“We felt there was room for a distributor offering a superlative service at reasonable prices”, says Mike Lee, the co-founder of Rapid with Chris Stevenson. The original vision was to offer a broad range of products via a catalogue to compete with the big names in the electronics business. In July 1979 Mike and Chris rented a converted room above a garage in Kent. “This was a very basic 300 sq foot store”, says Chris. “The water in the kettle would regularly freeze!”
But it was the base from which the company started servicing the public with a small range of electronic components (approximately 200 lines). Advertising in the retail electronics press generated sales and a small single sheet ‘Catalogue' was mailed to customers.
After two years Rapid started receiving regular orders from the Education sector who expected to be invoiced and would pay within 30 days of date of invoice. Rapid was able to finance this credit facility to customers due to the relatively small number of customers requiring credit and the improved relationship with suppliers. In 1983 Rapid moved to a small building on an industrial estate in Boxted, near Colchester in Essex. These are affectionately known among employees of the time as the ‘green shed days’.
At around this time Rapid founded its International Purchasing Office in the Far East – one of the most significant events in the company’s history, according to Mike Lee. A network of over 50 suppliers was developed, including with leading manufacturers like Kingbright with whom Rapid is still a close partner.
Increasing sales, particularly into the educational sector, brought computerisation of the business and a move to a larger building adjacent to the existing unit in 1985. Once again an increase in stock holding and product range dictated the addition of a 3000 sq. feet floor within two years. In April 1989 Rapid moved the short distance from Boxted to a site on Severalls Industrial Estate, Colchester, totalling 18,000 sq. feet.
“A new warehouse was needed to handle the increased order volumes”, recalls Chris Stevenson. “We also wanted to improve the order flow through the warehouse through the introduction of zoned picking and conveyor systems.” An extension was added in the 1990s to house the bulk stocks that were regularly arriving from China.
The 1990s were a period of huge growth in turnover, staff and product range. In May 2000 Rapid moved to a new custom-designed distribution centre on Severalls Lane, Colchester, with 35,000 sq ft of warehousing and 10,000 sq ft of offices.
The move enabled the company’s expansion and the provision of new automated packing, handling and storage facilities. A significant innovation was the installation of a conveyor belt in the main warehouse, increasing the speed at which orders could be picked, packed and despatched.
The company’s first education catalogue was produced in 2001, a website was launched in 2002, and a Trade Counter was opened in 2007 with the capacity to stock 4,000 products.
In 2012 Rapid became part of the Conrad Group, a multi-channel pan-European electronics retailer. It was also the year in which Rapid became a partner of VEX Robotics and started selling the Raspberry Pi, a natural progression for a company that had always offered kits and chips that helped people of all ages learn about coding, prototyping and programming.
In 2015 and 2017 the company was shortlisted for the prestigious category of Distributor of the Year at the Elektra Electronics Industry Awards. James Bates, Rapid's Managing Director, is justifiably proud of the company's achievements: ‘Rapid's substantial growth has not altered the key focus of the business. We are committed to supporting the products we stock and the customers we serve.'
For 40 key moments in Rapid’s history, click here.