For Gill Thorpe, Values Come Before Profits

TST Group Shot PPWeek web Gill Thorpe (back middle) and the rest of The Sourcing Team celebrate 2014 Promotional Products Week.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary for Gill Thorpe’s UK-based distributorship, The Sourcing Team, Ltd. (UPIC: SOUR0004), a company she founded around her passion for creating fully customized products for marketing campaigns.

She started her career at a marketing agency, buying merchandise for major brands, and then moved to a small distributor (called a gift house in the UK), where she set up a bespoke (a British term meaning custom) division. “That was the piece I really loved, creating something unique where you work with design and then source materials and find the right factory,” she says. She became a director at the gift house and soon she and the other directors realized that the business was going in two different directions—standardized promotional stock products (such as what you buy from a catalog) and those that were sourced (bespoke). They decided to split the business. That’s when she created The Sourcing Team to focus on customized solutions. As the business evolved she added standard promotional items because “in reality, you have to have both,” she says.

Business Values

Thorpe is passionate about corporate social responsibility and her company is on the front line of compliance, ethical buying and product safety. “Risks are getting big in working with the wrong type of factory, with unsafe products or products that don’t demonstrate sustainability or business diversity,” she says.

To ensure that her company stays on top of all the changes in the compliance and ethics areas, she has two other directors and they all specialize in certain areas. “Sharon Childs is the head of sustainability. Becky Fluery is head of compliance. And I’m in the ethicability and supply chain procurement space. Each of us is constantly growing our knowledge in those areas. But actually I have to grow my knowledge in most areas because I have to guide the team,” she says.

When working with customers who call and ask for a product they’ve seen on the internet, Thorpe explains that she will be happy to get the product for them through one of her approved suppliers, which may be more expensive because the product is responsibly sourced. If the client only cares about the cheapest item from a manufacturer that Thorpe finds to not be compliant, she politely declines the order and invites the customer to try them again on a future order. “If we break our values once, then there’s no point of having any values,” she says. But, she adds, most customers end up agreeing with her insistence on only buying from approved suppliers after she asks, “What is the cost to your business of purchasing a non-compliant product from an unethical source?”

Managing Factory Audits

If you’re going to work with factories anywhere, you need to do your due diligence, Thorpe says. One of the ways she manages risk is by working with Sedex to manage factory audits. Sedex is a company that centralizes factory audits to reduce the “factory audit fatigue” that used to occur when major retail brands in Europe wanted to audit factories in person, slowing production. “Sedex provides a platform and tools to help you capture all the information you need on a factory. You can see and check the audit from the factory you want to use and share that information with your customer,” she says.

She acknowledges that while U.S. distributors might not feel comfortable sharing factory information with their clients because of the structure of the industry, “I think there’s no way around it. Transparency is here and it’s staying. This is why you need to stand out as a company. As long as you’re adding value all the way down that chain, and you’re bringing expertise and protecting your client from risk, then you have a place.”

Finding The Right Focus

With the industry changing at lightning speed, Thorpe says it’s not enough to have expertise in multiple areas such as import, design, project management, sustainability, compliance, distribution and global distribution. “You also have to differentiate yourself, which is what I hope we’ve done,” she says of The Sourcing Team’s positioning as a corporate social responsibility expert.

For instance, sustainability is one of Thorpe’s guiding principles. “I want the promotional products I choose to be relevant, safe and have a reasonable lifespan and an end-of-life disposal plan.”

Thorpe doesn’t just talk the talk. She walks it too, through involvement in industry organizations such as the British Promotional Merchandise Association (BPMA), where she served on the board for 19 years. She also serves as a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS), a global procurement institute that shares best practices, codes of conduct and training.

Current Challenges

Being a global company and keeping up with the pace of change are the biggest challenges faced by The Sourcing Team today, and Thorpe has found partnering and diversification to be effective solutions. Just like in the U.S., many distributors in the UK specialize in a certain industry, but Thorpe has done just the opposite. “We like to be in different sectors to protect us from any one industry having problems,” she says. And in the last recession, that strategy paid off. Her business grew while many distributors that had specialized struggled.

“It’s a very exciting market with some very exciting local and global opportunities. The challenge is finding the right space for you. I think we’ve found that space but to be where we are has been very hard work.”

It’s that hard work that they will celebrate during a big 20th anniversary party in 2016.

Recognition of Continued Premier League Performance 2015 web Thorpe (left) recently received an award from Senator Pens UK for continued Premier League business, meaning consistent business growth with a preferred supply partner.