It’s easy to forget what a mess Spar Scotland was in just a few short years ago.
There was plenty of momentum, but it was all in the wrong direction and there was no shortage of industry observers predicting some form of collapse at the time. Notoriously introverted and, dare I say it, awkward to deal with – particularly as a trade journalist trying, for example, to get a simple answer to a simple question – the company looked like it had run out of ideas and was clearly running out of energy, and very probably money.
So I’m sure that CEO Colin McLean and his new-look senior management team were only too thrilled to be able to announce the opening of CJ Lang’s first new company-owned store since 2017. He admitted as much when I spoke to him and hailed the launch of the new store and the unveiling of the new Spar Market brand as “a very big deal”. It’s certainly another milestone in the frankly unbelievable rejuvenation of the business. And McLean hopes to add another seven or eight stores in the not-too-distant future.
For several years McLean has been shedding under-performing company-owned stores, although he’s shy about confirming exactly how many have been offloaded – but it was a lot. And there may be more to follow. It’s easy to see why he doesn’t want to shout about the offloaded stores but at the end of the day, it was exactly what the business needed. Many of them were loss-making and it was a brave decision to say ‘enough is enough’ and cut the dead wood out. These were tough calls to make, as was the notorious Post Office decision which generated a lot of negative PR, particularly in the mainstream consumer press. But from a business perspective, it was the right decision to make. In fact, it was probably the only decision to make if the 100-year-old business was to get itself match-fit.
Fair enough, McLean’s tenure has been blessed by a perfect storm of good luck, if you can call it that. Ridiculously hot summers and the sales boom under Covid-19 ensured that his first few years at the helm were awash with positivity and sales. In a certain sense, however, this good luck masked a lot of very solid, sensible decision-making by McLean and his team. Record investment levels were announced last year – something hailed as a major coup, given the challenges of securing funding in previous years – and the business has not only gone back to basics but has also built some very solid platforms for future growth.
Time will tell how the new and improved Spar Scotland performs now that things are returning to some kind of normal – but this business has completed a root and branch overhaul that will serve it very well in the massively competitive few years that lie ahead.
Antony Begley, Publishing Director