The Bellevue brothers

Walking into their cash and carry the morning after Scottish Wholesale Achievers 2004 was hard for owners Graham and George Benson, and their shared feelings of bitter disappointment after failing to pick up any awards were quick to spread throughout their Edinburgh depot. Both went about their daily business – but it wasn’t long before their spirits lifted.

Bellevue Cash Carry had picked up a number of runners-up awards so surely there was reason to celebrate? “We thought long and hard about the evening and all the time and effort we’d put into entering Achievers,” explains Graham Benson, who is managing director of the business. “Initially we thought ‘what’s the point?’ but when we really considered our performance, which on the face of it wasn’t bad, and the background of Achievers which is essentially to learn from the experience and use the judging process to help you move your business forward, we found ourselves quite fired up with enthusiasm.”

Achievers, now moving into its fourth year, was launched by the Scottish Wholesale Association to raise awareness of the wholesale sector in Scotland and enhance the profile of the long-established trade association. But for the entrants, Achievers goes much further than that. As Benson points out: “Winning is great – but Achievers is about more than that. It presents you with a fantastic opportunity to really get to the bottom of your Features > Business, looking at everything from training and marketing to your service levels, new ideas, your relationship with suppliers – everything.”

And the Benson brothers should know, having bounced back with a vengeance to virtually sweep the boards at Achievers 2005. Bellevue was crowned the best wholesale business in Scotland after claiming no fewer than four awards, including Best Cash Carry and the prestigious Champion of Champions accolade. Graham Benson also received the award for Outstanding Individual Achiever.

Achievers differs from other trade awards schemes in that a two-way feedback mechanic is in place during the judging process. Sponsors are encouraged to discuss issues raised with entrants over the course of the judging period while wholesalers who score suppliers for the Best Overall Service awards are equally at liberty to discuss any relevant points emerging from this process with suppliers. All results in Achievers are also scrutinised by an independent judging panel to ensure openness and transparency at all times.

Graham Benson, who joined the family business as a teenager, has seen Bellevue go through many changes over the years. But the most significant was Bellevue’s return to private hands following a management buyout in autumn 2003, when the Bensons bought back the £40m-plus turnover business they sold to Irish wholesale giant BWG Group five years earlier. The deal saw the Landmark member return to the family that had established the business 36 years earlier when the late John Benson founded Bellevue in 1969.

Twins Graham and George had continued to manage Bellevue in the five years under BWG ownership. In 1999, they spearheaded BWG’s acquisition of the Renton’s cash and carry business in the central belt of Scotland, expanding the Bellevue brand into Stirling and Falkirk. BWG later sold the Falkirk unit.

“The cash and carry marketplace is an extremely competitive one and we have proved that we can survive and prosper in that environment,” says Graham. “From a business perspective, we have learnt a lot from being part of a plc and we are using that knowledge to Bellevue’s advantage.”

Bellevue has continued to invest. Both the award-winning wines and spirits and Caterers Kitchen departments at the 54,000sq ft Edinburgh depot have been refurbished. At Stirling, the 24,000sq ft cash and carry has been completely refurbished to provide customers with a more relevant range available in a user-friendly shopping environment. Graham Benson points out that while running Bellevue as part of the BWG Group presented many challenges and worthwhile experiences, operating within a plc environment had restricted opportunities to drive the business forward in a more entrepreneurial way.

“BWG taught us to look more closely at key performance indicators and be extremely disciplined in certain areas but the trading benefits were intangible,” he says. “What it has given us is the confidence to further build the Bellevue brands.”

These brands include Premier Club, the customer loyalty scheme for retailers, and Drinks Direct, Bellevue’s specialist wines and spirits delivery service for the on-trade. Newer initiatives include Call Collect and Impulse Catering.

While not using the MBO as an excuse for “letting things slip and taking our eye off the ball at times”, Graham and George found their time dominated by the long drawn-out business process which dragged on over a period of months. The main judging period of Achievers 2004 coincided with the MBO, giving the brothers less time to devote to interviews with judges. But they also found that they had less time to devote to the day-to-day running of their business.

Fast-forward to 2005 and Bellevue’s determination to retain an independent stance as a wholesaler in central Scotland has never been stronger. Bellevue Cash Carry’s performance in Achievers this year has also sent out a strong message to the trade that it is one of the most progressive wholesalers within its fiercely competitive marketplace.

Traditionally an industry innovator, Bellevue was the first cash and carry in Scotland to introduce a retail customer loyalty scheme. Today, Premier Club is just one of those brands that the firm uses to add value to its business – and that of its customers.

More recently, Bellevue has thrown its weight behind Landmark’s Hot House initiative, designed to regenerate the independent retail sector by raising standards in-store. This is progressing well.

Drinks Direct continues to grow, too. But it is the more recently launched Impulse Catering from Bellevue and Cash Carry from Bellevue initiatives that are currently driving the business forward. Impulse Catering was launched as a direct result of participating in the Best Cash Carry – Catering category in Scottish Wholesale Achievers.

“We identified an opportunity to increase share of the out-of-home market that did not involve us competing with the foodservice specialists,” explains George Benson. “It targets ‘impulse’ operators, including fish and chip shops, hot food takeaways and so on. What we are trying to do with all of these Bellevue brands is add value and create more footfall through both our Edinburgh and Stirling depots.

“Both initiatives enhance customer satisfaction, improve the buying environment and, ultimately, provide a more profitable business for all involved parties. As far as Hot House is concerned, new store fascias, the correct lines, core range, point of sale and Bellevue support are all essential ingredients in achieving Hot House goals and increasing customer spend and loyalty.”

Some 20-plus stores have been refurbished to Hot House standards to date with plans to convert a further 30 well under way. Many stores already refitted are reporting sales increases of 30% or more – a clear sign that the concept has struck a chord with retailers and their customers.

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