Julie Bevan tells Cerelie Doyle how she went from bingo halls to the Blakemore board of directors.
CD: Tell us a bit more about your role at Blakemore Wholesale
JB: I work as the finance director at Blakemore Wholesale, so I’m solely responsible for finance side of the business; that’s all the management accounts, looking at any new contracts that are coming on board, any new customers and most of all making sure we’re making a profit.
What are the key roles in finance in wholesale?
It’s split into three areas: you’ve got the commercial finance side, which is all about new contracts and debt insurance, then you’ve got the role of the management accounting, which is basically pulling all the numbers together at the end of the month, so looking at sales down to profit. Then there’s the complex side of business, which is all around the taxation side.
Where have you worked in the past?
While studying full time after I left school, I actually worked part time in a bingo hall as a cashier, to make some money, evenings and weekends. Then from there I studied and went on to get a junior accounts role in an office, and worked my way up from there. Prior to Blakemore I worked for Poundland for 11 years, heading up their finance department.
How did you manage to get from a cashier in a bingo hall to working in wholesale?
I always wanted to stay in finance and I qualified as a chartered accountant. I did start off in audit, but I didn’t like the audit side of finance, because you go into different companies and just check their work, so I wanted to get into industry, and the retail sector did float my boat. It was dynamic, challenging, and great to see all the different products coming in, so that’s why I began in retail. My next step up from retail was then finance director at Blakemore.
How can wholesalers differentiate themselves from the multiple retailers?
Being up against the multiples, like Tesco, is one of the biggest challenges for our retail customers, so it’s all about being price competitive. That’s what we aim to do; give them a price that they can then sell their products at and make a good margin.
What is your proudest moment within wholesale?
When we have won a big contract – because there’s a lot of hard work that goes into that, and I find it very rewarding when we win. We’ve have had a few wins over the past 12 months, including Bourne Leisure contract, which covers supplying all the Butlins and Warner hotels. Last year, we also had Road Chef come on board, which was worth £12million.
And what role does finance play in the tendering process?
It’s all about pulling the numbers together and what the profitability would look like from a contract, so making sure we’re going to make a profit from it, but also that our offer is right for the customer.
How do you recruit new people into finance in wholesale?
To be honest we tend to go to recruitment agencies, and it’s different agencies for different levels. I have to say it has been a difficult and challenging market in finance – people haven’t been moving around as much as they would do. What we used to see in the past is people wanting to progress quickly, and people have been more nervous about moving companies, but that is picking up now.
What is the work ‘culture’ like at Blakemore?
It’s really different to somewhere like Poundland where you either got on with the job or you’re out the door. Blakemore is more about developing a sense of community spirit and focusing on the customer.
What is it like working in a ‘male-dominated’ environment?
They [the men] all sulk a lot! Probably because I come in and take over! I’d like to think that I’m not treated any differently to the others, being a woman, and the only woman on the Blakemore board. More women should come in and work on the board. But we’re all generally treated the same and we all work together as a team.
How would you sell a job in wholesale to a woman?
I think for me, particularly with Blakemore, it’s about the business, and you don’t get many businesses with substantial growth year on year, and it’s all the acquisition. It’s not so much about the people it’s about the opportunity that you can go after.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge of your career?
Some aspects of the time I spent at Poundland. It was a family business and they decided to sell the business on, which was a shame because I loved working with them. It was sold on to a Venture Capitalist, so I worked hard on all the due diligence work and the prospectus, but as well as working for the buyer, you’re working for the seller as well, and that was really challenging. Everything was very hush-hush, and nobody actually knew anything until the sale went through. After that, the business just changed overnight.
Which do you prefer?
The family-run business, how it was before, because they make decisions based on their beliefs, whereas with a venture capitalist, it’s all about profit. People don’t come into it; it’s a numbers game.
If you looked back at your past careers, do you think you would do anything differently?
I’ve really enjoyed everything that I have done. I do thrive on the retail and wholesale industries; it’s one of those that you either love it or hate it. For me, I just love working in this environment and I love finance, so I don’t think I would have changed anything.
Has any aspect of working in wholesale changed since you first began working in the industry?
Wholesale is about the customer service, but it’s also looking forward as well, so a lot of things that we’re concentrating on now is our IT strategy. That’s what’s really influenced how our customers order products – it’s just moving so fast. We are seeing more and more ordering happening online, rather than actually customers coming into the cash & carry. You’ve really have got to be ahead of the game.