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Harriet Green, ceo, Premier Farnell

High service distribution is increasingly important for electronics design engineers, says Harriet Green, ceo of Premier Farnell. Graham Pitcher finds out more.

Business is all about moving with the times; not only positioning your company so that it meets the needs of your customers today, but also preparing for the future.
And nowhere is that more appropriate than in the world of electronic component distribution, where market pressures have created a highly competitive industry.

Some companies in this sector have had to move more quickly than others and that's certainly the case with what were once regarded as 'catalogue' distributors. Harriet Green, ceo of Premier Farnell, challenges aggressively the use of the term 'catalogue'. "Farnell is a high service distributor," she asserts. "By everyone's definition, we're a web business."
It's an important distinction, certainly in her view. "High service distribution once featured many small companies, but the barriers to entry have changed. Designers want to access a global supply chain, with fast delivery and so on. It's hard for small distributors to meet these demands and that's what we're trying to do."

High service distribution is, in her opinion, taking market share from traditional distributors because of the breadth of product portfolio available. "Traditional distributors can't make the investment," she claimed, "particularly at the moment, when people aren't buying big amounts of product."
"Business is being done on the web," Green continued. "Whether it's browsing, working or whatever, it's a fast growing part of business. Farnell is now a web company. We hire web people and have good websites. Time to market has now become critical."

Premier Farnell is a global organisation, whose companies include Farnell, Newark, CPC and Premier Electronics. With sales of £800million and more than 4000 employees, it's a major player in electronic component distribution.
Today, Farnell Europe takes more than 50% of its orders via the web. North America, surprisingly, is behind the pace, with more than 20% of orders via the web.

Green acknowledges that Farnell has to support design engineers. "They want small quantities of products to be delivered quickly," she noted. "And they want a source of product information. We provide that service, whether they are at the start or the end of the product design cycle, and we also believe we provide a good service for purchasers."

The main interface between Farnell and the design engineers it serves is element 14 (www.element-14.com), its recently launched website.
"We've invested to ensure there's the infrastructure and ways to give our customers what they need. Doing it well is the difference," Green believes.
According to the company, element 14 is an information portal and community built specifically for electronic design engineers.
The site offers product data, design tools and technical documentation, along with the ability to share information with designers around the world.
"Engineers come to element 14 because they want information," Green contended. "They want things like environmental data and access to expertise. Premier Farnell has gone from providing products to providing services and information and that's an important development."
How does Premier Farnell provide the support to which Green alludes? "When I joined Premier Farnell," she observed, "the company only had a few design engineers available for support. Today, there are 188 people whose sole job is to provide technical support for our customers. The head of our technical marketing operation used to work for ARM and for Altera. We have really capable people supported by great tools. When customers access these people, they don't get charged by the minute and the support is available at any time and in any language."

Farnell's support system has two levels. At the main level, there are global support teams, with engineers in regional centres dealing with technical issues. At the second level, there are global technology centres. "Using such approaches as Instant Messaging and Live Chat, our people are there to help solve problems," Green continued.

Having said that, Green admitted: "Engineers are smart; they often don't need to talk to another engineer if the information is available on the web."
Demographics are playing a major part in how Premier Farnell is refocusing its approach. "The younger the designer, the more used they are to the web. For example, the average age of an electronic design engineer in China is 27 and they want everything on the web. Design engineers leaving university will be amazed that some companies won't let them use Facebook."

Pointing to the large numbers of graduates in China and India, Green says one of the challenges facing the UK is how to inspire young people to follow engineering as a career. "We need to encourage people when they are 13 or 14," she asserted, "and to tell them that being an engineer is good. One of the ways will be to provide good role models. But in some other countries, being an engineer is the default."
Premier Farnell is a supporter of Richard Noble's Bloodhound SSC project. "We're trying to do our part," she said, "and hope it will help encourage young people to be engineers."

Premier Farnell is providing scholarships for students to follow electronic engineering. Four scholarships – each worth $2500 – will be provided in Asia, Europe and the Americas. "Encouraging innovation and forward thinking among engineering students is paramount to the development and sustainability of future generations of design engineers," said Green.

The company has been affected by the downturn like any other. Sales for the first quarter of its 2009 financial year were down by 15% compared to the same quarter in 2008. "Markets have slowed and people are making less," she observed. "But the destocking phase will end and the next natural step is to start making things again. When that happens, they'll want to use high service distribution companies like Premier Farnell," she concluded.

Author
Graham Pitcher

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