After several years editing a magazine covering the independent retail sector, James Bielby finds himself “on the other side of the fence” but he is relishing the opportunity for action, and making the news rather than simply reporting it.
He says the FWD’s director general John Murphy has had some big wins in influencing government thinking, such as in the area of duty fraud, but more legislation is coming out all the time and one of the reasons for his appointment is to help in this side of the federation’s work.
He says: “I’ve always been interested in what goes on in Parliament, and in terms of this role being able to influence that is very exciting.
“Having observed it from the outside for a number of years, to now actually be involved in doing something, rather than just commentating, that is one of the reasons why I wanted to take the job.”
He says that through his involvement in the sector he has developed a real feeling for the Features > Business, and that this will be critical in getting the message across. “Having a passion about the sector and being able to present that is vital. You are always selling the interests of wholesalers and you are only successful about that if you are passionate about what they want to achieve.
“It’s a great sector and the interests of the wholesalers are the interests of everyone because ultimately it means there is a fairer grocery market for all and not just the power of the multiples. In terms of giving consumers choice the wholesale sector is vital.”
With his background in the media, Bielby is also intending to use his experience to raise the profile of the federation. He believes that until now the FWD has not had sufficient resources to publicise all the work that it does, explaining: “One of the things I have come in to do is assist on the communications side because if there are more people they can do more.
“John does a lot of work but it is not necessarily publicised. One of the things I want to do is publicise the work we are doing every day. If you look at the Association of Convenience Stores, they put out press releases about everything of substance that they do, no matter how small it may be, whereas the FWD rarely does that, and that is something I will change immediately.”
At 33, Bielby is also the first senior member of the FWD’s secretariat to have grown up with the internet and he is keen to harness new media to get the FWD’s message across. He says the FWD’s website probably needs a revamp and it should also be looking at options such as Facebook, blogging and even Twittering to promote the work it is doing.
One area of the FWD’s activities that already guarantees it a high profile is its events. Bielby says they attract a lot of the top people from the industry and are successful commercially, but a long-term aim would be to develop them further.
Having had close contact with the ACS and NFRN during his previous role, Bielby says he is looking forward to maintaining the FWD’s links with other trade associations, on areas of common interest. The FWD’s ‘home department’ in government is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and one of the bodies he is interested in getting closer links with is the manufacturers’ organisation the Food and Drink Federation.
One of the first items on Bielby’s to do list is meeting the members of the FWD Council. He says: “I want to understand what their needs are, how their businesses work and what they want from the FWD, and put a strategy in place to deal with that.”
He comes to the FWD with strong links already developed on the retail side of the business and is looking forward to learning about the foodservice sector. He says: “The overall wholesale sector has seen a trend away from cash and carry towards delivered wholesale and foodservice and that is an area where there should be a new focus in the next couple of years. If you look at the number of retailer and caterer customers using wholesalers, catering is much bigger and is definitely the growth area.”
Suppliers also play a crucial role in the sector and as associate members within the FWD and Bielby says the links he developed in his previous job will provide him with a significant advantage here. He is also looking to get closely involved in the FWD’s two major initiatives, the Take Home Blueprint and the My Shop is Your Shop campaign.
Looking back on his career to date Bielby says journalism wasn’t part of his plans when he left Cardiff University with a degree in English Literature, although his fascination with current affairs has provided a common thread. It lead him to take a job as a researcher at News International working across the company’s four major titles. He says: “It was a great first job working with some big names like Richard Littlejohn and the Sunday Times Insight team, and that made me think I would rather be on the other side of the fence.”
From there he went to journalists training at Highbury College in Portsmouth, followed by a number of jobs in local press and freelancing before he joined Retail Express in 2004 as number two to the editor. He comments: “At the time the magazine wasn’t very well known or highly regarded. It was quite brash and made a lot of noise but not necessarily the right noise.”
The editor left and he took over in early 2005 and repositioned the magazine as a mid-market, Metro-style paper. He adds: “In terms of supplier support and some of the stories we broke it was a successful period. It was a minor player but is now seen as one of the major players in the market, and I think that is my legacy.”
He says before working for Retail Express he would never have heard of the FWD or of its activities, but shortly after joining he became aware of its MSYS campaign and met John Murphy, FWD chairman Francis Ball and MSYS founder and chairman Alan Toft at the FWD’s home in Eastbourne. With his particular interest in the public affairs side of the news agenda, he subsequently had plenty of contact because of the FWD’s heavy involvement in lobbying, and he also came into contact with the wholesale community and their involvement with their retail customers.
Outside of work Bielby is settled in Muswell Hill in London with his wife and says his two young daughters keep him busy. He reluctantly admits to being a supporter of York City Football Club, which plays in the Blue Square Premier League, but says his enthusiasm has waned. “I’ve got a couple of mates who I used to go to matches with when York were playing in the south east. We’ve been to Stevenage, Rushden amp; Diamonds, and Bournemouth, but we’ve all got families now and getting a day out from the family home is not so easy. I’m just as a happy with a book or listening to music.”