The seismic growth enjoyed by electrical wholesaler City Electric Supply (CES) and its sister company, City Electrical Factors (CEF), over the past two years makes the industry’s overall post-pandemic boom look like a mild swelling.
And according to CES and CEF Executive Chairman Thomas Hartland-Mackie, who recently stepped into the role after 15 years as the company’s CEO, that’s saying something.
“We’ve had an incredible period,” he says. “The sector has done better post-pandemic than I’ve ever seen it do during my career. We were seeing industry growth rates of up to 20 percent at times in an industry where we typically see three-to-five percent.”
“If people have that desire to progress and move up within the business, we want to give them that opportunity.”
Amid the gusts of these incredible tailwinds was the company’s own rapid expansion. In 2021, CES had two distribution centers in the United States and one in the United Kingdom.
“We’re now up to five in North America with a sixth to open in Canada later this year, and we’re in the process of starting our second in the United Kingdom,” says Hartland-Mackie, who notes the build-up has come in response to a market ravenous for electrical wares.
“Residential is doing well, commercial for the most part is doing well, industrials and data centers are picking up in the United States like I haven’t seen before,” Hartland-Mackie says. “It has been very interesting.”
That’s not to say the performance in the United Kingdom through sister company CEF is any less impressive. The COVID-19 pandemic drove many businesses out of brick-and-mortar stores and into the online marketplace. Plenty have declined to return due to rising rent costs and booming internet business.
“Almost 20 percent of our United Kingdom orders are done through our online portal,” Hartland-Mackie says.
Overall, CEF Online has experienced growth of close to 45 percent year-on-year in the United Kingdom.
“It’s tremendous growth that has inspired us to continue to invest in both the United States business and what I call our supporting departments,” he says.
In order to provide CES customers with a greater level of expertise and category knowledge, Hartland-Mackie has established a series of regional and national departments tasked with doing just that.
“Power Infrastructure Solutions is a group we’ve started, for example,” he says. “They are concentrating on utility-scale solar installations. They are part of the National Solutions Division, which focuses on growing customer relationships on a national scale with centralized expertise.”
Coupling these expert product knowledge teams with localized service has been quite a win for CES, helping it expand to close to 600 locations in 30 states across the United States and, combined with sister company CEF, to over 1,136 branches. This large footprint means a broader canvas across which to spread the company’s pool of talent.
“We’re attracting great external talent, but we’re discovering so much more inside the company,” Hartland-Mackie says. “We’ve promoted several thousand people across the organization, and that’s something we really pride ourselves on. If people have that desire to progress and move up within the business, we want to give them that opportunity.”
With internal expansion comes more external growth globally. An example of this, Hartland-Mackie says, is the booming growth of CEF.
“We’d been pretty stagnant in the United Kingdom in terms of market share for several decades, but 11 years ago, I put in place in our European business a man named Charlie Beddows,” he says. “He was with us for 40 years, and his father actually opened our fifth location.”
As the younger Beddows worked his way through the company, Hartland-Mackie says he had an unbelievable impact on the business.
“It was because of his efforts that we accelerated our market growth to become the second-largest player in the United Kingdom, and we’re quickly chasing down the top spot,” he says. “Charlie retired just recently, but our result in the United Kingdom is exciting and a huge testament to what he achieved during his tenure.”
Fittingly, Beddows has been replaced by a CEO who has worked his way up as part of the CEF family in the United Kingdom. This is something that’s important to Hartland-Mackie, whose grandfather founded the company in 1951.
“It has been an amazingly successful time, we’re almost twice the size we were two years ago, which I never thought I’d be saying, and I try to keep our team focused on that.”
“I always say that we’re a family business. We’re owned by my family, but there are also so many team members who have family members inside our business,” he says.
“We have so many people’s kids and grandkids working within the organization and doing amazing things. When that happens, when your kids join your business, it shows what a good experience you had to inspire them. It’s really great and we’re having a lot of that.”
Quite an achievement, to be sure, but when asked what he considers his crowning success, Hartland-Mackie is characteristically humble.
“I don’t know that I could say for sure,” he ponders. “I think for me it’s all of these small things that add up to the progression we’ve seen. It has been an amazingly successful time, we’re almost twice the size we were two years ago, which I never thought I’d be saying, and I try to keep our team focused on that.”
Despite the wins, there’s still much to do – and do better.
“Past success is no indication of future success,” he says. “I’m proud of our business and our teams, and I’m proud that our culture really resonates, but we’re always asking, ‘How do we need to be better? What do we need to do next?’”
It’s one thing to know more must be done, but it’s another to be ready to achieve that. Fortunately, that’s not a problem for Hartland-Mackie and his team.
“I’m pleased to say that I can see 1,000 ways for us to be better, and for me that’s the really exciting part,” he says. “At CEF in the United Kingdom, we’ve realized our traditional branches are quite small in footprint, so we’re trialing larger dark stores called Simpler For Stores in the London area.”
These bigger locations are available for all branches of CEF to use as a supplemental service area for larger projects.
“They can basically put pallets of material in there if they’re struggling with space,” he says.
“Past success is no indication of future success.”
With now over 1,136 branches, CES and CEF’s top-selling brand partners such as Siemens and Aico share space alongside newer initiatives such as solar.
“In the past, some of our suppliers maybe didn’t see us as the most viable route to market, but we’ve been able to work together and change that perception,” Hartland-Mackie says. “We’d rather be slightly heavy on inventory but make sure we can fulfill the needs of our customers, and now we’re able to achieve that.
“We try to take a win–win approach with our suppliers, because at the end of the day, these are long-term partnerships.”
The new stores give CES and CEF room to breathe, he adds.
“It’s how we’re trying to bridge the worlds of localized service and bigger facilities without sacrificing one for the other,” he says. “And we’re hearing from customers that, ‘You guys have what we need and that’s why we come to you’.”
Hartland-Mackie, 36, is very aware of the reputation of his millennial contemporaries and how it might affect how he’s regarded in the industry.
“Doesn’t matter what your background is or how old you are, you can join us and you can have an incredible career trajectory.”
“There’s more of an openness among millennials to share views,” he says. “We try to encourage across our business, ‘Tell us what you think’, and they’re more comfortable giving that feedback. It has been exciting to have more of that in the business.”
The new CEO of the European business started working with CEF when he was just 18 years old.
“His ability and desire to grow within the company showed from a really young age, which helped him become a branch manager nine years later,” Hartland-Mackie says.
“That’s what I like about our organization. It’s very merit-based. It doesn’t matter what your background is or how old you are. You can join us and have an incredible career trajectory.”