Charles Saunders grows by spotting opportunities – then grabbing them. Martyn Fisher reports.

Having set up in business at the age of 17 and after going through a period where he held down three jobs, Darren Gaulton is no stranger to grafting. So the threat of a Tesco-powered Booker growing its market share in catering does not faze the managing director of Charles Saunders Food Service.

Not that he believes the retail giant will succeed in this side of the market, though. “A lot of customers do not want to deal with huge multinational companies. As long as we can compete on price, they want to go with independents, as we tend to offer a better service,” he says. “From a business point of view, I can see why Tesco did it. But we are not particularly afraid of the scenario.”

Fighting talk, indeed. So what of Charles Saunders? It dates back to the 1950s and was originally a fish wholesaler. Gaulton’s former boss, Chris Scott, bought the business in 1983. He expanded it to sell a range of foodservice goods and moved it to a site in central Bristol.

After running his own fish market stall in Weston-super-Mare, Gaulton joined Charles Saunders in 1989, aged 18. He says: “I had always been very entrepreneurial, but working with someone like Chris who gave me good guidance was useful.”

By his own admission, Gaulton got itchy feet after a while. “I was thinking, ‘I do not want to do this for the rest of my life,’” he says. “So I began buying property. I had three jobs, working in a nightclub and a pub alongside my full-time job, and that got me the cash to have a nice asset in the background.”

In 2007, Scott wanted to retire from Charles Saunders and Gaulton led a management buyout of the business. In 2012, the opportunity arose to buy local competitor Good Morning Foods & Disposables. Gaulton was keen. The catch? It was far bigger, with 85 members of staff to Charles Saunders’ 35. But Gaulton and his team overcame the complications to seal the deal.

The next significant move for the business came last year, when it acquired premises in Yate, South Gloucestershire, from national foodservice wholesaler Brakes. After nine months of refurbishment, Gaulton and his team moved in in November. It is now the business’ main site, supplemented by a satellite depot in Poole, Dorset, and has expanded Charles Saunders’ capacity by 30%.

Gaulton’s thirst for acquisitions has not been fully quenched and he is looking into acquiring two more satellite depots in the next 18 months – one in south Wales, one in the Midlands.

He adds: “I am adamant I do not want to be a national business, though – I am happy to be regional.”

Charles Saunders has around 2,000 ‘live’ customers, including schools, hospitals, nursing homes, pubs, restaurants, cafés, and – through the non-foods business – tattoo parlours. The business employs 118 staff and delivers using a fleet of 35 vehicles. Projected turnover for the year to September 2018 is £22m, up 6% on the previous year.

Gaulton attributes the growth of the business to his staff. A transformative moment came when Brakes closed its sales office in the southwest a few years ago, leading to several key members of staff jumping ship to join Charles Saunders. In the past few weeks, Gaulton has hired three former members of Palmer & Harvey’s management team, too.

He says: “We do not want to be a blue-chip business. In 2007, I was the kingpin, managing everything. But when you grow, one person cannot do every role anymore. Bringing people in from other businesses has been fundamental to our growth.”

Gaulton sees a bright future for regional independent wholesalers, citing successes enjoyed across the UK by the likes of Holdsworth Foods, Castell Howell Foods and Harlech Foodservice.

“There is only so much business out there, but the independents are getting better, aided by our membership of buying consortiums, such as our group, Fairway Foodservice, which gives better cost pricing and terms and conditions with bigger manufacturers,” he says. “Now we can compete on an even playing field. Independent wholesale has a bright future, just so long as we all remain innovative.”

Gaulton is keenly aware of the importance of unique selling points and believes his business has a few, including its fresh fish arm: “It is not big in turnover, but it is a great talking point and door-opener to customers. A lot of our competitors cannot do it.

“Another key area is non-foods. A lot of food wholesalers have realised that 25% of what people buy in the kitchen is non-foods, and there is a big market for people supplying chemicals, mops, buckets and blue roll.”

Online ordering is growing each month. November 2017 saw the website generate £300,000 in orders – a new record for the business, which soon plans to roll out an app to its customers. Gaulton is keen for 30-50% of the business’ orders to be coming through the website or app in 18 months’ time. “Customers who place orders online tend to shop more and the average orders tend to grow,” he notes.

Like most wholesalers, the firm has challenges with recruitment, particularly drivers. To tackle this, two years ago, it started its own driving academy, which brings staff through the warehouse over 12 months, before they enter HGV training. Gaulton says that the scheme has now produced the business’ best drivers, aided by the fact that they know the products inside out.

Another challenge is the push away from plastics. “I think that is going to be a massive point in our industry, and the ones who have the right products at the right prices and who can switch people across will do successfully over the next few years,” he says. “We think we are there or thereabouts. We have a green brochure, explaining to people what these terms all mean. It is a great opportunity.”


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