Paul Hill talks to JW Filshill’s Simon Hannah on how he is preparing his ‘business of families’ for the future .
Companies regularly refer to themselves as “family businesses”, but this is something JW Filshill managing director Simon Hannah stays clear of when describing his company. “We’re a business of families,” he says. “There’s an important differential between the two. We have 26 different families in our business, and the vast majority of our customers are the same. I like to think of that as our USP.”
With its 145th birthday approaching next year, this business of families has established itself as one of the most forward-thinking and largest companies in Scottish food and drink wholesale. But Hannah is not one to rest on his laurels and is currently going through a number of important changes as he looks to evolve the firm.
He explains: “In the past two years, we’ve hired a new sales director, a new commercial director and a new financial director.
“I took over from my dad eight years ago and was lucky that I inherited some very stable guys.
“But they’ve now all retired and it’s given us the opportunity to bring in some fresh ideas and thinking.
“There’s now a generational plan in place. My brother and I are custodians of the company and it’s up to us to get in a position so that the business is equipped for the new generation,” he explains. “We need to stay ahead of the curve. If you don’t adapt, you get left behind.
“The good news for an independent business like ours is that we can see what needs doing and make a change as soon as possible.”
Investment in new technology is one way he is achieving this, with the help of retail sales director Craig Brown. Joining in 2017, Brown came with a retail background and a host of new recommendations. “He brought a completely new direction to our sales strategy,” Hannah says. “Craig has armed our teams with a load of new technology, which allows them to analyse the data and analyse how profitable certain algorithms are, and, in turn, analyse that against other shops in the same geographical footprint, in order to see if they are under- or over-indexing.
“He has revamped how we do things, with 75% of orders that are placed with us now captured through web, app or tablets.”
Founded in 1875, the company was a confectionery manufacturer for 55 years before opening its first cash and carry operation, which quickly developed into a delivered goods business in the 1960s.
Costs then became prohibitive, and it made the decision to pull out of manufacturing in order to solely concentrate on cash and carry, and delivered wholesale.
In 1994, it moved to its current premises in Glasgow and has since expanded the warehouse twice, with the total workforce now exceeding 250. It serves approximately 1,600 customers, including more than 187 retailers from its KeyStore symbol group.
Meanwhile, turnover has continued to improve, with the £145m for the year ending January 2018 a 1.9% improvement on the previous 12 months.
However, Hannah is consistently targeting new areas to explore in order to grow and future-proof the business. “As of yet, we’ve not had much involvement in the foodservice category, but we now have thoughts on how to approach the market,” he says. “Over the next few years, expanding into the on-trade is something we definitely want to do. With all the road miles we clock up each year, we pass by so many foodservice opportunities, so there’s no doubt we need to identify how to service those in a particular way.”
Filshill does already have one foot in the door, though, after signing a deal with the Scottish Prison Service following the government’s decision to make prisons smoke-free throughout the country. Hannah supplied more than 8,000 vape kits, which were delivered alongside pods in order to aid prisoners as they made the transition.
International expansion is another key agenda for Filshill. With Brexit on the horizon, the business has already established itself in the form of an international division, where it exports and consolidates for around 80 Scottish breweries and distilleries.
“We bring them all together under one consignment and do most of our business in China, Singapore and Taiwan,” explains Hannah. “This is a relatively new business for us and one that really works as we have an efficient warehouse, which allows us to create diverse revenue models and utilise all of our supplier arrangements.”
“For example, the single malt whiskey guys in Scotland have created a fantastic premium market and elevated position for the whole world. It’s now our job to stay on the coat-tails of runways such as this, while still adding new products to it,” he adds.
Always looking forward, JW Filshill is a wholesaler in a continued state of evolution and consistently on the hunt for new areas of diversification.
60 Seconds With Simon Hannah
What’s the best piece of business advice you can offer?
Listen and be humble. Nobody knows everything, and every day is a chance to learn. You also need to make sure you’re listening to every single person, in every area of your business and life.
What’s your philosophy in regards to work?
Work hard, play hard. We have a lot of fun and have a relaxed business environment, but we’re also one of the hardest- working businesses out there.
Who has had the biggest impact on your career?
My father. He’s one of the kindest men I have ever met and his nature has helped shape who I am today. I’m very lucky that he created a platform for me and my brother to grow
What do you get up to in your spare time?
I have three kids, who take up a lot of my time. but I also coach rugby on Sundays. You could also say that I have masses of untapped potential in golf, which I’m yet to fully realise.
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