The UK’s vending business is booming, with sales of around £1.65 billion per annum. Suppliers of bottled water, coffee, tea, chocolate and soups across the country have around 462,700 machines which works out as 1.139 vending machines per person, which is far higher than in Japan or even the United States. Every day in the UK 8 million cups of coffee and 2 million cups of tea are vended or around 6 billion items per year. In Kent one of the leading players in this marketplace is Rochester based family business UK Vending and in April 2019 they are celebrating their 50th anniversary.
Martin Button runs the company that was founded by his father in 1969 and has been leading the way through the use of innovative business solutions. “My father, John Button, started the business in the mid 1960’s after he came out of Chatham Dockyard as a qualified engineer. He got a service engineer job with a company called Ditchburn, which was one of the first national vending companies in the UK who supplied very large vending machines that produced reasonable coffee but very poor tea to all the industrial and manufacturing companies in the South East of England. He prided himself in doing preventative maintenance on the machines which made them more reliable. After about two years his repair work got less and less but was given the job of national sales manager in Birmingham. He did not like it quit and came back but his previous job had gone. But his replacement wasn’t very good and the companies he was previously providing the service for contacted his separately and with the backing of Ditchburn he became his own service engineer in Kent.” Martin recalls how in the late 1960’s the company started to expand. “In 1969 Automatic Catering Limited was created, which was the first Limited Vending Company in Kent. Dad saw in Kent that there were a lot of large manufacturing companies with large numbers of employees using canteens, which were not open all the time. So he found out the shift patterns to provide vending machines when the canteens were shut.” This innovative approach to business saw the company gain extra business but it was the introduction of smaller vending machines capable of supplying coffee, tea and chocolate beverages to small offices that really kick started the development of the company.
“In the mid 1970’s I recall my father saying he had had a really bad day”, Martin Button recalls. “It was in the winter time, it was cold, dark and raining and he just happened to bump into someone he knew in the vending trade, who said to him I am looking at this new table top machine - it’s something a little bit different. The machine, was the first designed for a smaller office with about 10-20 people; which was reasonably priced and he became the only one selling it in Kent and provided him with a good margin. On the back of this he was able to go out and buy a Jaguar from the salesroom with a suitcase of cash!”
The 1980’s were a successful period for Southern Automatic Catering Limited when they became the first independent company to be a distributor for the Mars Drinks company selling the Clix range of machines, whilst the next decade saw the introduction of the Flavia Coffee Machines. Southern Automatic Catering in 1995 became the first UK based vending company to own and operate a website at UKVending.co.uk. “We took the name,” Martin Button explains. The following year the newly renamed company entered the bottled water business. “We were also the first to get into the bottled water business in 1996. At the time I was working for my dad in the summer holidays and I saw a water cooler next to one of our vending machines in the summer and I remember it being really, really hot and I was lugging all this stuff inside. Within a week I found a supplier of bottled water, found a supplier who could send out a leaflet and I sent out 6000 faxes on a Tuesday. I had 60 replies within two days. I hired a Luton van and had 60 bottled water coolers delivered. I went out in the van on Thursday delivered in the morning and a week later I went back and signed up 59 of them. At the same time we outgrew the facilities in Gillingham High Street and found the land and built our own building in Rochester in Fort Bridgeswoods and we moved in November 2000.”
Martin Button is proud of the work that the company has achieved over the last five decades and particularly so with their innovative approach to securing the best deals and contracts. “We have always been innovative, with my business computer skills background from college. I was able to bring computers into the business as well and streamline the business in the process. Now we have given all out engineers tablets so we know where they are and invoicing is done correctly.”
In the 21st century businesses across the board are facing new challenges with regard to be environmentally friendly as UK Vending is again takes a bold approach to green issues. “All our waste is recycled. All our cups are recycled and all the ink cartridges are sent back for recycling. We ensure our route management is correct. We use interlink who have a zero carbon policy so they offset their carbon footprint. We also have 10,000 solar panels on the roof of the building which we installed five years ago and that reduces our electrical consumption by 50 percent and producing 10 kilowatts of solar power so in most summer days we’re actually producing more electricity than we’re using.” But what about their products, the coffee and tea that the vending machines use to produce the drinks themselves? “We work closely with Rainforest Alliance. We have helped them with their Public Relations; all our flavour range of drinks is now Rainforest Alliance approved. So now we know that all our products, the raw materials for our teas, coffees and chocolate are supplied through ethically run and managed forms which are sustainable for their communities. It feels that we’re contributing to the welfare of the people who grow these products who are thousands and thousands of miles away. We also know exactly where all of the product comes from.”