The winds of change blow through Dundee

Colin McLean

Dundee-based Spar Scotland wholesaler CJ Lang is reinventing itself under new CEO Colin McLean and a rebuilt senior management team.

by Antony Begley

Spar Scotland wholesaler CJ Lang has always been something of a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. One of Scotland’s oldest retail firms, it has for the entirety of that time been notoriously secretive about its business, largely doing its level best to avoid talking to the trade press or sharing anything more than it absolutely had to with those outside its four walls.

So something was clearly afoot when the phone rang and it was new CJ Lang CEO Colin McLean on the other end of the line asking if SLR would be interested in coming up to the Dundee for a chat. To put that in some sort of context, previous CEO Scott Malcolm had never granted SLR a single interview during his entire tenure and was, moreover, very noticeable by his absence at the vast majority of industry events. He was less the quiet man than the invisible man.

As CJ Lang approaches its centenary next year, however, a wind of change is gusting through the business under McLean, the former Chief Operating officer of Scotmid who joined the wholesaler in March this year.

The main purpose of the invite to Dundee was to be talked through CJ Lang’s recently-published accounts. This is another remarkable first, given that the company has historically declined to reveal its finances, forcing anyone interested to see how the business was performing to go trawling through Companies House data.

New era

“I know that historically we haven’t published our accounts,” says McLean, “but we’re in a new era now and we are keen to be more open and transparent about the business and about what our aims and goals are.”

That was an encouraging opening gambit, as was the fact that McLean was joined in the meeting by Chairman Jim Hepburn and Finance Director Craig Tedford. Not only are CJ Lang talking to the press, they’re taking it seriously.

So how had the year been, then? “Mostly in line with expectations,” said Hepburn with a broad smile, the clear implication being that expectations weren’t particularly high.

The numbers to the end of April showed that while turnover had dropped slightly by 1.3% to £183.1m, margins had increased from 23.3% to 23.9%. Pre-tax profits were around £490,000, a fall from £925,000 in 2017.

McLean described the financial year as “a tough period for retail and wholesale” and accepted that the business will need to develop and evolve in the near future, an approach that “will continue to require the taking of difficult decisions that will protect the business in the future.”

Core to that future is a revamped senior management team and the business hasn’t been afraid to take the difficult decisions that McLean refers to, luring Mike Leonard back from United Wholesale Scotland to take up the role of Sales Director and bringing Tedford in from Heineken.

With the new management team in place, the business was in a good place to capitalise on this summer’s fantastic weather. “Yes, we benefitted from the great weather just as most retail and wholesale businesses did”, said McLean, “but I believe that having the new management team in place allowed us to really exploit the great summer to the maximum. The proof of that is that for the months since the warm weather ended we’ve managed to sustain that growth.”

Back to basics

As for the future, it’s all about getting back to doing the simple things well, believes Tedford. “In the initial phase we will very much be taking a back to basics approach, really trying to get store standards, customer focus and availability right across the business. As well as maintaining tight control on costs, our focus is on delivering long term profitable growth, both at retail and wholesale, by working closely with our retailers and suppliers.”

There are, of course, a number of new initiatives planned that McLean “can’t talk about yet”, but insists that he will be more than happy to discuss them when the time is right. “We have some really great stuff coming down the line and we will be shouting about them and talking to the press about them when they happen,” he insisted. “The days of radio silence are over.”

The addition of new company-owned stores is also planned for the next 12 months – “quality, not quantity” – and McLean says the business is more committed than ever to its independent Spar retailers. “We are supporting our retailers with market-leading deals while pushing record volumes through our distribution centre,” he commented.

As CJ Lang approaches its 100th year in business next year, McLean and his team give the clear impression that things are changing in Dundee and they are prepared to make the tough decisions that are required to get this venerable business back on track and back in solid growth.