Simon Hannah, CEO of JW Filshill, has worked in the wholesale distribution industry for 21 years and is currently the fifth generation family member to run the company.

Filshill is a multi-award-winning wholesale business based in Glasgow, which supplies around 8000 products to 1400 different businesses across Scotland and the North of England generating a turnover of £155m whilst employing over 210 members of staff.

The company also runs KeyStore, a 185 strong convenience symbol group chain in Scotland and the North of England.

Simon Hannah tells Wholesale Manager what has changed in wholesaling during his two decades in the industry and how he plans to grow the business over the next 10 years.

You are standing down as Chair of Unitas Wholesale. What are you most proud of from your time in the role?

Being heavily involved in the merger between Landmark and Todays in creating the UK’s largest independent group was a great experience for me and I learned a huge amount during that process. Bringing over 150 entrepreneurial businesses together and building a focused strategic movement from a buying group to a selling group is something that I am incredibly proud to have been involved in. It is the right time for Unitas to now have a non-member Chair – the depth of experience and leadership skills that Mark Aylwin brings across all categories that our members service is a phenomenal appointment for the business and will drive the business focus to the next level.

Differentiator Brands (a Filshill Subsidiary company) has acquired the Eldorado Tonic Wine brand. What are your plans to grow the brand?

We recently appointed Paul Doran, formerly of Halewood, to accelerate visibility of Eldorado as a brand in the Scottish market in order to grow the category but also expand its reach south of the Border, targeting cities such as Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham in time. We know that the tonic wine category is growing globally so we also have an eye on international markets given our experience and network. Our plans are to step up support for Eldorado across the UK in both the convenience retail sector and in the wholesale channel as we raise category awareness and availability.

We have some fantastic marketing plans that are rolling out as we speak, a heavy targeted focus on social media and shopper engagement. Eldorado is a fun brand that doesn’t take itself too seriously and we are having lots of fun with this. We have recently bought a Cadillac Eldorado 1973 which will offer loyal Eldorado customers and prize-winners “swanky” lifts to football matches, their local pubs and gigs.

In all seriousness, our role as wholesalers and retailers is to supply the demand created by the brands – it is our job now as a brand owner to create even greater shopper demand for Eldorado and support our wholesale customers and their retail customers to take advantage of that.

You have been in wholesaling for 20 years. How has the industry changed in that time?

I could write a book on all the changes I’ve witnessed in wholesale in that time. Wholesalers have always been forward- thinking and able to think on their feet to accommodate change, and that has led to considerable innovation within the industry in terms of technology and logistics in particular.

Wholesalers have had to become ever-more focused on customer service – our industry is highly competitive so operators have to work hard at building relationships with both customers and suppliers. That’s certainly a strategy that has paid off for us over the years, particularly since the onset of the pandemic when it has been even more important to ensure customers are coping and have everything they need.

I think over the years, too, that many wholesalers – Filshill included – have done a great job in getting the message across to the wider food and drink industry that we’re not just “big sheds” shifting goods about the country in lorries: we’re sophisticated, shopper focused businesses with growth strategies in place, innovative ideas and are using data and technology to continuously improve. Unitas Wholesale provides an excellent forum for exploring future trends and how our industry is evolving.

How is Filshill performing as a business? Is turnover growing?

Our business is strong and our performance is robust. We have experienced double-digit growth in the past year. Shopper movement towards convenience during the Covid lockdown has created a natural increase in sales but our focus is to build on that in the current year. We have a 10-year target, a three-year picture and a one-year plan in place for the business that all colleagues have been involved in creating. It is important that everyone has clarity on the direction of travel for the business. Engagement has never been higher. We have and are recruiting lots of new customers who have heard how well our existing customers have been looked after during the pandemic.

We will also be relocating to our new 120,400sqft purpose-built distribution centre at Westway Park near Glasgow Airport in early 2022, where we are creating a highly innovative environment that focuses on safety and efficiency.

Which of the product categories you supply are in growth and which are more challenging?

Categories including food-to-go and alcohol, in particular premium ranges within alcohol with the restriction in hospitality are in growth, and we are working to develop the growth of Scottish and regional/local producers across our KeyStore estate on the back of consumer demand.

How is the KeyStore symbol group performing? Is membership still growing?

We’re very pleased with our position in the highly competitive convenience retail marketing. We have a great team in place to drive growth and recruit retailers across Scotland and the north of England. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve grown our estate with some customers approaching us due to recommendations from other retailers which is real testament to the passion and commitment of our people. Our Keystore retailers played a key role during the pandemic and all our efforts and resources were prioritised to support them – this key action has resulted in record number of enquiries to join our group.

How digital is Filshill as a business and do you offer any IT support for your members e.g. ordering apps, online support, delivery tracking?

Filshill, I would say, is at the cutting edge when it comes to digital – over 85% of our orders are captured electronically now which not only gives us higher levels of accuracy but also frees up our sales team to continuously add value to our customers. Last autumn, we launched a partnership with online shopping platform Appy Shop to provide KeyStore retailers with an integrated e-commerce solution that enables them to offer their customers an online shopping platform for home delivery and Click & Collect services.

We’ve been developing our IT support systems over many years, however, and work closely with our customers to make ordering as easy as possible for them. They can place orders via their mobile phone, for example. From a logistics perspective, we recently upgraded our fleet and the new trucks are fitted with OptiDrive vehicle tracking technology which measures operational parameters such as breaking, steering and revving to help drivers lower fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, reduce wear on the vehicle, and improve road safety.

Has your depot remained open during the Covid-19 crisis? Is it difficult to enforce social distancing in-depot? How has your business and the wholesale industry in general been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic? Yes, we have traded throughout with our Click & Collect operation in particular proving highly efficient to the extent that we have taken on additional staff. We were very quick to implement strict physical distancing and physical hygiene measures in our warehouse and office – and worked closely with customers to help keep stores safe for staff and shoppers. We quickly sourced physical distancing floor vinyls and “sneeze” screens in order to build hygiene confidence quickly.

We put in place a clear business continuity plan that we implemented in a phased manner to allow us to react to Government daily advice. We were largely able to ensure a consistent flow of availability for customers and it was a challenge keeping up with demand although the main pressures were volume and inbound availability. We introduced a 50-case cap on Click & Collect orders in order to ensure a fair spread of supply to retailers and put restrictions on some products via the website and app. We also allocated stock to customers based on their historic purchases with us – this was a fair system that recognised loyalty, and helped us control volume and maintain availability.

We were the first wholesale business in Scotland to implement weekly lateral flow testing on site for all of our staff, and we increased all of our cleaning schedules and implemented regular fogging. During lockdown we implemented a very active Mental Health and Wellbeing plan, with 25 mental health first aiders formally trained and a wellbeing team set up.

They have identified seven areas that improve wellbeing – culture, sleep, exercise, meaningful activities, social engagement and stress management. We have activities aligned to these every month as well as a full wellbeing calendar for the next 12 months.

All of our staff have been incredible during this time, and adapted and embraced all of the changes required of them to keep themselves, their colleagues and their families safe. As a business for families this is important to us.

Has Amazon become an even greater threat over the last year, given the rise in online ordering due to the pandemic?

There has been a significant rise in e-commerce through Covid and everyone in this space has done well, particularly those who have reacted quickly to pivoting their offering to the increased demand. This is a trend that is here to stay and our partnership with Appy Shop is a great example of that. With our KeyStores managing the fulfilment of orders directly from their stores, the product inventory is in immediate proximity to the customers and can be fulfilled quickly.

What impact do you think Brexit will have on the industry?

The key issue is disruption to the supply chain and the impact of that on availability to our customers and their customers – the end users.

What are your plans to grow the business in 2021?

We have a clear and ambitious 10-year strategy in place which we are very focused on, our suppliers are aligned and, most importantly, our colleagues are engaged with. We’re continuing to recruit new retail customers to the Filshill and KeyStore family and, of course, gearing up to relocate to our new depot early next year. We will grow our business by being innovative, and working with entrepreneurial tech-savvy retailers with a growth mindset who are committed to growing within their communities.


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