Colin Birchall has every reason to feel happy. The managing director of the Country Range Group believes it is the leader in independent foodservice – and that the group’s latest figures are proof that this success shows no sign of letting up. Last year CRG achieved growth of 15% on its own brand range and pushed up sales of branded products by 12%, and this year growth has accelerated and is standing at 17% on both categories after the first six months.
The buying group was established 14 years ago, but it is much more than just a vehicle for pooling buying power, says Birchall. He says: “It’s relatively easy to set up a buying group but it’s not just about buying, it’s about selling and having the right partners who can work together. You don’t add value simply by adding turnover through a ‘marriage of convenience’. The most effective group is one which can actually do something with that turnover.”
Corporate director Chris Creed adds: “I genuinely believe we are the best in the industry and are rightfully recognised as being so – a fact that is reflected in the number of quality suppliers who want to do business with us. They recognise that we can build their brands in the marketplace and we, in return, are able to negotiate excellent terms with them.”
CRG comprises 16 independent wholesalers – each operating in its own exclusive territory throughout the UK and Northern Ireland – and is co-ordinated by a head office in Nelson, Lancashire. Birchall says the group strategy is to select wholesalers who have the right profile and are the best in their area. They all have to conform to a seven-point requirement for minimum standards of business structure, stock, sell and promotional disciplines, and additionally third party audits of depot operational standards.
The group also runs a Brandbuilders programme, which culminates in an annual award presented to the best performing member. This programme for brand growth focuses on three key areas: the Country Range own brand portfolio, the key branded suppliers and the ongoing development of Stir It Up magazine, which is the group’s voice to the caterer.
Own brand manager Martin Ward is similarly confident about the group’s own brand range. “Country Range is the best own brand in the business. It has a long heritage and is a brilliant alternative to the big brands in terms of its consistency in quality. We have always refused to compromise on quality and the brand has continually developed and improved over the last 20 years but, at the same time, our prices are the most competitive around.”
CRG has 500 products over ambient, chill and frozen (frozen having been successfully developed over the last two years) and the brand has also been extended into commodities, including imported lines from around the world.
Birchall believes the combination of independent companies operating together as a group gives CRG a unique edge over the competition. He explains: “There is a range of major national distributors and, of course, a substantial choice of independent suppliers. However, there is only one Country Range Group, which, I believe, encapsulates the best of both worlds by providing the option for caterers of professional regional distributors with guaranteed standards. Not only that, we can offer the flexibility that the nationals simply cannot provide.”
The group recently commissioned a market research report to gauge its competitive position in comparison to Brakes and 3663. The performance of CRG wholesalers was rated in service criteria such as competitive pricing, having a comprehensive product range, reliability, ease of ordering and order to delivery time. The group came out top in these five key criteria, and ranked number one in eight out of the remaining 10 areas reviewed.
“This research confirms our position as a major player in foodservice,” says Birchall. “We are competing at the top with all its attendant demands on our distribution network and our key suppliers and, based on these strengths, Country Range Group is forecasting further growth in this expanding and dynamic marketplace.”