Six key questions to consider in commercial distribution contracts

Based on our experience in many years advising and representing companies in the commercial distribution (in Spanish jurisdiction but with foreign manufacturers or distributors), the following are the six key essential elements for manufacturers (suppliers) and retailers (distributors) when establishing a distribution relationship.

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These ideas are relevant when companies intend to start their commercial relationship but they should not be neglected and verified even when there are already existing contacts.

1. The signature of the contract. Although it could seem obvious, the signature of a distribution agreement is less common than it might seem. It often happens that along the extended relationship, the corporate structures change and what once was signed with an entity, has not been renewed, adapted, modified or replaced when the situation has been transformed. It is very convenient to have well documented the relationship at every moment of its existence and to be sure that what has been covered legally is also enforceable y the day-to-day commercial relationship. It is advisable this work to be carried out by legal specialists closely with the commercial department of the company. Perfectly drafted clauses from a legal standpoint will be useless if overtaken or not understood by the day-to-day activity. And, of course, no contract is signed as a “mere formality” and then modified by verbal agreements or practices.

2. The proper choice of contract. If the signature of the distribution contract is important, the choice of the correct type is essential. Many of the conflicts that occur, especially in long-term relationships, begin with the interpretation of the type of relationship that has been signed. Even with a written text (and with an express title), the intention of the parties remains often unclear (and so the agreement). Is the “distributor” really so? Does he buy and resell or there are only sporadic supply relationships [if you want to have further information I will participate in a workshop in June 14 2014 in Turin (Italy) at the Annual Conference of the International Distribution Institute: www.idiproject.com]? Is there just a representative activity (ie, the distributor is actually an “agent“)? Is there a mixed relationship (sometimes represents, sometimes buys and resells)? The list could continue indefinitely. Even in many of the relationships that currently exist I am sure that the interpretation given by the Supplier and the Distributor could be different.

3. Monitoring of legal and business relations. If it is quite frequent not to have a clear written contract, it happens in almost all the distribution relationships than once the agreement has been signed, the day-to-day commercial activity modifies what has been agreed. Why commercial relations seem to neglect what has been written in an agreement? It is quite frequent contracts in which certain obligations for distributors are included (reporting on the market, customers, minimum purchases), but which in practice are not respected (it seems complicated, there is a good relationship between the parties, nobody remembers what was agreed by people no longer working at the company…). However, it is also quite frequent to try to use these (real?) defaults later on when the relationship starts having problems. At that moment, parties try to hide behind these violations to terminate the contracts although these practices were, in a sort of way, accepted as a new procedure. Of course no agreement can last forever and for that reason is highly recommendable a joint and periodical monitoring between the legal adviser (preferably an independent one with the support of the general managers) and the commercial department to take into account new practices and to have a provision in the contractual documents.

4. Evidences about customers. In distribution contracts evidences about customers will be essential in case of termination. Parties (mainly the supplier) are quite interested in showing evidences on who (supplier or distributor) procured the customers. Are they a result of the distributor activity or are they obtained as a consequence of the reputation of the trademark? Evidences on customers could simplify or even avoid future conflicts. The importance of the clientele and its possible future activity will be a key element to define the compensation to which the distributor will pretend to be eligible.

5. Evidences on purchases and sales. Another essential element and quite often forgotten is the justification of purchases to the supplier and subsequent sales by distributors. In any distribution agreement distributors acquire the products and resell them to the final customers. A future compensation to the distributor will consider the difference between the purchase prices and resale prices (the margin). It is therefore advisable to be able to establish the correspondent evidence on such information in order to better prepare a possible claim.

6. Damages in case of termination of contracts. Similarly, it would be convenient to justify what damages have been suffered as a result of the termination of a contract: has the distributor made investments by indication of the supplier that are still to be amortized? Has the distributor hired new employees for a line of business that have to be dismissed because of the termination of the contract (costs of compensation)? Has the distributor rented new premises signing long-term contracts due to the expectations on the agreement? Please, take into account that the Distributor is an independent trader and, as such, he assumes the risks of his activity. But to the extent he is acting on a distribution network he shall be subject to the directions, suggestions and expectations created by the supplier. These may be relevant to later determine the damages caused by the termination of the contract.

BONUS EXAMPLES. One of my first claims as a lawyer in distribution agreements was against a big beverages supplier. The agreement with the Spanish Distributor was a mere letter of three paragraphs in which only the second one (no more than five lines) regulated all the relationship for more than 20 years. The drafting was so confusing that our first concern was to verify what sort of agreement we were facing (it seemed a distribution agreement but with some elements of an agency agreement). The claim was for almost 2.5 million euro and it could, probably, have had a higher possibility of extrajudicial solution with a (better) agreement.

I also remember one case where the supplier had accepted for more than 10 years that the distributor never sends the information he was obliged to according to the agreement. Once the supplier decided to change the distributor, then he realised that this (previously accepted) could be used to cancel the agreement for a breaching of the agreement. What do you think?

Ignacio Alonso

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