There are not many 17-year-olds who join a business, and within a decade, find themselves running it.
Wholesale ‘lifer’ Tony Cox, though, is one of those people.
As the Splendour Wholesale MD himself puts it: “I started driving a van for a fella when I first got my driving licence; I then ended up taking over from him when I was 26.”
Cox’s dad, Barry, used to deliver for Cadbury’s. One of his customers was Splendour Snacks in Barnet, as the business was then known.
According to Cox, during one of his delivery rounds, his dad asked Splendour owner Gerry Brothers if there was any work going for his young son. The teenage Cox joined the company soon after, and has been there ever since.
Brothers, from whom Cox eventually purchased the business, is now 86 years old. Cox still speaks to him on the phone every day, and views these conversations with his mentor as vitally important: “He still advises me, and I use him as a bit of a sounding board. For me, that relationship is so important to have.”
Barnet boy Cox helped oversee the move from the London borough to Watford in 1989, taking advantage of the opportunity to acquire bigger premises. Splendour remained on the same site in the Hertfordshire town until two years ago, when it moved to a new site in Watford. More change then followed last year, when Cox changed Splendour to a limited company, and brought in two business partners.
The changes did not stop there, either. Cox says: “I upgraded my entire IT system. I used to have a bespoke system, and I had a fella working for me for 25 years, right from the start. He did all my book-keeping, and everything like that, really. But he decided to retire, which left me in a situation. While it was all working alright, I didn’t bother touching it, although I probably should have acted on updating it sooner.”
Upon becoming a limited company, Cox changed the firm’s name to Splendour Wholesale. Explaining the decision, he says: “It did used to be mainly snacks and crisps, and now it has gone more towards drinks and bigger volumes. While we still do a lot of crisps, we do more in drinks now than we do confectionery. It is just the way customer demand has gone.”
While pricemarked packs (PMPs) have become something of a bête noire for some wholesalers, Cox is a big fan, even if it affects Splendour’s efforts to keep its range as streamline as possible: “We still have a lot of contract work and local authority work, so we have to do parallel lines,” he says. “There are so many lines now that do both areas, and it is impossible to carry all of them. It would be heaven for me if the suppliers said, ‘we will only do pricemarks’.”
Splendour, which is a delivered-only operation, has consistently posted a turnover of around £10m for the last few years. Cox candidly admits that he is contented with the position the business currently finds itself in. He says: “I have been doing it for 25 years. If it grows a little bit, I’m not fussed. I’m happy with the size of it. I don’t want to sound negative, but I have a lot more years in wholesale behind me than I have in front of me. I have done all the 4am-9pm shifts, the seven-days-a-week weeks, and all the hard times. I still work hard – I have always had a strong work ethic. That is how we got to where we are today. But I don’t want to kill myself wholesaling. I do enjoy it – and to continue feeling that way, whilst enjoying my life, is my goal.”
Splendour became a member of the Sugro buying group in 2005. Cox refers to the move as “a massive, massive thing, and I don’t believe for a second we would be where we are today without them.” He attributes that to Sugro’s transparency, access to national account managers, and networking opportunities.
Although Splendour has an online ordering system in the pipeline from Sugro, Cox declares himself “a salesman at heart”, and he still gets out and sees customers most days. The customer base, which consists of shops, gyms, offices, leisure centres, and schools in and around London, among other business types, is also serviced by two full-time sales reps. Cox says: “We always try and give everyone a rep call. It gives you an advantage. If you are there, you have got a lot more chance of closing the sale. There is room for work on the phone, but a personal contact is second to none.”
He adds: “We’re in a strong position. The wholesale sector is good for people like us, who are established. I know how difficult it is to deal with suppliers sometimes. So if you have not got that reputation, or credit facility, it must be impossible. But at least if you are established, you are actually in a position to deal with suppliers.”
The supplier difficulties that Cox talks about have come to the fore recently, with one FMCG manufacturer allegedly owing Splendour a six-figure sum dating back to March 2016. Cox notes: “I think that some suppliers, and not all of them, can bully us a bit. I don’t know if they would get away with doing it to the big wholesalers. If they were chasing us for money instead, and we came out with excuses like the ones they give us, they would send the bailiffs round.”
While Cox admits that he might well have retired in ten years’ time, the next generation of the family could live on in the business. Cox’s 17-year-old son is in the midst of an apprenticeship, while his daughter, 22, is currently working towards a master’s in marketing. Nothing is set in stone, but Cox admits that both may work with Splendour in some capacity in the future.
Reflecting on his career, Cox pauses to mention the colleagues who have helped him “since day one”: Finbarr Daly, Dave Webb, Keith Brothers, and Tony Bannister. He also notes how he could not have achieved all that he has in the wholesale industry without the support of his wife, Margaret, and the continued input of his dad: “Splendour would not be where it is today without their help, and from my wife at home,” Cox concludes.
60 seconds with Tony Cox
What is the best piece of business advice you can offer?
I don’t buy anything that I can’t afford myself – if you have not got it, make do with what you have got until you can get it.
What is your philosophy in regards to work?
Hard work is healthy, but holidays are healthy, too. When I first took over, I did not have holidays for years. And that is why I now realise the importance of them.
What is your biggest business mistake?
I wish I had bought the site next door to us. Maybe it is not my biggest mistake – I bought some houses instead. But it was perhaps a decision I should have made.
What do you like to get up to in your spare time?
Golf, holidays – I was in Sri Lanka a few weeks ago, and last year I went to Japan, Atlanta, and New York (below), among other places. I have got a season ticket at Arsenal FC, too.