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"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, according to Chris, was to offer a broad range of products via a catalogue to compete with the big names in the electronics business. But all big ambitions have to start somewhere small.
In July 1979 Mike and Chris rented a converted room above a garage in the village of Eynsford, near Dartford in Kent. "This was a very basic 300 sq foot store", says Chris. "We had no connection with the owner of the house, who used to leave our mail at the bottom of the stairs. The water in the kettle would regularly freeze!"
The business model for Rapid was as a mail order company. The first catalogue was posted to customers in 1980. The catalogue would remain the primary method of marketing for over 30 years. As the company’s product range grew, so did the catalogue. By the mid-2000s it was clocking in at a hefty 1,300 pages. The final industry catalogue was printed in 2011, as customers began to order more from the website. But old habits die hard and we still get asked if a catalogue is available!
As the business grew, larger premises were required. Unable to find a site in Kent, Chris and Mike looked further afield. Mike’s parents lived in Long Melford in Suffolk, and it was Mike’s father John who introduced him to the manager of a nearby site on Hill Farm industrial estate in Boxted, on the outskirts of Colchester. So began what are affectionately known among long time employees as ‘the green shed days’.
In these early years the work was done almost solely by Mike and Chris. It was not until September 1983 that Rapid took on its first full-time member of staff – Lynn Evans. Quite remarkably Lynn is still with the company, 36 years later.
Lynn joined Rapid a few months after leaving school after answering an ad in the local paper. “I lived in Boxted, so it was ideal for me. I went for an interview on a Friday with Mike Lee, and then he rang back and asked if I could start on the Monday. I was very nervous!” Lynn picked and packed orders, but it was a lot different in those ‘green shed days’: "We had no part numbering system – we literally had to work out what part the customer wanted from their own description of it, and learn it. You just had to hope you got it right and usually we did!"
"I did a bit of everything really – took orders over the phone, picked and packed, helped back the computer system up on floppy disk and used those old credit card swiping machines (I remember having to ring up the bank to get payments authorised). It’s all changed today, but every day was different."
"I’ve never thought about leaving", says Lynn. "I’ve grown up with the company and there’s been so many people who’ve done the same – there has always been a family feel to Rapid. I’m very proud to be our longest serving employee!"
Mike Lee has always said that the founding of Rapid’s International Purchasing Office in Taiwan was one of the most significant events in the company’s history. Chris Stevenson agrees. “It gave us an opportunity to source direct from our Taiwanese suppliers and establish good working relationships.” Susan Wang, Mike Lee’s sister-in-law, looked after operations in Taipei. A network of over 50 suppliers was developed, including with leading manufacturers like Kingbright with whom Rapid is still a close partner.
Within a few years the company had outgrown the original buildings they occupied at Hill Farm. The large deliveries now coming in from the Far East meant that the ‘green shed days’ were numbered. Rapid bought a larger site nearby on the same estate and found the base they needed to expand.
"Making the best use of the available space at Boxted was always tight," Chris Stevenson remembers, "as well as persuading potential staff that Boxted was not that far to travel to!” There were challenges that no business management course could really prepare a boss for, like the Great Storm of 1987. “The Monday morning after the storm we arrived to find the entire warehouse under a foot of water. The staff pulled together and used hair dryers to salvage the products!"
Denise Bird is another of Rapid’s long-time employees. Joining the company in January 1985 as a Sales clerk – she still has the office stamp she was given on her first day! – Denise has worked in a variety of roles, including Admin manager, IT Manager and her current role as HR manager.
Denise has done and seen pretty much everything Rapid life has to offer – picked and packed orders, laid IT cables, bought computer systems, mopped up the warehouse (see above) – but has loved every minute of it. “It’s been my life, my passion, and I feel lucky to have been on the journey and seen the company grow. As a small team we pulled together and did all we could to make sure orders went out, whatever the circumstances. We may be a little bit bigger now but the principles are still the same – the customer has always come first.”
As HR manager Denise has created initiatives like the Wellbeing and Core Values programme, which looks after aspects of employees’ physical and mental health. It is the kind of scheme that just would not have been possible in 1985. “Financially we always ran a tight ship but that enabled the company to grow. We are reaping the benefits now and I am proud of the culture we have been able to develop for our staff.”
The late 1980s were a period of considerable growth for the company. The pressure of rising inventory levels and accommodating administrative staff meant that larger premises were needed. Land was purchased in Heckworth Close in the Severalls Industrial Estate in the north of Colchester, around three miles away from Boxted. This was a far better location, closer to other businesses and offering room for expansion. The site was built to Rapid’s specification. A mezzanine floor was added a few years later.
"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." The company bought a vacant lot across the road to house the bulk stocks that were regularly arriving from China. The original site housed the picking areas.
Here is one of Rapid’s longest serving members of staff, Sue Harris, pictured in the expanded premises.
Rapid have been through a few computer systems in its time. Denise Bird remembers a visit to Dixons with Chris Stevenson to buy a 20MB PC. “We thought it was the bees’ knees!” There were a few painful experiments with companies like Kerridge and Cyberaid, but many current employees will remember CSD, which powered the company for around 10 years, well into the new millennium. It had a few foibles, and was known to freeze from time to time, giving rise to the infamous cry around the office of ‘BACK TO BASE DATA!!’
Rapid’s product catalogue was originally produced by an external company, Stibo, with all product photographs in black and white.
Rapid’s first full-colour catalogue also saw it being produced in-house for the first time. John Blanchard, then a product manager and still one of the company’s technical authors, worked on the project. “A small team beavered away in the so-called ‘Wendy House’ on the mezzanine floor in Rapid’s old building in Heckworth Close, transferring text from Stibo’s system to the new 4D catalogue software, as well as arranging the photography of hundreds of products where the image was still in black-and-white.”
“The process didn’t go without its share of problems and software glitches, but eventually, a catalogue was produced and sent off to the printer. The catalogue was well received by staff and customers alike, setting the standard for future catalogues and providing another milestone along the road of Rapid’s progress.”
After a decade on the Heckworth Close site in Colchester Business Park, Rapid’s directors purchased a 110,000 sq ft site at Severalls Hall, around ½ mile away. Construction of the purpose-built distribution centre and offices began in 1999 and opened on 30th May 2000.
Speaking to a local newspaper at the time, Chris Stevenson said that the move would enable the company’s expansion and the provision of new automated packing, handling and storage facilities. ‘This represents a major step forward for Rapid’, he said. 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.
Rapid had received orders from schools, colleges and universities from the company’s very earliest years, but it was not until 2001 that a separate education catalogue was produced, with a greater focus on products relevant to education buyers. It proved popular, and a full 1200-page education catalogue continued to be published until 2017, several years after the last industry catalogue. Smaller publications dedicated to products for specific subjects are still published, alongside a 300-page annual mini education catalogue.