Good buying decisions can make all the difference between wholesalers earning huge profits and their businesses folding. Top wholesalers tell Elit Rowland what good buyers are made of – and how to make them even better.
Good wholesaling comes down to how well you buy – if you don’t buy well, you don’t have a business. Buying is the strategic core of the operation, where good decisions mean a lucrative pay off and bad decisions are detrimental to all parties involved.
“Buying competitively is absolutely critical to success within the wholesale sector,” says Martin Williams, managing director of Landmark and chairman of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD).
It’s where products and deals are won or lost, where relationships can be built or broken, and ultimately where a wholesaler earns its bread and butter.
“The discounts that are agreed between a buyer and a supplier are the profit that pays for everything, from lighting and food to staff and electricity,” says Total Negotiation’s Paul Duckworth, previously a senior buyer at Booker.
Bestway category controller Haleem Sadiq agrees: “Ultimately, it will be your decisions and judgement that will have an impact on the bottom line.”
Add to that a highly-competitive trading environment, with high overheads and low margins, and getting the first step of the buying process right has never been more important.
“Wholesale is a mature and competitive market, and you have to run twice as hard to stay in the same place,” says Dharma Bhamra, a buyer at world food specialist Wanis. “The moment you get comfortable, your competitors will move ahead.”
What makes a good buyer
Education versus experience?
So what are the essential ingredients of a good buyer? The age-old table thumping, pushy-salesman techniques may still be working for some traditional wholesalers, but the best operators are building teams of number-crunching academics and hard-core grafters who have worked their way from the ground up.
“You need a blend of highly academic people and those who have been there and done it already,” says Duckworth. “Look at people who have been successful in the past: Tesco’s Terry Leahy worked from the ground up, whereas Sainsbury’s Justin King came through from a fast-track graduate programme. You need a team of mixed talent.”
And testament to how far being ‘hands on’ can get you is JW Filshill’s senior buyer Stuart Harrison, who joined the Glasgow-based delivered wholesaler aged 16, starting in the warehouse and working his way through the ranks to land a senior buyer role.
“I started as an assistant buyer – it was great for my knowledge and experience because I got to spend time with other buyers across different categories. Then I progressed to a buying role in impulse and now a senior role in grocery.”
Bestway’s Haleem Sadiq graduated with an honours degree in economics and joined Bestway’s graduate scheme. He says that while education has helped his career to an extent, the majority of his learning has been on the job.
“The senior buyers at Bestway have been with the group for up to 20 years – it’s given me a lot of life experience to benefit from,” he says.
At JJ Food Service, the purchasing team is made entirely of business graduates, but chief product officer Ali Guvemli says that being honest and hard-working is just as important as academic credentials.
“We are increasing our purchasing team by 50% and whether you are highly qualified or not, everyone will start at the same level and earn their way up.”
Guvemli started at JJ as a regular buyer – who just happened to have an MBA in business – and progressed through five internal buying levels to head up the team.
“Our buyers need to know our business inside out – promoting people from within is a good way to recognise, reward and retain talent.”