WHEN a young Tony Le Tiec started his career as an advertising salesman at the Jersey Evening Post, he made two interesting discoveries.
The first was that he was hopeless at spelling. The second – and the one which was to define his career – was that he was very good at selling.
And it was this knack for persuading people to part with their money which prompted the founders of what was then a small stationery and office supplies company to offer him a job.
‘PBS – or Professional Business Systems to give the company its full name – was set up in 1972 by Kevin O’Toole and the late Jonathan Littlemore,’ Tony explained. ‘They started out in Waterloo Lane in a small office, with just a desk and a chair each, as the dealers for Hanimex calculators. Those were the only things they sold at the beginning.’
But from those humble beginnings, the business soon grew – although its early expansion came as a surprise to one of its founders.
‘One day, John came back to the office after an appointment and told Kevin “I’ve sold your desk”. From that day, PBS became a furniture agent as well,’ smiled Tony.
Further diversification followed and, in the company’s fourth year of trading, PBS became the first agency in Europe to partner with Canon.
‘That was a key step for the company and it is a partnership which has endured ever since. In fact, PBS is now a gold partner for Canon, as well as for HP, Xerox, Ricoh and Sharp,’ Tony added.
Tony’s own story with PBS began in 1988, at which he was selling advertising for the Jersey Journal.
‘I knocked on the door of PBS and tried to sell them advertising, which they declined,’ he said, with a chuckle. ‘However, they said “We don’t want your advertising but can you knock on other people’s doors and sell our products to them?” I quickly started learning about photocopiers and, after five years, we had gone from 25 machines in local offices to 15,000.
‘Many years later, we realised it was far more efficient for offices to rent their office equipment from us, instead of buying it, and we changed our approach to the system with which many people will be familiar with today.’
And it isn’t just PBS’s business model which has changed over the years, with the technology which the team supplies and maintains today almost unrecognisable from those early machines.
‘The transformation is incredible,’ Tony reflected. ‘At the beginning, I was selling photocopiers with moving tops. The machines weren’t even connected to networks and, in many offices, the copiers were hidden away in dark rooms. Now, these machines are a fundamental part of a document capture system and take centre stage in many workplaces.’
The ability to offer equipment from so many internationally renowned manufacturers is also, says managing director Alan Medcalf, one which is unique to the Channel Island firm.
‘PBS is the only company in Europe to have all of those marques under one roof but it is a status which has arisen from customer demand,’ he said. ‘Many Jersey-based companies are governed by global corporate agreements, which mean they have to work with a certain manufacturer. They were coming to us and saying: “We want to work with you but can you supply this brand?”’
‘From a maintenance perspective, there isn’t a massive difference between manufacturers but what each manufacturer does require is that you hold a comprehensive stock of parts. As a result, we took on new warehouses in both Jersey and Guernsey about five years ago, which ensures that we can deliver the service level response rates demanded by both our suppliers and our clients.’
The company’s expansion into Guernsey took place in 2013 after the company, which Tony had purchased three years earlier, acquired Office Solutions (Guernsey) Ltd.
But while the company may have a physical presence and workforce in the two islands, Alan says that its reach extends far beyond the Channel.
‘In the past five or six years, we have really extended our reach to become a global company,’ he said. ‘While the move into Guernsey gave us full pan-island capability, through a combination of technology and our network of partners, we have a full global reach. While many finance companies are headquartered in the Channel Islands, they have offices around the world. And, as a result, if you walked into certain firms’ offices in Germany, Luxembourg, Dublin or the British Virgin Islands, you would see equipment which has been supplied by PBS.’
Contributing to the firm’s global reach, says Tony – who is now the company’s executive chair – is a partnership which was established in 1997.
‘Thanks to the foresight of the company’s founders, in 1997, PBS was one of the original partners of the Integra partnership, a buying group whose concept was really ground-breaking at the time,’ he explained. ‘Integra is now one of the biggest buying groups in Europe and, as an investor in the group, PBS benefits from the best prices that Integra can secure. From phones and stationery to desks or even cars, the group can approach all of its clients to secure a sizeable order and then achieve a competitive price.’
And prices are not the only benefit to come from the dealership, as PBS discovered at the height of the Covid pandemic.
‘When demand for masks and sanitiser was at its peak, and no one could find any, thanks to our buying power and reach, we were able to bring thousands of masks to the islands,’ said Alan. ‘Indeed, throughout the pandemic, PBS was at the forefront of supplying masks and hand sanitiser to clients and Islanders.’
As well as prompting the team to search for protective equipment, the pandemic – and the ensuing widespread shift to remote working – had other implications for the PBS workforce.
‘Covid was a massive test for businesses but, despite the challenges, PBS showed its resilience and emerged from the pandemic even more strongly than ever,’ said Tony. ‘A lot of companies which were not buying locally before suddenly realised that, as travel restrictions hit, they were unable to source parts and fly engineers over. As a result, they turned to local providers for support.’
‘We were also in a strong position to support the transition to remote working as, just before Covid hit, we launched a partnership with Stone Group, the largest independent technology manufacturer in the UK,’ added Alan. ‘This partnership was formed in response to customers’ demand for laptops and the subsequent need for high levels of security and data protection. As a result, when companies suddenly needed high levels of secure home-office equipment, we were able to meet that demand, while our partnership with Herman Miller also meant that we were able to kit staff out with desks and chairs for their new home offices.’
While, over the years, PBS has had a number of subsidiary companies, including insurance and wealth management firms, the group has subsequently consolidated and now comprises five divisions: Business Solutions, Office and Interiors, Workspace, Creative and Lending.
And it is the Workspace arm – centred around the group’s investment in commercial property – which Tony believes has tremendous potential for growth.
‘To go from supplying furniture and technology within offices to buying commercial property was quite a shift but we recognised that there was a massive opportunity not just to supply desks, chairs and computers but to supply the office itself,’ he said. ‘As a result, our floor in IFC5 is now occupied by a range of international firms who have moved into our suite of serviced offices.’
While Tony and Alan were keen to develop such a facility, securing the space took a little more effort.
‘The international finance centre was, as its name suggests, intended for international companies so there was some resistance at first to the idea of a local firm taking so much space in such a prestigious building,’ Tony added. ‘However, since launching the space, we have brought international hedge fund, wealth management and family offices to the Island, many of whom have used our offices as a test bed for their operation in Jersey and are now waiting for IFC6 to be constructed so that they can move into permanent offices there.’
But not every company is looking for an office of its own. As the pandemic has triggered a significant change in the workplace, Tony and Alan believe that the demand for serviced offices will grow.
‘Hot-desking has become a massive trend and, as servers are disappearing to be replaced with cloud-based solutions, people now have the flexibility to work from anywhere,’ Tony added. ‘While I don’t see offices disappearing, I do think that they will be used very differently in future. Having a smaller, more open-plan space and hiring boardrooms or external meeting or office facilities will, I believe, become much more commonplace.’
And responding to such changes is, says Alan, pivotal to PBS’s future success.
‘It is said that while change is inevitable, growth is optional,’ he said. ‘Just as we have done in response to changing technology and workplace demands over the past 50 years, our challenge is to recognise and pre-empt those changes and tap into those markets so that we continue to offer the solutions needed to drive our clients’ growth.’