Martyn Fisher talks to Niyazi Uludag at RA Trading, discovering a company that turned the 2008 recession into a trading advantage
When I meet RA Trading director Niyazi Uludag at the business’ headquarters in North London, the industry is in the grip of a damaging restriction on soft drinks supply, caused by a CO2 shortage.
Such is the crisis, Uludag and his colleagues have been forced to break their golden rule of trade – never buy imported goods. He says: “It is the first time we have needed to search Europe for products and that is not ideal – once you commit to something, it is not easy to get out of it and it derails our long-term strategy of only working with British brands. Even though some imports are cheaper, we never say to customers, ‘We will give you the cheapest’ – we want to give them quality, traceability and added value.”
The business is in its teenage years, having been set up in 2000 by ex-restaurant owner Zeynep Akgoz and ex-wholesale worker Hasan Kutlu. Uludag joined the business in 2001, after moving to the UK from his native Turkey where he had been working for a major global FMCG importer.
RA – the initials of Akgoz’s son – began life in a depot near Finsbury Park. By 2006, the firm had a £4m turnover, and a move to a bigger site in Tottenham followed in 2007.
The following year saw two key growth-influencing factors: joining the Sugro buying group, which offered stronger connections with key suppliers and support from fellow members;
and the recession of the UK economy.
We export British soft drinks and confectionery brands to Europe, Asia and the Americas. It is a good concept to sell to the world
About this, Uludag says: “Up until the recession, people were buying more European stock. When sterling lost value, they turned to British stock instead. Lots of other conditions came in our favour, too. Interest rates went down, which meant we could afford to borrow money cheaply and the units next to us became empty, as the companies there could not cope with the recession, so we took them on.”
RA soon became a £16m company operating from a 21,000sq ft site. But wanting to purchase a freehold, the firm moved to its present home in Enfield last year.
RA posted a £22m turnover in 2017 and Uludag hopes to record an even bigger figure next year, barring any further obstacles such as the CO2 shortage. The firm’s 21 members of staff serve a customer base that is 60% foodservice, alongside other customers such as small chains of local supermarkets and the proverbial white van man.
Amid margin pressures and other trade-slowing factors, RA has sought refuge in growing exports sales. Uludag says: “We decided to go into export when sterling lost value and trade started going the other way. Now it accounts for 10% of sales. We export British soft drinks and confectionery brands to Europe, Asia and the Americas. It is a good concept to sell to the world.”
As for how the company stands out from the giants of the trade, Uludag says: “The difference is that we do most of what they do, but we have individual channels with the customers. When they ring us, they want to speak to one of the other directors. They call and WhatsApp us, and if they want to come to our offices, then my door is always open to them, and they know that. In addition, we serve to a segment that wants a tailor-made order. They want us to supply them with 90-95% of their soft drinks needs at an affordable price with a reliable service. We only have about 2,000 lines, rather than thousands upon thousands, but that makes us highly efficient.”
The soft drinks industry levy did hit business, but RA is seeing it as an opportunity. “In the long run, it will settle the market,” Uludag suggests. “We try to work closely with our customers and suppliers. We are doing more promotions on the low- and no-sugar items, and we are going with the flow. Our duty is to increase the sales and profitability of the products that are pushed by the suppliers, which I believe are doing their best. Coca-Cola European Partners is pushing the Coca-Cola Zero Sugar line, which is a good seller for us. And Britvic has done a great job on Pepsi Max, which seems to outsell Pepsi, encouragingly.”
The ‘ambiguity’ around Brexit ‘scares’ Uludag and his fellow directors. Trade with European partners has proven to be highly beneficial for RA and there is concern that the UK exiting the EU will hurt this.
The other challenge standing in the way of further growth is technology. “We want to increase investment in technology, but it is becoming more expensive to do so,” Uludag says. “Even something like setting up a good, functional website is prohibitive. For the same kind of sum, I could invest in a truck that would serve us well for up to seven years.”
While many customers place their orders by phone, RA’s flexible and agile set-up means that unlike its national competitors, customers can place orders by text message, email and WhatsApp or in person. It is also working on an order-and-collect service, too.
Uludag believes RA is well placed to succeed in the future. He says: “The location for us is important. It is getting harder and more expensive to go to central London, and to serve London. We believe we are a young enough and flexible enough company to adapt to the changing situation. If needed, we would go to a 24-hour operation, doing deliveries overnight to central and Greater London, as and when the lower-emission zone expands. We are ready for changes like this.”
To ensure it continually meets the demands of its customers, RA is applying for an alcohol licence. Despite the fact those who want it only view alcohol as a complementary item, RA wants to ensure that even this need is covered.
Uludag concludes with an example that illustrates the importance of showing your customers a can-do attitude. “We serve a lot of festivals, and more than ever this year, our predictions were never right,” he says. “On weekends, we had customers calling, asking: ‘Can we get another two pallets, please?’ Opportunities to do more trade do exist, and it is only by putting yourself out there and being seen to be flexible that you get them.”
60 Seconds With Niyazi Uludag
What is the best piece of business advice you can offer?
Building and maintaining relationships is very important, so make sure you concentrate on this.
What is your philosophy with regards to work?
Be transparent and be honest. Our psychology is that we always deliver and we like to be 100% confident in what we do.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
When I worked in Turkey, my sales director was very calm. The Turkish economy at that time had major problems. He managed to sail the boat smoothly, though, and his calming presence had a positive effect on our team.
What do you get up to in your spare time?
I have two daughters and we try to do family things together. At weekends, we go to the park, swim, see shows and go out for meals. I quite like music, too, and I have recently started to learn the clarinet.