Caterforce Buying group brings more to the foodservice table

Established in 1991, Caterforce is one of the UK’s biggest foodservice buying and marketing groups, with a combined turnover of over £500 million. Based in Macclesfield, they source products from a huge range of leading suppliers and manufacturers to support their seven leading independent foodservice wholesalers. Nick Redford, Managing Director of Caterforce, spoke to Wholesale Manager.

“My role as MD at Caterforce is a varied one and involves switching hats on a regular basis. As well as leading the strategic direction, I am still heavily involved in the procurement side, which I love, as my background is in purchasing. I can be talking about a potential new member one day and doing a product tender the next.

“I am involved in the weekly teleconference with the buyers where we discuss the current issues, projects and opportunities and we have numerous face-to-face meetings during the year at all levels and functions, including quarterly board meetings. Dedicating around half of my time for suppliers comes down to managing who to see.”

Caterforce cover frozen, chilled, ambient, grocery and non-foods such as hygiene and disposables. “Ambient is the fastest growing category,” says Nick Redford, “although frozen still accounts for around half of group turnover. Our increasing competencies in our emerging categories are also helping to grow our core business.”

Caterforce serves a wide variety of customers ranging from pubs, restaurants, hotels, delis and coffee shops as well as schools, universities, colleges and hospitals, with the top seven customer groups accounting for 70% of group sales. This synergy allows the business to provide common product solutions to customers. Caterforce are growing in all core customer groups and anticipate that by the end of this year their biggest customer sector will be coffee shops and cafes.

STRATEGICALLY LOCATED AROUND THE UK

Caterforce’s members are strategically located around the UK, so they can offer the best range of quality products across the country. Nick Redford explains: “Our geographical constitution is a vital pillar in helping the group work collaboratively to deliver a consistent solution which suits all our members. All our seven members are family run, well established delivered foodservice wholesalers and pride themselves on the ethos of outstanding service and understanding of customer expectations.”

Going down the list, JB Foods (Scotland) was established in 1963 and is an independent, family run business that has grown from humble beginnings to Scotland’s leading independent catering wholesaler. Castell Howell Foods began in 1988 and has grown to become Wales’ leading independent foodservice wholesaler. From its main depot and four satellite depots it services the length and breadth of Wales, Welsh borders and South West England. Lynas Foodservice is the leading and largest family owned foodservice operator in Ireland.

Founded in 1945, it now has four depots and six food outlets Hunt’s Foodservice was established in the 1930’s and is a family owned supplier of high quality frozen, chilled and ambient foods to the retail and foodservice markets in the South and West of England. Philip Dennis was founded in 1981 and is a family owned regional wholesaler, supplying customers in the Midlands, Oxfordshire and South West. With a full foodservice offering, it also has a bespoke butchery and fishmonger service.

Pilgrim Foodservice, based in Boston, Lincolnshire was established in 1980. Pilgrim is a family owned foodservice supplier committed to providing customers with quality products, outstanding customer service and innovative solutions. It has recently introduced a prepared vegetable facility and purpose-built state-of-the-art butchery. Pioneer Foodservice is one of the largest and most established suppliers of products to the catering trade in the North of England and Southern Scotland, with three depots in total.

AT THE CENTRE OF IT ALL

“From our head office in Macclesfield, Cheshire,” says Nick Redford, “we provide a central hub for our members supporting both their group buying needs and providing a co-ordinated marketing resource, allowing suppliers to push out a consistent and coherent marketing plan nationwide, with just one point of contact.

“Half of our central resource is dedicated to marketing. From printed price lists and promotional leaflets to email campaigns and market insight, our service is growing with the changing landscape. We are continually striving to offer more for our members and having in-house marketing capabilities is not only cost efficient but also helps execute clear and coherent messages across the group.

Complementary to our marketing services, we have an in-house photography studio, Flavour Photography, which gives our members the opportunity to have bespoke, exclusive photography. We also work with suppliers to create lifestyle photography for marketing literature.” Nick says the individual members are closely involved in the procurement process:

“Our fully integrated buying process involves members from product specification definition to final approval, so we work together every step of the way. There is never a project which is defined solely by our office, where members are expected to just support it. It is a customer-driven strategy, where our members help define the required result before we discuss potential suppliers.

“We talk to individual members on a daily basis and as a collective group we speak weekly and quarterly. We have access to a live online web console, providing members with key information, presentations, pricing and new product information. We share knowledge and discuss challenges and successes.”

Nick Redford takes a considered view about expanding the group from its present structure and taking on more wholesalers:

“We are constantly reviewing our market position to ensure we have the best possible coverage, but will not compromise on our core values. It is a complex process to ensure you add the right wholesalers and we would never compromise business synergy for the vanity of increased collective turnover. It is imperative you are able to mobilise your common products and volume. That’s the whole raison d’être of a buying group.”

All the Caterforce members are equal shareholders with a nominal stake holding, and the model is one of complete transparency, says Nick: “Caterforce operates as an extension of the members’ teams, offering support and working together with them to support their businesses. We pride ourselves on having a collaborative culture, which thrives on openness and transparency. Our members see each other as colleagues, not competitors and act as a support network for each other, sharing best practice, KPIs and knowledge.

“Our wholesalers see every penny of supplier investment, which is allocated back based on sales. In a time when wholesaler margins are being squeezed, it is important that true net costs are visible and there is no black hole where investment doesn’t reach its intended target.”

Approximately 90% of Caterforce’s business is supplier-branded, but own brand plays an increasingly important role. Nick Redford explains how it works:

“Chefs’ Selections, our range of own brand products covers frozen, ambient, grocery and cleaning and hygiene products. We currently have just over three hundred and fifty own label products in total and are adding new ones all the time. This year sees the launch of a new cake range, which we are very excited about. Chefs’ Selections is a major focus for Caterforce, and we are passionate about delivering the right product for our customers. Every product is developed with our members and follows a rigorous NPD process, with ongoing quality checks.”

As the next step Nick and the team are looking at rolling out Chefs’ Selections into new areas with growth potential:

“We have built the range so far on core products and categories. Now we have a good foundation, we are growing into areas where we can offer more innovation, for instance ready to use sauces, savoury pastries and gluten-free products. We are currently working on a total coffee shop solution.”

With the major retailers notoriously squeezing suppliers, Caterforce’s stated aim is to work as a strategic link between wholesaler and supplier to deliver real value to members and also help the suppliers’ growth plans: “We work extremely well at it, but it’s a constant moving feast. There are many niche brands in foodservice and our job is to help filter out the best possible opportunities for our members. We also take suppliers who work well locally and grow their business nationally within the group.”

Nick gives the example of Proper Cornish, who started trading in 2015 with just one Caterforce member and moved to a core supplier after attending a supplier presentation day. They have grown by 300% over three years and their annual sales with the group are now £1m. They supply Caterforce with both supplier-branded and own brand products.

In our digital era, Caterforce are committed to offering online information about their products’ nutritional content and allergies:

“As a group we use Erudus, which enables manufacturers to share changes to ingredients and allergen information at the click of a button. We and our members place huge value on suppliers who use Erudus because of the benefits to us and everyone in the foodservice chain.”

This digital commitment also extends to online ordering:

“Almost all of our members have the functionality for their customers to order online including online ordering apps. Our members continue to heavily invest in technology to ensure they have the best tools to make life as easy as possible for the customer.”

As part of this process Caterforce are now streamlining their sales data tool, which will enable suppliers to see where their products are sold and the trends within customer groups:

“There was a soft launch last year with a select number of suppliers and by the middle of this year we will have introduced it to all of them. There are various sales data tools in retail, but little data for the foodservice sector so ours will be the first for the independent sector, enabling the granular detail to be analysed. This tool will help us further understand our end users and shape how we purchase and market going forward.”

TAKING ON NEW SUPPLIERS

Caterforce are always looking to work with new suppliers who provide innovative solutions for the foodservice sector. The selection process takes various forms:

“Members who use local suppliers often recommend them to Caterforce and we work with them to look for opportunities to become core suppliers. Between us, we have over 60 years of buying experience and a lot of contacts in the industry. We also meet a lot of new suppliers at trade shows, whether that’s member shows, national shows or international shows. New suppliers are also encouraged to get in touch via our enquiries form on the Caterforce website. All our suppliers are BRC accredited and it’s also important that they have enough people on the ground to engage with our members.”

Nick Redford is confident about the ongoing consolidation in the wholesale sector:

“Consolidation is inevitable and always a risk for buying groups. In early 2018 we lost a member to Sysco, but have more than recouped its turnover with the strong growth of the rest of the group. Again, it is about mobilisation of buying power, not the actual size of it. At Caterforce we work hard to mobilise seven strategically aligned wholesalers, which we believe is a huge advantage in speed of execution.”

“Consumers are more health conscious now,” says Nick, “so we’ve seen a need to blend nutrition with tasty flavours. Vegan dishes were hugely popular in 2018, with the launch of meat-free burgers trending heavily towards the end of the year. There are now estimated to be around 540,000 vegans in the UK and this number is on the rise, so it’s incredibly important to include alternative options. There is also a growing trend for hyper-local ingredients and customers are increasingly interested in the provenance of their dishes. We are seeing innovative twists on British classic dishes. Street food and pop-ups with Latin and Asian foods and flavours are coming through strongly. In a further major development we are adapting to consumers’ eating behaviours as they push boundaries to how and when they eat.”

Caterforce have streamlined their promotions for 2019 and are creating more innovative recipe ideas and bespoke food solutions for customers: “We have some exciting campaigns in the pipeline for our own brand Chefs’ Selections and a new trade show stand which customers will see at member shows. We will be focusing more on content creation and customer engagement with online marketing being a bigger focus and in November this year, we have our supplier conference ‘The market uncovered’ – we can’t give too much away but this one is set to be the best one yet.

“Our focus and dedication to the delivered foodservice channel means our energies are channelled into providing solutions applicable to all our members. This is reflected in the fantastic sales results over the past few years and we expect to go from strength to strength.”