Exertis’ National Distribution Centre in Burnley is a triumph of technology that ensures that orders are processed and sent out as quickly and efficiently as possible to satisfy customer demand. News in the Channel got to have a look around.
On the outskirts of Burnley in Lancashire, just off Junction 9 of the M65, lies the Burnley Bridge Retail Park. As you turn into the development, a vast building looms up in front of you – Exertis’ National Distribution Centre (NDC). From here, a dizzying number of products go all around the country to fill customers’ seemingly insatiable desire for tech.
Exertis’ NDC is huge – it is 52,000sq m, of which 43,000sq m is taken up with the warehouse and there is room for expansion of up to another 18,000sq m. Its workable height is 18.8 metres.
At the centre of the warehouse is the pick tower, which comprises 32 aisles, all 100 metres long and 16 metres high, crammed from top to bottom with 31,000 pallets of electronic products. Operatives use specialised forklift trucks to get the pallets down when needed; they are the largest vehicles of their kind – if the racks were any taller, then a crane would be needed. Some larger products – those with a display of more than 47” for instance – are stored elsewhere in the NDC.
But then the NDC needs to be huge for the sheer volume of products that are shipped in and out of it every day. As Sion Wineyard, Exertis’ chief logistics officer, says, Exertis ships 17 million units every year through this operation on average – it mushroomed to 21 million during the pandemic.
Watching the operation at work, it is an amazingly well-oiled machine. Each day, about 90 articulated trucks deliver into the NDC between 6am-2pm, dropping off 650 pallets and 500 SKUs on average, although at its peak times in November and December this rises to 1,300 pallets and 800 SKUs. Throughout the day, products are picked and packed, ready go out for delivery.
Sion says that at the heart of what Exertis does is its commitment to its customer promise. “We are delivering industry leading performance, which is today at 99.56% – that’s ecommerce next day delivery. You place your orders today; we’ll guarantee you that you get it tomorrow. What we want to do is enhance the proposition for our customers. “This is a seven-day operation, so we’re shipping out here for next day service seven days a week, five of which is a 24-hours operation.”
The NDC represents a big investment by Exertis – £90 million in total, including £25 million spent on automated solutions and £5 million into ecommerce. There has also been investment in security technology including automatic number plate recognition and biometric entry control.
As part of the drive towards becoming as efficient as possible, Exertis established a data analytics function in the last 12 months. “We’ve invested heavily in data scientists, engineers and analysts to be able to drive insights and understanding from our data sets and allow us to make those efficiencies and drive those improvements in our business,” says Phill Turner, chief experiencer office at Exertis.
“We’re looking at areas such as our procurement and stock management, how do we buy the right product at the right time, how do we assess demand in the marketplace and make sure we’ve got the right availability? How do we build the algorithms to make sure that we don’t fill a warehouse with products that possibly don’t sell but with the right products and, ultimately, take down our working capital exposure and drive growth.”
On a simple level, Exertis receives an order, it is picked, collected and then delivered to the customer. “But in the middle of everything that we do, and all of the investment is focused on the customer experience,” says Phill. “How do we make that as efficient as we possibly can?
“We try to make sure we take our vendors’ products to the end user in the most efficient and value add way as we possibly can.”
Part of this is in response to the changing nature of customer demand and of businesses, “Now vendors want to go direct to the end user through direct-to-consumer platforms,” says Phill. “We’ve extended product portfolios because bricks and mortar businesses are no longer limited, they don’t want to sit on the stock and as a result, the shape of the distribution business changes and we have to adapt our capability. The investment in the pick tower is to maximise this changing market.”
For instance, the pick tower enables dynamic bundling – where two products, such as a video game system and a controller for it, can be put together. “No longer do you have to put that in, wrap it, pack it, it can be done in the picker,” says Phill. “They can create digital bundles, physical bundles, we give them that ability to do that, so now they can have that point of differentiation.”
For dropshippers – direct delivery to the end user on behalf of partners – and businesses like that, this presents a significant opportunity. “But with those opportunities in dropship, that extended range, that ability to manage lots of different product sets of all different shapes and sizes, creates an operational challenge,” says Phill. “In the infrastructure, there’s automation, there’s the pick tower and then there’s traditional warehouse. And you’ve got a diverse mix because you’ve got businesses within businesses in our facility.
“We are seeing a growing emergence of customers wishing to extend their portfolio and collaborate, especially in these times where there are inflationary pressures on supply chains and logistics. For us, this facility provides us the ability to scale for our partners, whether that be 3PL or dropship. I expect that market to be significantly larger next year.”
But Exertis’ NDC – and the wider company – is not just about technology; the company is investing in its employees to ensure they can reach their potential. “We know that brings positive outcomes for our partners and our business,” says Jo Lawrence, Exertis’ UK people director. “There are four key areas: belonging, wellness, connection and recognition.”
To this end, Exertis started some years ago with grassroots work on equality, diversity and inclusion, but 18 months ago begun a more targeted approach with the launch of several employee resource groups (ERGs), the first of which were for women of ethnicity and LGBTQIA+.
“We’ve asked our ERGs to focus on attracting and promoting talent from the communities that they represent,” Jo explains. “We’ve asked them to work together to drive allyships through the organisation and to create a safe space and a network within those communities. Each of the ERGs has a chair and a committee structure within it. We’ve recently launched our enabled ERG, which is focused on those that are differently abled or neurodivergent. It’s not just about people that identify as part of that community, they have allied work streams within them and we’re also seeing a lot of carers get involved, particularly within the enabled work streams.
“There’s been two major things that I’ve seen on the back of the ERG. Firstly, the amount of support I’m seeing people give each other.
“The second area I’ve seen a shift is in our celebration and awareness activity. We’ve long been raising awareness, but this has been much more business-driven and HR enabled. We do things like organising panel events, quizzes, we have had external speakers in, and networking events.”
Sustainability is also key for Exertis, and this can be seen throughout the NDC – and even on top of it. The roof is covered in 6,000sq m of solar panels, which generate 40% of the annual electricity the NDC needs to operate.
“To put that into context, we produce enough to power 210 homes,” says Sion. “The solar panels reduce our carbon emissions by 450 tonnes per year. If we’re generating energy that’s above and beyond what we’re consuming, we pump that back into the national grid, so we do our part for the renewable energy commitment on behalf of the UK.
“One thing that is important to us is the impact we have on our local communities and, ultimately, our planet,” says Sion. “This facility is fully supported by motion-activated LED lighting – at the moment there’s no activity, everything powers down.
“In terms of saving energy, we’re very committed to our scope one, two and three emissions. Scope one is around fuel, so we’ve got a commitment to transition our fleet cars to EV. Clearly, to transition into EV, we need to support our workers to be able to charge so all our facilities across the UK have got EV charging capability. Here at Burnley Bridge, we’ve got 14 EV chargers.”
In addition, the packing process has been optimised to reduce cardboard waste. Carboard packages are mechanically reduced in size to reduce empty space in them, which in turn reduces the space they take to transport – meaning more items can be transported at once – and stops products rattling around inside the package. This is all done through an automated process, leaving products untouched in it.
All these elements come together to ensure the NDC is giving customers exactly what they need, when they need it. Exertis has invested heavily in this site, but it is paying dividends through its efficiency and means that, as the market continues to evolve, Exertis is well placed to deal with the ever-increasing demand for ecommerce.