Bridging the gap

SWA Conference

The recent SWA Conference in Crieff saw retailers, wholesalers and suppliers come together to work on ‘bridging the gap’ as the industry faces ever tougher challenges.

The Scottish Wholesale Association must be steadfast in supporting its members in times of change – that was just one of the key messages from President Julie Dunn at the trade body’s recent annual conference.

“Change is inevitable and when it’s made to impact positively on the health of the nation, or tackling the issues round the poverty gap or improving our environment, it is a great thing and something we must embrace,” said Dunn, Operations Director at Blantyre-based foodservice and licensed wholesaler, Dunns Food and Drinks.

“But I think it is the rate of change which can at times seem overwhelming and the fact that often the advice given or the steps required are ill thought out,” she continued. “This is where the Association must be steadfast in supporting our members. It is our job to help our members ensure that they march pace for pace to the rate of change. But we need the members – wholesalers and associate suppliers – to engage right back.”

Dunn also spoke about the SWA’s collaborative approach, working with suppliers, partners and other trade associations and organisations to ensure a louder voice for the wholesale industry on a number of pertinent issues. “Our role is to ensure a healthy, dynamic and relevant trade association,” she said. “We have partnerships with legal firm TLT on licensing issues, 121 HR Solutions on all things employment-related and Caledonia Public affairs continues to assist us in navigating the corridors of Holyrood. All our partners’ advice is free to all members.

“We continue to collaborate closely with the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation on those matters which impact on our members and their customers,” she continued, citing minimum unit pricing as a prime example of a collaborative approach.

Dunn said: “Our work on the deposit return scheme continues, with Zero Waste Scotland representatives visiting depots to gain understanding of our concerns and requirements, plus our ongoing attendance at their seminars and consultations.”

Other groups the SWA has worked with in the last year include Scotland Food & Drink, the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Women in Wholesale.

“But it is the work we’re doing in training which remains at the forefront of our agenda,” Dunn continued, suggesting that by investing in the individual and bringing out their strengths you will strengthen your business. “A strong business leads to a strong economy – healthy and wealthy communities.

“Wholesale is big business – we are the route to market for Scotland’s food and drinks industry and its associated products – so we need to attract, train and retain talent.”

Dunn said that wholesale should be “the destination not the stopover on the way to brand central”, pointing out the SWA’s work in developing links between education and industry. “Once we get young people through our doors we must have the training infrastructure in place to keep them,” she said. “That work is ongoing and quite challenging but moving forward.”

Recent training sessions have been “varied and packed”, co-ordinated by 121 HR Solutions and funded by the SWA or supplier members. Subjects covered have included GDPR, selling skills and effective management skills courses. “I urge members to take advantage of this extremely cost-effective training and ask suppliers to consider opening their training to us,” Dunn said.

She went on to describe the SWA’s much-lauded Mentoring Programme as “one of our greatest achievements” but urged more people to come forward and participate as both mentors and mentees.

Stuart Harrison, a Senior Buyer at JW Filshill, was one of the first intake of mentees on the Mentoring Programme and spoke about his experience. “Some would say that mentoring never ends and I would completely agree with that,” he said. “We just end up at a different stage of the mentee/mentor cycle. But the single most important piece of a successful mentoring partnership is trust.”

Harrison, whose mentor was former AB InBev executive Scott MacDonald, who now works for Brewgooder, said that being completely open and honest about his strengths and weaknesses was the key to opening up the long-term benefits of the process, both professionally and personally.

“Four years on from my first mentoring session I am really getting the benefits of my experience as a mentee and I’m now in a position to pass on what I learned, and the process which enabled me to learn.”

He said that Filshill MD Simon Hannah had told him to go into the programme with an open mind. “He also told me to take as much time out of the office as I needed, and to ask lots of questions,” said Harrison.

“Confidentiality from everyone involved is key for a successful mentor/mentee partnership,” he continued. “I’ve matured as an individual, I have confidence in my own ability and the business has encouraged and supported me through this journey. They encourage me to innovate, build the right strategies and give me a flexible role to do what I think is best for the business.

“I’ve been given additional categories to add to my ever-expanding collection, and my team has doubled in numbers. It is with my team that I feel I’m in a great position to give back in terms of my experience and to take on an active leadership role.”

The SWA’s outgoing Executive Director Kate Salmon, who retires in the autumn, highlighted the benefits of membership of the trade association: “We’re evolving, the industry is evolving, and the role of a strong and healthy trade association has never been more important. I see the SWA as being the conduit for bridging the gap between our members, suppliers and other stakeholders – government, policymakers and decision-makers.

“We’ve spent a lot of time over the last year speaking to some of these key influencers and the question we’re often asked is: What is wholesale? Outside the sector we are misunderstood and I don’t blame people for that – they can relate to the retail industry more easily because they are consumers themselves.

“So when people talk about the food industry it’s the multiple retailers that tend to be foremost in their thoughts, or restaurants. But do they consider how the food and drink they want and need get to those outlets? No.

“It’s one of the challenges we will continue to face but we’re working hard to get the message across that Scotland’s food and drink industry needs a strong wholesale sector to keep the wheels turning.”

She pointed to the SWA’s diverse membership covering single-depot, family-owned businesses as well as national wholesale groups operating in the retail, foodservice and licensed sectors.

“But what brings us all together is Scotland,” said Salmon. “We have our own legal system and our own government and parliament. We’re trailblazers – the first to ban smoking in public places, for example, and the first to introduce minimum unit pricing.

“The Scottish Government was the first to commit to a deposit return scheme and the SWA is heavily involved in discussions around its implementation. What I’m getting at is this: Scotland is unique. We share many challenges and priorities with our colleagues the FWD south of the Border but we have many that are unique to us here.

“But we work together. We collaborate. With trade associations. With suppliers. With stakeholders. That’s something we will continue to do. And we are happy to speak to you about any issues you have.”

Salmon referred to the free Employment and Licensing Helplines for members and also the ongoing training and mentoring programmes as key benefits that are there to be taken advantage of.

STG July 2021