SWA Conference: Wholesalers must evolve

Scotland’s wholesalers must adapt the way they do business to keep apace with ever-changing and evolving trends in the marketplace. That was one of the key messages from Asim Sarwar (pictured), president of the Scottish Wholesale Association (SWA), in his opening presentation at the trade body’s annual conference at Crieff last weekend (June 12 – 14).

Addressing an audience of industry leaders from across Scotland and the UK,  Sarwar said: “In any business – and, indeed, any trade association – progress cannot come without evolution. It’s about understanding what our members’ customers want – whether they are retailers, caterers or other hospitality providers.

“We need to do much, much more to understand our customers,” he continued. “We can do that by working more closely with our suppliers and indeed there are many great examples of where this is already happening.”

Congratulating a number of wholesalers for reaching significant milestones in their history, including Kirkcaldy-based William Yule and Sons which celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2015, and Dunns Food and Drinks of Blantyre and Glasgow-based JW Filshill which both celebrate their 140th anniversaries, Sarwar said: “These companies – and others – have thrived and survived because they have evolved.

“The wholesale industry in Scotland has evolved and you don’t need me to remind you that our political landscape in the past year – and particularly in more recent weeks – has changed beyond recognition.”

It was the job of the SWA, he said, to “deal with such change and do our best to influence and challenge our MPs and MSPs”. The appointment earlier this year of an experienced public affairs company to help the Association enhance its profile in the corridors of both Westminster and Holyrood was already bearing fruit.

Sarwar, managing director of Glasgow-based United Wholesale (Scotland), pointed to the current strength of the Association, highlighting its relationship with suppliers as key to its success. “Our Association cannot function effectively without you,” he stated.

“But we still need to engage with those suppliers with whom we have no relationship – those suppliers who are not currently members, and others who are members but for whatever reason have not had an opportunity to really get beneath our skin and become involved with our activities.”

While business in the wholesaling world remains tough amid an unsettled economy and companies across all spheres of the business spectrum still digesting the events and immediate aftermath of the General Election, there are still opportunities, suggested Sarwar. “There’s definitely a lot of optimism out there,” he said.

“Companies are investing, taking on more staff and very much looking to the future – and that’s great news for the economy.”

The current problems facing the multiple grocery sector, he continued, “add up to even more opportunities for our members”. Sarwar said: “At both Tesco and Morrisons there’s been a ‘back to basics’ approach with blood rolling in the aisles as they chop their top-heavy management structures and scale back ill-advised growth into our members’ territory – convenience.

“And who would have thought that Aldi would overtake Waitrose to become the UK’s sixth-largest supermarket chain by market share, continuing the discounter’s rapid push into mainstream grocery retailing? Or that Sainsbury’s would report its first annual loss in a decade?”

Sarwar pointed to recent investment by a number of SWA members, including United Wholesale (Scotland), Bestway/Batleys, Booker, JW Filshill, Fáilte Foods, and Dunns Food and Drinks to name just a few. “If anyone thinks Scottish wholesalers are being complacent and reluctant to take risks, think again!”

Sarwar also reaffirmed willingness to work more closely in the future with other trade associations, including the Scottish Grocers’ Federation (SGF), Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) and Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD). “The importance of liaising with industry has never been more important to our Association,” he said. “By liaison, I mean other trade associations as well as with our members and suppliers, other key partners, the Government and the charities we support.”

We’ll have full coverage of the SWA Conference in the July issue of Wholesale News.

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