BANFF, Alta. — Major manufacturers and resellers are beginning to pay more attention to the small and medium business market these days, seeing an opportunity that was recognized four years ago by the resellers of the VentureTech Network.

VTN members, all $5-$10 million resellers who focus on

the SMB space in local markets across Canada, gathered here recently to share best practices and experiences, and look at how they can continue to succeed in an increasingly crowded market.

The group’s main backer and organizer is Ingram Micro. Ingram Micro Worldwide president and COO was on hand to emphasize the importance of the VTN to the company’s success.

In fact, while sales to other Ingram customers in Canada declined over the past year, the trend was upward to VTN members. Ingram’s North America president Kevin Murai said it’s a sign that their vision for a collaborative customer community is really starting to flourish.

“We’ve continued to make traction over the past few years; we’ve really seen the momentum building and building,” said Murai. “We’ve laid down our bets and we’re betting on our customers.”

The VTN partnership sees Ingram and channel partners like HP, IBM and Compaq investing in networking conferences, marketing programs and training opportunities, and in exchange member resellers agree to purchase 65 per cent of their distribution business from Ingram.

“But the more intangible successes, like seeing the collaboration actually happening, seeing customers starting to band together and work together and actually leverage each other to deliver solutions, that is just as important for us,” said Murai.

Over the past year, VTN’s focus has been on building engagement with the manufacturers, and developing a solution-based focus on the promotional side targeted at SMBs in areas like storage and wireless mobility. A training program called VentureTech University was also sponsored by Compaq, and a direct marketing campaign by IBM.

That engagement is made possible by the strength in numbers that VTN can afford, a lone reseller in Saskatchewan wouldn’t have quite the same success with a Network Associates.

“This is about aggregation,” said Dave Walsh, Ingram’s vice- president, marketing for Canada. “Not just on business issues and as sounding board on business issues for VARs, this group represents a significant amount of business in the Canadian marketplace.”

As that critical mass has grown, more dealers have recognized the value and wanted into VTN. Peter McMahon, vice-president sales of London, Ont.-based Protek Systems, said the VTN membership has really matured since its inception, from a group needing more members for more coverage, to a point now where they’ve built momentum and become a stronger force in this industry, with VARs coming to them wanting to join.

McMahon said they do turn down potential members, and have strict criteria to ensure quality members. They also want to avoid competitors of current members. Keeping it that way allows for a more free exchange of ideas and best practices between members.

“While we think we have our own unique issues, when we get together we find they’re pretty common,” said McMahon. ” When it comes to the products and solutions that clients are looking for it seems pretty national, we get to spend a lot of time with the American membership, and it seems to be the same across the border too.”

Anthony Gorgan, president of Lasalle, Que.-based Central Microsystems, agrees that exchange of ideas and experiences are a big part of the benefit he gets from VTN.

“Meetings like this are instrumental in our businesses becoming stronger, capturing those ideas that we don’t have to reinvent ourselves,” said Gorgan. “That’s really what VTN is all about — drawing on each other’s strengths and getting that national reach.”

And Gorgan says since the members aren’t overlapping each other’s areas, they’re more willing and more open to sharing their best practices.

“I don’t mind telling someone miles and miles away from me, whereas someone nearby could use it to my detriment,” said Gorgan.

Another part of the original pitch for VTN was that independent dealers across the country could extend their reach nationally by joining VTN, and Gorgan said it has helped his company immensely garnering some of that business that previously by default went to the national chains. If a customer needs a solution and he doesn’t have the experience for a part of it, instead of losing that sale he can bring in another VTN member with that speciality.

“As an independent dealer in Montreal I know I have national reach through VTN,” said Gorgan. “That concept has progressed into formalizing best practices, putting policies on paper, and now we’re looking beyond that to programs to benefit all three levels of VTN, the dealers, the vendors and IM.”

Protek’s McMahon agreed that clients will pay more for perceived value, and VTN allows them to put a better value in front of the client.

“We’ve seen this develop and grow over four years, and it’s exciting to see what this has the opportunity and the potential to be,” said McMahon. “I think it’s really important to get to that SMB market, but to do it cost effectively is difficult. VTN is the vehicle to do that.

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