New Select Drinks MD Holly Magnus tells Martyn Fisher about how the relatively new wholesale business has grown, and what its plans to expand are.
The past decade has seen challenger brands make major gains in sectors dominated by giant, seemingly firmly-rooted businesses – think BrewDog, Ovo Energy and Dollar Shave Club.
Mark Feneron was in a similar vessel when he started Select Cash & Carry in Norwich, Norfolk, in 2010. His alcohol-wholesale venture was launched in a market that had a well-established arm of the UK’s biggest wholesaler, Booker Wholesale, along with two other long-running, medium-sized regional drinks distributors.
Under Feneron – who also runs a business exporting large volumes of British products to countries all over the world, including the booming Chinese market – Select initially sold beer to corner shops in and around Norwich.
A move to a new site – the business’ current 20,000sq ft home – and a diversification into wines and spirits saw Select venture into the on-trade market, servicing clients in both the wider Norfolk area and the neighbouring county of Suffolk.
Holly Magnus was one of several employees who joined the business as it was on the up, starting life at Select working in accounts administration in 2012. She says: “After a while of getting to know the business from a financial point of view, I moved into a role that involved directly supporting the general manager of the business at the time. That manager then decided to move on and so I was offered her position. Then, in January this year, with Mark wanting to focus on his business with China, I was offered the managing director’s position.”
Magnus’s rise to the top of a wholesaler that’s going places is even more impressive, given that she joined Select as an industry rookie.
“I worked in a secure hospital for a couple of years,” she says. “Before that I was a supervisor in a learning disability residential home.”
The move into accounting “wasn’t something I left school and had a burning desire to do,” Magnus admits. “I got the qualifications and fell into it. But you reach a point where you think you’d like a change, so I undertook several accountancy courses, became AAT-qualified and, well, it’s been quite successful since then.”
At present, Select has around 300 customers and Magnus is determined to make further in-roads into Suffolk. Competition from Booker and the aforementioned two local drinks distributors, Lacons and VC Vintners, remains fierce.
That Select has managed to get to its current position is therefore commendable – but how does it continue its ascendancy? Expanding the company’s product range is one way, and cask ales and on-trade wine in particular are current focuses. Thanks to a close relationship with a supplier, Select is offering several exclusive wine lines to its on-trade customers – products that no other wholesaler in the area can offer.
The overriding plan to stand out from the crowd, though, is simple enough in principle. Magnus stresses: “We absolutely have to be the best at what we do. We made a decision not to go down different routes, as it’s very tempting to go into, say, the sundry market. But we decided that that market is saturated in every shape and form, so we just want to specialise in what we think we are the best at doing.
“We’re a small team, so when our customers call up, they know who they’re speaking to at the end of the phone. If they think, ‘I want this product, where can I get it?’, they’re not going to go and ring Booker. So there is an opportunity for us because of this. It’s all about the personal service that comes with having a small but unified team.”
As any wholesale leader with a small team will know, ensuring your staff consists of the best possible individuals is critical. And Magnus is hoping that her recent appointment of former Samuel Smith’s Brewery man James Maher as Select’s new sales director is another way in which the wholesaler is going to hit ever greater heights.
Maher says: “My background is in sales, but I’d also been a multi-site operator and I’ve been in the licensed trade for over 30 years. We feel that together, it’s a great opportunity to take this young company to a different level. But it’s not a 100-metre sprint – we want to do it steadily, at a good pace, and to build the business.
“If you go too fast, you’ll lose your customer service. In rural Norfolk, where we rely on referrals with our small sales team, that reputation is so important, as ultimately, we can all be ‘there or thereabouts’ when it comes down to price.”
Select posted a turnover of £2.6m last year, but £3m is forecast for this year.
Magnus notes: “The turnover needs to grow every year. We’re looking at logistics in terms of the areas we do cover or could cover. The margins are very tight, and we have to make sure vehicles going further afield are at full capacity. We’ve got two 7.5-tonne lorries and a van that services the city centre, to which we offer same-day delivery. We want to see those vehicles full every day and in time, we will look at increasing the fleet.”
Magnus and Maher want customers to refer to the business – which is 95% delivered – as Select Drinks, dropping the ‘Cash & Carry’ element of the name: “This is because we deal with the on-trade more than shops and because it sounds more specialist,” Magnus says.
She is brutally honest about another element of the business that needs to improve: “Our website is awful,” Magnus admits. “I cringe and want to climb under the desk every time somebody says ‘I saw on your website…’ The plan is for it to have an overhaul from a website designer and we are in early-stage discussions with one.”
In fairness, I’ve seen worse wholesaler websites than Select’s. But that Magnus is in the process of taking action in this area, along with the other moves she is making to grow the business, highlights that Select, the new kid on the block, has a bright future.
Magnus is one of very few female wholesale MDs. But she doesn’t believe this situation has made life difficult for her in the workplace: “When Mark was the MD and I was general manager, he was in the background, and I really did and still do run the show,” she says.
“All the staff had a lot of respect for the last manager, and it took time to get that respect after she left. But I really feel that they come to me, they ask for my advice, they’re open and honest, and therefore, there’s no challenges there in terms of being a female MD.”
60 seconds with Holly Magnus
What’s the best piece of business advice that you can offer?
Don’t run before you can walk. You can see customers drop off when you’re too focused on the future.
What is your philosophy in regards to work?
It’s simple – you only get out what you put in.
What’s your favourite thing about working at Select Drinks?
It’s the team spirit, which to me, is everything. I feel that it has grown since I’ve been director and communication is a big part of that – coming in and speaking to everyone as you arrive, for example; we also have a team meeting every Monday morning, and while we discuss work, we also have a laugh.
What do you get up to in your spare time?
I’ve got three daughters – two teenagers and one three-year-old – so they keep me pretty busy. Apart from that, I like wine – enjoying tastings, and also socialising with it.