Creating a legacy to inspire SWA’s Chief Exec’s mission to attract newcomers to wholesaling

Colin Smith was appointed as the Scottish Wholesale Association’s new Chief Executive last summer and worked alongside Kate Salmon, the outgoing executive director, until January, when he officially took over. He told SWA members at the recent annual conference that the SWA’s focus must be on making wholesaling an attractive industry to work in by creating a legacy to inspire the next generation and training, business building, and lobbying and legislation need to be at the forefront of the trade organisation’s revitalisation.

Colin Smith has considerable personal experience of the wholesale business and the retailers they serve. Before joining the SWA, Colin ran his own business, Pinkie Farm Convenience Store in Musselburgh, East Lothian and prior to becoming a retailer, he worked in wholesale for over 20 years. Colin Smith spoke to Wholesale Manager.

“I was Scottish regional manager for Bestway’s symbol group Best-one before I opened Pinkie and I previously worked for Bellevue Cash & Carry in Edinburgh in various marketing roles, before moving to Costco Wholesale as marketing manager then returning to Bellevue, also as marketing manager. Bellevue was acquired by Bestway Batleys in 2010.” Colin believes in doing the job thoroughly: “My first few months were primarily about getting out there and meeting our members, both wholesalers and suppliers, and understanding why they are members of the SWA, where they see our current position and where we need to be within the next three years. I’m still getting to know people and the feedback is helping me formulate a strategy for ensuring the SWA remains relevant and effective.”

The SWA are firmly positioned as the voice of the food, drink and allied trades in Scotland, says Colin, “and, as is the case with all trade associations, our job is to provide our membership with the services they need. That means understanding what members need and want.

“We are a highly effective trade association, but run a tight ship. Our president Julie Dunn is very proactive and has been working with me as I guide the association in new directions. My predecessor, Kate Salmon, has remained on board to ensure a smooth transition and still looks after our member liaison function as well as assisting with the organisation of events, including our annual awards initiative, Scottish Wholesale Achievers.”

The numbers of wholesale outlets in Scotland have halved in the past 15 years, says Colin Smith:

“The rise of the supermarkets and discounters, as well as consumer demand for on-line/digital shopping experiences, have led to the traditional heartland of the wholesale sector – convenience retailing – being diluted. This, coupled with a shrinking market, aggressive survival strategies and lower margins, all adds up to consolidation within the wholesale channel.

“Change is inevitable in all walks of life and the key point is that our members have all adapted to that change. They are not just surviving, they are thriving because they are embracing technology, and are in tune with consumer habits and new trends. Many are developing hybrid wholesale models.

“As their customers adapt and flourish, our members – and the wider wholesale industry – are in growth as convenience stores are transformed into cutting-edge, niche community stores with food to go and locally sourced goods. Foodservice outlets, meanwhile, are offering greater consumer experiences. Wholesalers are identifying these opportunities and advising their customers on how to remodel their businesses from the more traditional c-store concept to stores with food to go at their core.”

The SWA’s biggest problem, says Colin Smith, is that the industry is worth £2.9bn but the decision-makers – the Government – don’t understand what wholesalers actually do:

“Dealing with people who don’t “get” wholesale can create difficulties when we’re trying to explain how our food and drink gets from the manufacturer to point of purchase. People understand retail, but wholesale is a level of the supply chain that often needs to be explained. Recruitment is another important issue for our sector and when people don’t fully understand wholesale it creates barriers when it comes to convincing people that we are an industry offering viable, long-term careers across several disciplines.

“We are working towards creating a training academy for our members.

This will supplement wholesalers’ own training programmes with additional, accredited apprenticeship courses and management training across a range of disciplines.”

Wholesalers are the wheels of Scotland’s food and drink industry, says Colin Smith, and the SWA members have around 100 depots or centres located throughout Scotland:

“As a not-for-profit, member-led association, we are always speaking to potential new members – food and drink distributors, producers and manufacturers –looking to get their product distributed across Scotland and beyond. Our “collaboration, consultation and communication” approach helps ensure we deliver on our key pillars: training, lobbying and legislation, and building business.”

The SWA’s membership is changing in terms of multiple-depot wholesalers versus independents, and the balance between retail and foodservice, says Colin Smith:

“The wholesale market can’t be classified as easily as it once could, with many of the defined lines now blurring. Many independent wholesalers operate multi-depot sites, retail wholesalers offer foodservice solutions and vice-versa – even supermarkets are becoming wholesalers. But while our membership is roughly 50:50 between retail wholesale and foodservice members, the challenges they face are the same.”

Another important group, suppliers are integral to the SWA membership, Colin maintains, helping support the Association’s work for their wholesale members: “They provide us with resources, market knowledge and training expertise – they also help strengthen the bond between wholesaler and supplier in getting goods to market with knowledge and expertise. Our supplier members have a strong voice in the SWA and are involved in our foodservice and retail work groups. We also consult them on issues affecting our trade and the wider industry.”

The SWA believe strongly in working with partner organisations, says Colin:

“As we mentioned before, collaboration is a key principle of the SWA and I believe we can only be stronger by working together for each of our members. The SWA sits on the Scottish Food Tourism Strategy Group and, along with the SGF, we sit on the Deposit Return Scheme Industry Advisory Group. We have a strong relationship with the FWD, sitting on each other’s boards, and support them on Scottish legislative issues and policy.”

Training, business building, lobbying and legislation are at the forefront of SWA’s revitalisation. Colin sets out the strategy:

“On training we are creating a career path for our employees and want to attract people from school, college and university. At the same time, our aim is to enhance our current employees’ skills, supplementing existing members’ training programmes and eventually providing SWA-accredited courses. For us lobbying and legislation is all about getting closer to the Scottish Government, and helping politicians understand our sector and how food and drink are distributed to the local c-store, restaurant, pub, club and hotel. We create a louder, stronger voice by inviting MSPs and MPs to meet our members within their constituencies – we try to demonstrate how some policies are having a detrimental impact on business.

“On business building, the SWA’s role isn’t just about protecting members when it comes to policy and legislation, it’s about helping identify opportunities for growth. This could be holding events – “touch points” – where wholesalers and suppliers can meet, discuss and develop relationships and ideas. It comes back to collaboration too, working with partner organisations to grow the food pie and help members attain accreditation that enables them to win business.”

The next round of the Achievers, the Scottish Wholesale Association’s annual awards, is next February. The Awards don’t stand still, says Colin:

“By listening to member feedback we’ve introduced two new categories for next time round, Rising Star and Green Wholesaler of the Year. It’s important to reward and encourage young people within our industry and recognise the work members are already doing to become “greener”. We’ve dropped Champion of Champions so all the winners are members recognised in their own right. We’ve also adapted some other categories to include scoring on environmental policy and sustainability, reinforcing our strategy of helping our members develop their business.”

The SWA is also actively addressing equality of opportunity and diversity in the industry, says Colin, but this isn’t a new focus: “Kate Salmon ran the SWA for many years and our outsourced staff are also female, as are our current president and one of our board members. We champion all employees in wholesale – male and female – and want to lead the way in promoting the opportunities wholesale offers all employees.”

Looking further ahead, the SWA is set to play an active role in Ambition 2030, the Scottish Government-supported initiative to double Scotland’s food and drink turnover to £30 billion by 2030. Colin explains: “The SWA plays a key role in the supply chain and we have been working closely with Scotland Food & Drink in recent months. We held our first producers’ exhibition at our annual conference in June, collaborating with Scotland Food & Drink, providing 20 local producers and suppliers with an opportunity to meet key buyers, decision-makers and owners of SWA member wholesalers.”

By working with Scotland Food & Drink and linking in with the national tourism strategy – Tourism Scotland 2020 (TS2020), which has an ambition to grow visitor spend to £1bn by 2020 – the exhibition also helped identify new and upcoming trends as well as focus on developing the Scottish food marketplace.

Finally, 2020 sees the SWA celebrate their 80th birthday. It will be an exciting one, says Colin: “Plans are currently under way to ensure we give our members something to celebrate and we’ll reveal these when they are confirmed.”

We look forward to bringing you more details.