Woods Foodservice, the London-based foodservice wholesaler, has received CarbonNeutral certification following a long-standing commitment to reducing the environmental impact of its business.

CarbonNeutral certification is awarded to companies who have reduced their carbon footprint to zero using a combination of in-house efficiency measures, renewable energy, and external emissions reductions.

Among the various green initiatives in place is the Woods warehouse, a state-of-the-art, fully insulated facility in Uxbridge which uses energy efficient heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration equipment.

Darren Labbett Managing Director for Woods Foodservice, tells Wholesale Manager how the company gained the certification.

Congratulations on Woods Foodservice receiving CarbonNeutral certification. What did the company do to gain the certification?

For many years we have been trying to reduce carbon emissions and become as green as possible. We have gradually introduced more environmentally friendly measures over the years. We have been in our current building in Uxbridge for nearly four years, a building which has full solar power, water harvesting and LED lighting. It’s as green as it could be, given the available technology, and that includes the trucks’ refrigeration technology. We felt there wasn’t much more we could do to reduce our emissions. I then decided to get a survey done by the Carbon Trust to see how much carbon we were emitting and to see if we could reduce our emissions further still. They did a full audit, then gave us a report on what we could do to reduce our emissions. There wasn’t much more to reduce, it was just to do with overseeing and managing things more efficiently, which we have now implemented. So we have taken our current set-up as far as we can possibly go with reducing our emissions.

How will you offset the remaining carbon that is produced?

To offset the remaining carbon, we have invested money into Bangladesh by buying environmentally friendly cookers. These save a lot of lives because of the nasty fumes the old cookers generated inside homes. The reason we chose that scheme is we are a food distributor and we thought there was a connection there. The amount we have invested reduces the emissions over there by the same amount that we are still emitting here, which makes us carbon neutral.

How much of your business is done online? Do you offer an app for customers to use?

We have a website and an app. We also have EDI. A lot of people email their orders in and it goes through our EDI system. I’m not sure of the exact figures but around half our business is done online. We still answer our phones up to midnight. There may come a time when we don’t need to answer our phones up to midnight because the preference for a lot of people is online ordering.

As a company how are you addressing ‘social’ issues such as equal opportunity, diversity and mental health?

Diversity has never been an issue for us.

We have diversity policies within our handbooks. We have a very open mind on what we are looking for. There is no bias towards one gender or one race. We go for whoever is best for the job. Everything else is irrelevant. Pre-Covid, we had over 100 staff from all different backgrounds. It’s never been an issue. Mental health is something that is close to me personally because I have suffered from mental health issues myself. There was a marriage break-up and alcoholism within my family, which led to me struggling for a period of time. As a result, I am very sympathetic towards mental health issues. We have a company called Peninsular which provides counselling for people suffering from mental health issues, addiction or bullying. There is a confidential line people can call. I have also got a counsellor for extreme cases, which comes up now and again, to try to help them out.

How did you come to work at Woods in the first place? When did you join Woods, and what jobs have you done with the business before your current role?

My grandad used to work as a van salesman for a company called Woods Table Dainties back in the 1960s. The guy that owned that wanted to retire so he sold out to a big national company. Before he sold out my grandad managed to negotiate with Mr Woods and bought one round, which was in the west end of London. He did that for a few years. Unfortunately, my grandad was a very good salesman but a very poor businessman and he got into a lot of debt very quickly. My dad at the time owned and ran two greengrocer’s shops. The lease on one of the shops ran out and the guy that owned the property wanted to develop it into flats. My dad said to my grandad he would pay off his debts and then employ him to take over his round. My dad managed to build the business up to a £2m turnover in the late 1970s. He did that with the intention of raising capital to buy properties. He had a very successful period for a few years, raised a lot of cash and bought a load of properties and then the business became a secondary interest for him and it went into decline. I joined him from school to help him out, at which time we were turning over around £1m, we were declining and had no investment for many years. We were barely breaking even, in fact the previous year we had made a loss. In 2000 he said to me do what you can with it. Last year, before Covid, we took £20m. I started off ripping up cardboard and I have done every job there is to do.

When did you become Managing Director? What does your role involve day to day?

I have done everything from stacking the shelves, stacking the van, taking orders, management accounts, marketing, you name it, I have done it. Now I manage the senior managers, oversee what they do and proactively plan ahead. I then make sure the managers and their teams are hitting the targets we have previously sat down and agreed. I am continually looking at opportunities to grow the business and improve the service and the range.

Who has inspired and encouraged you in your career?

My dad is one. The people I tried to emulate when I first started out were Roy Tweed from John Mullers, who has become a friend, and the guys from Ritter Courivaud. I would like to think we are the market leaders now but back then I was only a tiddly little fish and they were the market leaders.

Looking back, what have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the UK foodservice industry over the years?

Compared to when I first started it’s the internet and technology, software and hardware enhancements. The way we run our business now is completely different to 25 years ago. We now have EDI, route optimisation and the ordering app. We are constantly reviewing and updating our hardware and software. If you don’t do that, you will get left behind very quickly. When I started out, everything was written out, from the invoice to the customer to the management accounts.

In your present role do you personally go out to meet customers?

Yes. I spend a lot of time with customers and suppliers. We take customers abroad two or three times a year on corporate events. I go to numerous meetings with customers. We are an associate member of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and I meet customers there sometimes.

Do you get personally involved in recipe development and range selection?

Yes. Not so much now because Lana, my commercial director, has taken that over but I still talk to her a lot and have an input.

How would you sum up Woods as a business these days? What makes you different as a foodservice wholesaler?

We are quite niche. We have a remit regarding what customer we will supply. We say no to a lot of people that want to use us as a supplier. We will only supply to very high end restaurants, gastropubs, wine bars, event caterers or hotels. The reason we have that strict criteria is because we will tailor our range of products and services to a specific type of customer so we can be the very best at it. We don’t want to be a jack of all trades, master of none. We want to be the very best at one trade. That’s what we aspire to be and that’s what we are.

How big is your product range, and what proportion of your products are own brand versus supplier branded?

At the start of the pandemic we saw an opportunity to take on fresh produce, which we have now done. As a result of that we have doubled our product range to about three or four thousand. We have just added an own label range of 270 products which is going to come out in the first quarter of 2021. That’s called the Core range. It will be high quality products at a very competitive price. For fine dining restaurants that absolutely insist on the best, even down to chopped tomatoes, we will provide a quality alternative if they so desire. We felt that with Brexit, Covid and the disastrous year hospitality had in 2020, bringing in an own label range would probably be a good idea. That is being introduced in January. We have been working on it for months. I’m very excited about it. I don’t expect the own label range to have a high percentage of our sales but it’s good to have that option when our customers are going to be finding it tough to get back on their feet.

Do you supply catering equipment?

No, but it’s something that is possibly in the pipeline going forwards. We have just started having the initial conversations about it.

What are the biggest food and drink product trends you’re currently seeing in foodservice and how are you responding to them and being proactive about anticipating further developments?

The last year was a disaster for us. Every time there was a lockdown, every one of our customers closed, apart from the ones that did a bit of takeaway. We had to adapt from normal menus to takeaway menus, which is quite different. I have not been out with our customers for a year and we have not been doing any more trade with our customers for a year. We are having to adapt from reduced trading hours to takeaways and then back again.

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