John Murphy has no illusions about the size of the task he is taking on, but he is quietly confident he will succeed. Not only is he taking charge of the FWD’s headquarters, but he is following a predecessor who had one of the highest profiles in the industry. Even before he became director general in 1990, Alan Toft was well known as the founder of Independent Grocer magazine (now IRN), and his subsequent revival of the FWD and vigorous promotion of the wholesale sector meant he was rarely out of the headlines.
“Alan is not an easy act to follow, but I will just get on and do it,” says Murphy.
With a quiet home counties accent contrasting with the harsher Mancunian tones of his predecessor, Murphy says his style of leadership will be different, but he adds: “Our determination to promote the sector is the same. It will just be done in a different way.” One thing he is not planning on changing is the high profile attached to his new role. “I have always thought it better for a trade association to have a dominant figure fronting it. Alan has done a brilliant job and I intend to follow that,” he says.
Dealing with the media is an area of the business Murphy is very familiar with. Part of his duties at the FWD involved working as deputy editor of ProWholesaler until its takeover by William Reed, and it was a job that brought him into contact with many members of the trade press. And prior to joining the FWD he spent more than 20 years working in financial and corporate public relations. Editors of trade papers have long been used to receiving calls from the director general of the FWD promoting the activities of the Federation and its members and Murphy promises this won’t change.
“I will still be phoning up editors. My job in PR involved a close relationship with journalists. I’m well equipped to deal with the media. If there are issues I will get them aired.”
With the FWD just completing one of its most successful years ever in terms of activities, Murphy is not intending to mark his appointment with major changes. “I don’t believe in changing things too radically for the sake of it. We have had a brilliant period with Alan, and consistently punched above our weight in terms of our resources. I’m determined to continue that and make our presence felt in Whitehall as strongly as it has been in the past.”
Whitehall and Brussels have both been areas where Murphy has made a strong impression for the FWD. As the UK and European governments have threatened to stifle the sector under mountains of red tape, he has been arguing the case for wholesalers with ministers and civil servants and has played a part in several notable victories.
One involved representations to the Tory and then Labour governments which won important concessions on the Packaging Waste Regulations. With another piece of proposed legislation for duty paid marks to be placed on cigarette packets, Murphy had numerous meetings with Treasury officials and HM Customs Excise about its implementation. This culminated in a meeting with the Treasury minister Stephen Timms which persuaded him to withdraw plans to date mark the stamps.
Most recently Murphy has been representing the wholesalers on the spirits trade association JATCG in negotiations with the Government about plans to introduce duty marks on spirits in 2006, and so far there have been three meetings with Treasury minister John Healey.
The work on legislation and other related matters has also brought Murphy into regular contact with staff of other trade associations, and he says they generally have a good working relationship. “We work well with other trade associations. I’m on the board of the OFSCI initiative with Bob Price of the Food and Drink Federation and Alf Carr of the British Frozen Food Federation. I’ve also worked closely with David Grey and James Lowman of the Association of Convenience Stores on packaging waste and various other matters.
“All trade federations do the best for their members and we work very happily when there are issues we can come together on. We work particularly closely as much as we can in terms of the Government.” However, he accepts the FWD can’t always agree a common line with other groups, and he adds: “There are occasions when interests of wholesalers may run across those of other groups in the industry, but we have to stand up for those interests.”
The growth in legislation is just one of the changes that Murphy has seen during his 14 years with the FWD. He says: “The industry has changed radically since I joined. There was a huge Booker, a plc with diverse interests in manufacturing and foodservice. The industry has changed so rapidly, but it has held up extremely well in terms of its value.
“In the early days the prognosis of a lot of people was that there wouldn’t be a wholesaling industry by now but it’s here and thriving. Foodservice is a beacon of good business; it’s a strong growing side of the industry and it has been picked up on by cash and carries in a very robust way. Wholesaling has been through a lot but it is still there and thriving and it has still got great people.”
One important group of people for Murphy will be the FWD Council. He says: “I am responsible to the council. They are the leading people in the industry and they know what is necessary and it is my job to make sure that happens.”
Although the members are fierce rivals in Features > Business, he says they work together well for their joint interests in the industry.
“Council members fight tenaciously in the market place but like most senior people in the industry they get on well and we don’t have table banging sessions. I’ve been to most council meetings in the past 14 years and most emotion is directed outside the room at those perceived to be the enemies of wholesaling.”
One way in which members may notice a difference with Murphy’s tenure is a decline in references to Manchester City. Even during his closing speech to the FWD Annual Conference, Toft managed to slip in a reference to his favourite football team, but Murphy says football is not a major interest.
“I’ve had to take an interest in Manchester City over the years I have known Alan, and if really pressed my north London background would lead me to support Arsenal,” he says.
However, cricket is his major sporting interest, with Murphy maintaining membership of the MCC despite having lived in Eastbourne for 15 years.
“I don’t get to Lords as often as I would like,” he says, “but cricket is the sport I follow.” Perhaps we can look forward to test match updates at future FWD conferences.