’re good at, and then when the time is right, you enter the business. So that was part of our journey.”
For a while, the family wondered which sister would take the helm after Dominique retired. But the more Belinda and Amie thought about this question, the more they realised they each had a unique set of skills and experiences that put them in equal stead to lead.
“If we promise you we’re going to get you your delivery on Friday, every system within the business, every department within the business knows that, and the technology helps us to deliver on that promise.”– Amie
On top of that, they loved working together, so they made the decision to lead the company together, each taking on the role of Co-CEO in September 2021.
“It’s something that we talked about for a long time – should it be Amie or should it be me? And we ultimately came to the conclusion it doesn’t need to be one – that we’ve got a great working relationship, complimentary skills and share a passion for the business,” Belinda says. “So we’ve taken the path of Co-CEO. We’re a year into that journey and so far we think it’s working really well.”
The business they have taken over has changed immensely since its founding. There are, of course, no more typewriter ribbons, and COS has branched out into offering cleaning supplies, bathroom and kitchen amenities and furniture. The company now also supplies schools as well as businesses.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been more drastic change, with COS moving into air purification systems and selling rapid COVID-19 tests to help businesses transition from work-from-home to hybrid office models.
“It started very small, and here we are 45 years later at a point that is probably well and truly beyond what our father dreamed when he first started it,” Belinda says. “COVID-19 has meant even more of an adjustment to the types of products that we’re selling, one that wholly reflects on what our customers are using to get their jobs done.
“It began with typewriter ribbons and carbon paper 45 years ago. Today, our biggest selling product is hand towels, and rapid tests, I think, were a big seller last month. COVID-19 has changed the way our customers are working.”
“There’s no benefit in winning new customers if the sacrifice is losing others. The number one priority is retention.” – Belinda
All of this has helped contribute to impressive growth in recent years. The business has doubled in size since 2017, driven in large part by the decision to branch into the education sector. That expansion was also helped partly by acquisitions that enabled COS to enter the sector and establish new specialist product categories.
The firm now has an enviably strong presence across Australia, with distribution centres in every state and over 600 employees. They would have even more, Belinda says, were it not for the tight labour market precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis. “We’re hiring as fast as we can find them at the moment.”
“Our plan is to continue to grow organically and through acquisitions. It’s a big part of our strategy,” Amie says. “From a category perspective, what’s really happening in the market through the pandemic with hybrid working, is everything is shifting in terms of what our customer needs. So we like to say that really we’re in the business of helping Australian workers remain healthy, safe and productive while they’re working, whatever that might look like.
“As the market evolves and hybrid working evolves, whatever the Australian worker is going to need from a product perspective, we’ll support that growth as well, while continuing to strengthen the existing business.”
The company may be hungry to grow, but Belinda and Amie are only pursuing opportunities that are financially sustainable and don’t require COS to compromise on any of its core values. The sisters have looked several times at potential expansion into New Zealand, for example, only to find on each occasion that it wasn’t the right time.
“There’s still plenty of opportunity in our own backyard,” Amie says.
And they’ll be pursuing those opportunities while maintaining a strong commitment to their current customers. “One of our core values is service excellence, and we believe service matters,” Belinda says. “The most important thing is to grow at a pace where you can still deliver great service to your existing customers. There’s no benefit in winning new customers if the sacrifice is losing others. The number one priority is retention.”
“Some might say that our investment in inventory is probably a little on the heavy side, but we’ve found that as a private business, we’re happy to have that investment.” – Belinda
To honour that priority, COS is set up to ensure each new step forward is rigorously planned.
“It’s very well thought through in terms of what is the appropriate level of growth that the business can support from an operational perspective each year,” Belinda says. “Amie leads all of our distribution centres and works through our capacity in those locations to make sure that we’ve actually bought and serviced the growth all the way through the supply check – from how we manage our inventory, to how we manage our account management team, and so on.”
“It’s also about the level of technology that we use in our driver network,” Amie adds. “We’re heavily invested in distribution and technology to support that as well in order to get that growth. From scale there comes efficiency, which ultimately will help. And the whole time we ask ourselves, ‘What level of growth do we want, and where should that growth come from based on our customers’ needs?’”
Amie and Belinda are able to have a more careful and considered approach to growth because COS is private and family owned. “I think that being a private business allows you that luxury of that little bit of extra investment, as well as long-term thinking to make sure that we are ready and prepared for the growth that we are trying to achieve,” Belinda says.
Another key benefit is that the company has been able to invest more heavily in inventory to ensure that it can always deliver on promises to its customers. With thousands of products in COS’s warehouses, it is more important than ever to have a surplus of stock as the COVID-19 crisis continues to badly disrupt supply chains.
“It comes back to service,” Belinda says. “We make a significant investment in inventory, and we’ve got distribution centres across the country. Some might say that our investment in inventory is probably a little on the heavy side, but we’ve found that as a private business, we’re happy to have that investment. And it’s really served us well, in particular during COVID-19.”
“We’ve got a great working relationship, complimentary skills and share a passion for the business.” – Belinda
The lesson is that having leeway, and a back-up plan, amid a volatile environment is a very valuable thing. It may be costly to buy and store so much extra inventory, but at a time when many businesses have been forced to let their customers down, COS’s ability to fulfil orders has helped it stand out.
“As a private business, the ability to sink extra money into just having more inventory ultimately gives you a competitive edge of having the right product at the right time,” Belinda says.
In addition to ensuring timely deliveries, amassing a large inventory also contributes to COS’s competitiveness by ensuring a good price point for customers.
“We’re very focused on buying well, and on our procurement practices, to make sure that we maximise our buying power,” Belinda says. “We have a direct to factory model wherever we can, and we really focus on ranging where products have unique features. We find that really helps us to maintain that competitive edge. Because ultimately, the customer needs great service from us, but they also need it to be at the right price point. So that’s a key differentiator.”
Whatever decision is being made, Amie, Belinda and the rest of the COS leadership team follow a simple rule to ensure they focus on what is most important.
“We always talk about having the customer in the room with us at all times,” Belinda says. “Whenever we are making decisions and working together, there’s always a customer in the room with us, who we’re thinking of, and all of our innovations ultimately connect to that customer experience.”
It is not just a healthy inventory and good price point that enables COS to offer service excellence: the company has its own proprietary technology, including a website built and maintained in-house, as well as its own fleet of delivery vehicles and drivers, to ensure that it has full control of the customer experience.
“About 92 per cent of our orders come via the website,” Amie says. “Belinda and I spent quite a bit of time on it. It’s an in-house built website. We have a team of developers who work solely on that website, continually innovating it.
“The technology is essential.” – Amie
“We work on an agile SCRUM process of about every two weeks. We’re heavily engaging with end-users to understand their experience and how we can improve it. We have our own team of developers to help us continually innovate the website to keep it current.”
This ecommerce platform is fully integrated with the company’s distribution centres and logistics network, helping to ensure that the journey from purchase to delivery is as smooth as possible, and that issues can be swiftly dealt with.
“The communication into the distribution centres is instantaneous,” Belinda says. “There’s technology all throughout the centres. Amie has personally designed multiple apps that are used for picking and packing. We use scanning technology heavily, as well as weighing machines, to achieve a high level of detail and accuracy.”
The drivers are also hooked into this system, meaning both customers and colleagues can track their movements. “The technology really helps with transparency for the customer in tracking their order,” Amie says.
“We’ve chosen not to outsource logistics because, from our perspective, having our own fleet of drivers around the country just really delivers that next level of service.” – Amie
“Obviously, it helps to ensure the accuracy and on-time delivery. So if we promise you we’re going to get you your delivery on Friday, every system within the business, every department within the business knows that, and the technology helps us to deliver on that promise. The technology is essential.”
It’s also important to Amie and Belinda that the drivers who deliver their goods are directly employed by COS and not outsourced to another company. While COS depends on numerous close, trusting and mutually beneficial partnerships, the company has decided an external firm managing the last-mile phase of its deliveries could get in the way of its ability to prioritise the customer and consistently deliver on its promises.
“We’ve chosen not to outsource logistics because, from our perspective, having our own fleet of drivers around the country just really delivers that next level of service,” Amie says. “Our drivers know our customers better than anyone.”
Another benefit of keeping drivers in-house is that leadership have access to more information about their interactions with customers. External drivers don’t necessarily come back to the office to discuss how things went with deliveries, meaning there is a risk that concerns raised by customers go unheard by the seller. At COS, any issues are brought straight back from the field.
“They often come back and give us feedback,” Amie says. “Some of the technology we use with the drivers even allows them to communicate with us while they’re on a customer’s site. So if there’s crucial information the customer’s sharing, that can come back to us internally.”
On top of that, directly employing drivers helps to maintain brand integrity. “The driver is actually the face of our business,” Amie says. “So having our own drivers is a big point of difference for us.”
Everything COS and its team do is informed by six fundamental values, with the highest being service excellence and having the customer at the forefront. The next value is passion; creating an environment where everyone is dedicated to serving the customer is only possible if everyone is genuinely invigorated by the task.
“We’re very passionate about what we do. We love what we do,” Amie says. “That’s a core value for us. Everybody within the business is passionate about what we do in servicing the customer as well.”
Since that passion needs to be properly channelled in order to be effective, the next core value is to be highly results-driven. “We’re action-oriented and achievement-focused in everything we do and how we operate on a day-to-day basis,” Amie says.
“We’re action-oriented and achievement-focused in everything we do and how we operate on a day-to-day basis.” – Amie
After taking any action, it’s vital to assess whether it achieved the intended goal, so being self-reflective is another fundamental part of the culture at COS. “We’re big fans of Jim Collins, and we talk about an autopsy. So culturally within the business, we’re very reflective and are always asking, ‘How did we do? How can we do better?’” Amie says.
Then there is continuous innovation, a value reflected in the fact that COS has repeatedly adapted to a market that has changed drastically over the previous decades.
Finally, the leadership at COS strives to create a sense of togetherness and shared purpose. “We’re a big community, and we celebrate and have a little bit of fun along the way as well,” Amie explains.
“We’re really a big family,” Belinda says.
Much of the growth COS has seen under Amie and Belinda’s leadership is owed to the strong and lasting partnerships the company has forged with key suppliers.
“We’ve had a successful partnership with Avery for many decades now. Avery not only continue to innovate their already high-quality products, they also continue to support manufacturing in Australia, which we love. We were able to work together during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue to deliver quality service to our health customers, who needed vital label products during lockdowns.”
“Another great family business that we’ve been fortunate to work with for many years is Fellowes. While best known for being the market leader in shredding, their pivot into air purification during the COVID-19 pandemic was impressive.”
“Supplier relationships like UPM are pivotal in COS finding unique ways to deliver value to our growing customer base. Through a collaboration with UPM, we were able to launch into Australia the first plastic-free, lightweight copy paper, New Future, which is one of our best-selling products today.”