When Guy Swindell was recently appointed joint Managing Director of Parfetts, along with Noel Robinson, it marked the culmination of a 20 year journey at the wholesaler which had started with him working on the tills.
Parfetts itself has been on quite a journey, remaining on target to hit 1000 Go Local Symbol group members by the end of next year.
The company has also recently announced its delivery offer into the Midlands and has launched The Local, an off-licence focused fascia.
Guy Swindell tells Wholesale Manager how Parfetts coped with Covid and about his plans to grow the business in 2021.
Guy, congratulations on being appointed as Managing Director at Parfetts. Tell us about your background in the industry, where you have previously worked and for how long?
I have been at Parfetts my entire career. I started at Parfetts when I was a teenager. I was at college and started out on the checkouts on the shop floor. While studying at college and onto university, I worked part-time all over the shop floor, on the checkouts. I used to work weekends and late nights throughout my period of studies. When I graduated I had a degree in graphic design so I thought I’m not going to work at Parfetts, I’ll have to try to find somewhere to work.
It was the summer of 2004 and I was polishing up my CV. One of the managers at the Stockport depot, where I worked part-time, asked me what my plans were. I said I would be going out into the big wide world looking for a full-time role. He said there is a job in head office if you are interested, while you look for something. I said I would give it a try. The role was working within the trading department which was based at the Aintree depot. When I started that role I saw that all the marketing used to be outsourced. All the point of sale and leaflets for our retail club and all the depot stuff were all outsourced. I told my boss I had this degree and I could do that for him, quicker, cheaper and better. He said OK, I’ll give you a go. So I took on doing all the marketing in-house. I did that for a number of years, gradually building up my understanding of the business and our customers. I got more opportunities and roles.
I then moved back to the Stockport head office and that was when Greg Suszczenia, the outgoing Managing Director, joined and I started to work closely with him. Any strategy he had, any plans, would always involve me. I would be at the forefront of everything because of my background of marketing and design. We started to do things like trade events, we started to look at our marketing and communications. Eventually Greg asked me to look at Go Local. Back then Go Local was just a leaflet, just a bit of a retail club. It had about 500 customers and a few promotions but it was quite a good reason for them to shop with us.
In 2011, Greg and the board back then sent me out on an exercise to create and understand what a symbol group could look like. They tasked me with creating the brand, the fascia, the literature, the point of sale. I worked with others to create a framework of what the team that would develop this would look like. For about a year I started to create the symbol group based on looking at what the competition did.
Then I was given a promotion and made marketing manager. I worked around the estate at all our depots. I worked in different departments, in our retail division for the while. It was a great learning curve. I was given the opportunity to manage a couple of our cash & carry depots.
In 2014 I was sent over to Liverpool. I managed both the Aintree and Anfield depots for around 18 months. It was challenging and exciting. I learned an awful lot about wholesale management, customers and commercial stuff.
After that I was appointed Head of Customer Development which meant I was put in charge of the Go Local symbol group. I had developed it and worked with another guy who headed it up, Andy Whitworth. When he was put onto the board, I took his position as head of department. That is when I really got going in terms of Go Local and symbol groups. I started to push for new business and to go into new regions and new areas.
In 2018 I was appointed Retail Director. That was both to recognise what I had done in terms of driving growth and business and also what I could add to the board. I accelerated Go Local further and got more involved on the delivered side of the business across all strategies, key decision making. Then Covid hit in 2020 so we have had an unbelievable year but through the work of Go Local and tying customers in and strengthening the brand, we have retained an awful lot of that new business.
We have had two exceptional years. It was the right time, Greg and David Grimes felt, that they should look towards retirement. I was the natural choice, in terms of an inside person at Parfetts, to take one of the joint MD roles. They recruited Noel Robinson from outside to bring that outside experience, a bit of a new dynamic.
So I have gone from checkouts to MD in 22 years.
As MD you will be responsible for the whole Parfetts business. Are there any particular aspects of the business you are keen to focus on?
I have focused on recruiting customers, developing stores, creating loyalty and pushing symbol. That will still be my responsibility. I will never let that go. But after a number of successful years, I want us to stay in this growth. We have seven very successful depots that turn over £1m a week and more. So it’s about sustaining the growth. It’s the logistical, operational challenges that come with being a £0.5bn company and looking to grow that even further.
At the minute we are recruiting customers, launching a new fascia and building customer loyalty. We won’t lose that focus but we now have to focus on the operational and logistical challenges that we have. It’s really about coping with the demand while not losing what has got us here, that core Parfetts DNA which is our pricing, our trading mentality, our big depots, our push and drive into new areas. We are conscious that we don’t want to lose that Parfetts DNA. But we do need to face up to the challenges that the increased demand is going to bring. They are the conversations we are having now – how do we sustain this growth? You have been in wholesaling for 20 years. How has the industry changed in that time?
One of the big things is delivered. When I joined the business, there was no such thing as delivered. It was cash & carry. Customers came to you. It has been over the past 10 years that the operation has changed to delivered and I’m sure that is echoed across tbe industry. With the onset of delivered you have to worry about picking and you have to worry about online presence and your ordering platforms.
The other big change is symbol groups. Over 10 years ago we didn’t have a symbol group.
There were loose fascia groups around. We were part of the Landmark Lifestyle one. So the massive change now is the shape of our business – 35% of our customers now are our symbol customers. Our future is tying customers in, working with them, improving their offering, their store development and bringing them along with us. That is absolutely key.
We are moving from being a cash & carry to being a symbol group with delivered being absolutely fundamental to it. That has been the big change. Our depots now are 24 hour operations. It is just as busy in our Sheffield depot in the middle of the night as it is in the middle of the day. We are picking and delivering as much as we are putting though the tills during the day at Sheffield. It is almost a 50-50 split. That is a massive change for the business.
I am sure when you see what other cash & carries are doing with shaping their business, it would be a similar story. So delivered and symbol are the two biggest changes over the last 10 years.
How is Parfetts performing as a business? Is turnover growing?
Yes. It is performing very well. Through March, April and May of last year the numbers were absolutely incredible. We were trading 100% up year on year. This year we are not seeing those numbers that we were seeing this time last year. But as a business, we are trading 40% up versus 2019 figures. We have gone from hitting sales of £8.7m most weeks to trading around £11m a week. So there has been incredible growth and despite supermarkets being somewhat back to normal, we are still trading really well. I think that is a combination of two things. Firstly, customers going into our business during lockdown last year, seeing our range and pricing, so our cash & carry customers never really leaving us. Secondly we are continuing to push aggressively recruiting new business in new areas. So we are trying to keep as much of that cash & carry business as we can but we are still going out recruiting.
Business is incredibly healthy, but we still have challenges. Deliveroo has grown, that is a challenge, we still have availability challenges with suppliers, especially on beer. We would have sold even more last year if we had had all the beer we ordered. We are still facing those challenges. We know we are not alone. Even pubs are facing supply challenges. But it is frustrating that we could be doing a lot more.
So we are really pleased about where the business is at and we have got quite an exciting future ahead of us. We need to capitalise over the next couple of years.
Which of the product categories you supply are in growth and which are more challenging?
At the minute they are all in growth, especially on the alcohol side. It’s not just beer, there has been a massive increase on wine which makes sense as more people have been at home. Spirits are growing as well. There has been a shift in terms of soft drinks and snacks – more multipacks are coming in. There has been a shift towards bigger packs with people shopping locally for those. Obviously we are not selling as much toilet roll as we did last year. We won’t be seeing the same numbers of paper products again.
But overall the business has grown across all categories and that is the really pleasing thing. We are trading really well across the board, which is good to see. Cigarettes are up. There are some really encouraging numbers across all categories.
How are the Parfetts symbol groups, including Go Local and Go Local Extra, performing? Is membership still growing?
They are growing really well. In the last calendar year, despite lockdown, we recruited 150 new retailers onto the symbol estate. This year the number is even higher. We are on track for 200 new retailers this year, which is going to take us past 1,000 stores so there has been incredible growth over recent years. We want that to continue, which comes back into play on the logistical side, on delivered. So there are really encouraging numbers. But we have not stopped there. We have just launched another fascia which is an unlicensed specialist fascia called The Local. So we now have The Local, Go Local and Go Local Extra. So there are great opportunities to grow further. We have seen a lot of interest in The Local. Naturally retailers are looking to increase margin and are interested in our service offering as well. We offer next day delivery and great pricing on top of a great brand.
Opportunities for growth are out there. It is just about sustaining it. It is the operational and logistical challenges. There is a shortage of drivers. That is a really big problem for us as well as everyone else, getting drivers to deliver all this stuff. So it’s really encouraging but it’s still challenging nonetheless.
How digital is Parfetts as a business?
33% of the orders we process are online. That has grown dramatically and is massively important for us so I am pleased with where we have got to on delivered. We work closely with suppliers, we continue to push and develop our platform. We have just released an ordering app for retailers to order through. We are working with customers to constantly evolve and develop the digital platform. Social media is key for our customers as well. We have centrally managed social media feeds which we work on with retailers and suppliers.
Do you offer any IT support for your members e.g. ordering apps, online support, delivery tracking?
We have nearly BDMs out on the road. They provide 360 degree support for the retailers. They support them from a digital point of view if they have any issues with web ordering or they need assistance. That is down to the guys out on the road. They are constantly in the stores ensuring that retailers are happy and are looked after.
Have your depots remained open during the Covid-19 crisis? Is it difficult to enforce social distancing in-depot?
We had to do a raft of things which seemed the right thing to do operate safely. We brought in outside security teams. We created queuing systems, one way systems. We asked that all people on site wear masks, both staff and customers. We put in safety measures around stock that retailers were really pushing for – things like certain beers when they came in we would put on sale in a separate area. We have constantly reviewed it. The directors have had a weekly meeting to review all things operational, to make sure we are operating safely.
We also wanted to make sure our colleagues and staff were looked after so we introduced a couple of policies. We brought in lockdown bonuses – we paid bonuses to our staff. We topped up their wage throughout the initial two lockdown periods. That was done because we were incredibly busy so it was a reward. Also, times may have been tough. We know many partners or spouses may have been on furlough or made redundant. They could have had additional childcare costs. So we gave them that lockdown bonus.
We also had a policy that we would give Covid sick pay. If someone had to go off because they had Covid, we ensured they got a Covid sick pay. So we gave everyone the opportunity to have 14 days’ Covid pay. If they were off due to track and trace measures or they were unwell because of Covid, that wouldn’t affect any annual leave. They would get two weeks’ full pay.
Being an employee-owned business, we have to think and want to think about how we look after colleagues. That proved to be really well received from everyone within the business. We were having a very successful period of growth but we wanted to give back to colleagues. We wanted everyone to be part of the successful year we are having so we ensured that was paid to all members of staff.
How has the wholesale industry in general been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?
It depends which side you are on. If you are on the retail side, everyone has had an unbelievable period of growth. If you are on the foodservice side, it has probably been the worst period of your life. We are well placed in that we are a 99% retail business. It has been an incredibly busy period for us. But I do sympathise with those guys on the foodservice side.
We brought in temporary staff during Covid. We recruited staff from the foodservice on-trade side, Matthew Clark being one of them, we had some of their guys come and work in our depots when we were busy. So we could help out a little but in that way. Some of the guys enjoyed working with us and have stayed on board with us. Temporary has turned into permanent. That was pleasing, to be able to do that.
But people like Dhamecha and Bestway have had a good 12 month period of trading on the back of Covid numbers.
Has Amazon become an even greater threat over the last year, given the rise in online ordering due to the pandemic?
I don’t think they are there on grocery yet. I’m not being complacent. I have got Amazon Prime. I’m ordering almost every day and down my road I see a huge amount of deliveries going through. I think people now will be more engaged ordering not just from Amazon but from Tesco. I often see a Tesco, Waitrose or Sainsbury’s delivery vehicle down my road.
Is that a threat or an opportunity?
People will now be more likely to top up locally. They will get the big shop delivered but in my house we are always running out of milk and bread. So it’s an opportunity for local convenience stores. People have to top up. It’s just in their nature. Now if you really can’t be bothered to go to supermarkets because you are getting it delivered, it’s the natural thing to nip to your local convenience store. What some of our symbol stores are doing is offering customers a delivered service.
What impact do you think Brexit will have on the industry?
I think it has had on impact on drivers. That has happened. Apart from the driver aspect, I think we are still in the midst of it. With Covid, what the government has done in terms of things like furlough is propping up the economy. Once we get out of this Covid situation, once furlough ends, once Brexit negotiations are over, we will see some effects on the economy in the coming years. This will probably have an effect on all of us at some stage.
We are not seeing day to day effects at Parfetts other than the driver situation. I can’t put my finger on that. Is that down to increased delivered demand across the board because of things like Amazon? Is it to do with Eastern European drivers that would traditionally have worked here having to go back across the border? I’m not sure. I look outside and it feels like the country is still reeling from Covid. But we will see effects on the economy at some stage.
What are your plans to grow the business in 2021?
The plans to grow are there. We have great opportunities with our logistical reach to go into new areas. Symbol is absolutely key to that, to recruiting new business, to get them tied in. We offer probably the best margins to independent retailers in the business. We have got great brands. We are great on retail club and promotions. The plans for growth are to improve our geographical reach. We are redeveloping our existing sites. We have got work going on at our Aintree depot and at our Sheffield depot. We are looking to improve the operational side of all our depots. We have got 25 guys out on the road recruiting new business, working with customers, making people aware of who Parfetts are, our offering. The plans are about how we sustain that and how we grow. We are working through this driver crisis at the minute, we are improving our operational aspect. We are looking to expand and grow.