Too much Tea, Sir! A story about provisioning

There is a story to tell here: it is about provisioning. It is also about so called, ‘Just in Time’ logistics. What inspires this post is a recent challenge which has led me to review all I know and have experienced about provisioning. You see I have a rather interesting, brain aching challenge. It started when I ran out of glue sticks!

Our mission is to establish M&G as a preferred stationery brand in the UK. Yes, ambitious and certainly not a ‘do it quickly’ project. It will take a decade or a couple of million in marketing spend (don’t have that)! Nevertheless, that’s the aim. From zero sales in 2012 we look to top £100K this year, each year being roughly double the previous. When we started, M&G Stationery was unknown to all here except for some people of Chinese origin who would have grown up with the brand in China where it dominates totally. Can you imagine 65,000 retail shops in a chain? That’s what they have there! Starting from scratch here, we have had to pick product from M&G’s diverse, comprehensive range and then promote it to win custom, chiseling market share amongst the myriad of stationery brands already established here. This has necessarily been a laborious process. Obtaining investment is not easy for a project such as this and I am not interested in giving the company or a large chunk of it away in return for a little seed money. So growth has come from reinvestment of profits.

Having selected a few products, we worked to find customers for them, working with dealers, retailers and regional wholesalers/cash and carry outlets. As funds permit we have added more SKUs, now up to 135 from the original 8! This brings me back to the title. How on earth does one estimate what stock to hold with little or no sales history and for those products that are moving, how to allow for the unexpected demands? Well the answer is in the story behind the title.

Back in 1988 I wFalkland's Sunset - Saunder's Islandas an Army logistician. Posted to be the Second in Command of the Falkland Islands Logistic Supply Company, a newly promoted Captain Oxborough RAOC, clutching his newly acquired course certificate in Food Supply and Management, landed at RAF Mount Pleasant in August that year. Was I in for a shock!

For those who remain blissfully unaware of where the Falkland Islands are located, here it is, a few hundred miles east of the south eastern bit of Argentina, in the South Atlantic. As many said, not the end of the world but on a clear day it may be visible! It is a cold, bleak, windy place but the locals were very friendly and most grateful for their liberation in 1982. The wildlife was amazing.

Sunset over Saunders, an Island in the Falkland islands group

My responsibilities were diverse, as indeed they often are in the Armed Forces. A garrison of 3,000 Navy, Army and RAF were on my books, the resident Royal Naval Frigate (HMS Alacrity back then), miscellaneous outposts in the southern hemisphere including the infamous South Georgia and all Merchant Navy supply ships. Then there were the ‘special visitors’: passing guests whose arrival was unannounced but whose demands had to be met in full. Their identity was and remains a secret!

Now I had these big sheds and freezers to store food in bulk. We had one supply ship a month and needed to hold reserve stocks for reinforcements in the event that hostilities with Argentina kicked off again. Of course, the ship was frequently late and sometimes didn’t arrive at all so we had a domestic reserve of a month’s food just in case. The twice weekly Tri-Star carried a bit of fresh fruit and veg but not much. Even that took 20 hours to reach us!

In a nutshell, we could not be sure of our supplies but had to meet variable demand and failure was not an option. I became very good at provisioning, I had to. No excuses, if I got my sums wrong, people went hungry.

Here’s the bit about the shock. My new Warrant Officer, the Depot Superintendent arrived a week after me, a chap by the name of Pat Knox. I’d met him during the food supply course. He was the best, the very best, something I was glad of. After three days he came to me and reported a ‘small problem’. The previous team had not been quite as proficient with the book keeping and provisioning as was really needed and we found ourselves with unbalanced stock. Some important commodities were in such short supply that we would run out before the supply ship arrived. Needless to say, in time a full audit by a team sent down from the UK was done: this was serious and people would answer for it in time but for me, I had to solve the problem. Well I did, I had to, it was one of those, ‘failure is not an option’ situations. However, in the process I learned a really good lesson about ‘DofQ’ – Denomination of Quantity. This is a rather important concept as I knew. I got it right for everything except one product – Tea.

Roll forward three months. My first order arrived, the big complex one to restore stock balance. The usual offload and put to bed operation got underway. Then Pat Knox came to me and asked about the tea, “Where do you wish us to store the tea, Sir?”

“Normal Place”, I replied.

“Can’t Sir, Too much tea Sir!”

I had ordered pallet loads thinking I was ordering cartons. We had 50 times more than we actually needed!

Too much Tea, Sir!

to be continued ………..