In hopes of reversing the effects of a historically unpopular move, BioLab has revived its SUN brand and re-entered the distribution market.
“The distribution channel is very important to our industry,” said Charlie Schobel, vice president and general manager of the Lawrenceville, Ga.-based manufacturer’s professional division. “I believe it has a strong future. For us not to participate in that important segment was wrong, I thought.”
The firms currently selling BioLab products are General Pool Supply in Rancho Cordova, Calif.; The Lynde Co., St. Paul, Minn.; Conely Co., Salt Lake City; Quality Pool Supply Co., Clio, Mich.; and Key West Chemical and Paper Supply Inc., Key West, Fla. BioLab plans to partner with distributors across the country.
BioLab first shocked the industry last summer when it decided to drop the SUN, Hydrotech and Guardex labels and take its OMNI line dealer-direct, thereby completely eliminating distributors from the mix.
The move was less than popular with a number of industry firms.
“To cut us off mid-season just left me with so many SKU holes that I was doing my customers a disservice,” said one former BioLab distributor, who asked to remain anonymous. “[Then] they were selling to my customers direct. It was not pleasant at the end of last year for my loyal Omni customers, who I was just trying to service.”
But BioLab management changed a few months later. When former vice president of government affairs Charlie Schobel took charge of the company’s dealer division, he re-evaluated some of his predecessors’ decisions.
“I took a clean sheet of paper and said, ‘Which decisions should we continue to go forward on? Which ones do I think we could have done in a different way?’ I think this is one we could have done in a different way.”
However, BioLab still doesn’t want to carry as many products through distribution as in the past. The SUN line has been streamlined from the dozens of SKUs the brand previously included. Schobel said more will be added as distributors request them. In addition, the firm decided not to release SUN hot-tub products at this time. Neither Guardex nor Hydrotech are expected to resurface.
BioLab’s move has met with mixed reactions. Some have welcomed the more-than-40-year-old brand with open arms. “I always wanted that product [back] because it sells itself,” said Gilda Fernandez, a partner in Key West Chemical and Paper Supply Inc. “It has great packaging and a personality of its own. Everybody knows it here.”
But other distributors said they’re not interested in working with the company again.
“I am very surprised that a distributor would even think about getting back into business with them, unless they had a tremendous contract,” said Chuck Arakelian, president of Bay State Pool Supplies in Cambridge, Mass. “I can’t control my destiny with a company like that at this point.”
BioLab declined to outline the details of the contracts. However, the firm remains conciliatory toward those distributors who say they were wronged.
“I can understand how some of the distributors felt,” Schobel said. “The way that we exited distribution caused problems, and for that, I apologize. For some of the distributors who have feelings against us right now, I would hope that maybe we can work through it because I think there are some really good, long-term prospects for us working together.”
One incentive is the exclusivity agreement BioLab has offered its distribution customers so far. For example, General Pool Supply is the sole SUN distributor in Arizona, Nevada and most of California.
“We would not have re-entered without the exclusive arrangement,” said Phil Gelhaus, company president. “If we’re building the brand and it can also be available at all our competitors, we wouldn’t do it.”
Some of the distributors who agreed to carry the chemicals said bygones need to be bygones and the brand is too popular to forgo.
“My first concern is my customers, and they want the SUN line,” Fernandez said. “So I’m going to try to get it for as long as I can, and put [the history] aside. BioLab has gone back to the drawing board, and they’re [doing business] like they used to. That might make them strong again.”
Gelhaus and Fernandez sold the SUN label for multiple decades, and each believes that the name still carries weight because only a few months passed between the brand’s disappearance off the shelves and BioLab’s recent announcement.
If anything will spell success in this endeavor, Fernandez said, it is the brand’s longevity, and the reputation BioLab had before the previous management made some unpopular choices. “They’re very lucky,” she said. “Anybody else would have probably screwed up the market, and it would have been dead and gone.”
Gelhaus acknowledged that not all his customers will be as welcoming as he has been. “It’s going to be a case-by-case scenario,” he said. “But there’s already enough demand to let us know that we made the right decision.”