Chris Binge is the chief executive of Fairway Foodservice
What have you learnt from the past twelve months from the perspective of running a wholesale operation?
The key thing I have learned from running a buying and marketing operation and working with 20 foodservice wholesalers is how “entrepreneurial” privately owned businesses are in the face of adversity and how much that contrasts with the civil service.
Despite three lockdowns with little or no notice, the closure of the majority of the members customers, the complex and changing tier systems, changing rules for workplace H&S and very little direct Government help for the businesses each has found new markets, new customers and changed working practices to “survive”. I have learned that the Government has little or no understanding of industry outside of the big companies and cannot organise “any project” to work to an agreed timetable or budget- thank heavens the major drugs companies are privately owned and will ultimately be our salvation.
Having said that the vaccination programme is an unquestionable success – whether the involvement of the army has anything to do with that I don’t know? Most of us – personally and health-wise, will get through this pandemic not because of Government actions but actually despite Government actions and private enterprise will deliver us from this plague on our lives. The cost of the Governments actions will be a blight on generations to come.
What I have discovered is that the majority of suppliers to our businesses are understanding of the issues and helpful but there are a few – mostly the bigger brands who have a strong retail presence who seem oblivious to the issues foodservice wholesalers face – in fact the vast majority of people have become more understanding and more tolerant of problems caused by covid-19 with staff and supply issues.
How has your business changed since the pandemic hit?
Office- one person visits the office weekly to check post and security, we have all been in the office less than six times in the last 11 months. There have been no supplier factory visits.
Travel- collectively we will have reduced road miles by at least 100,000 miles over the last 12 months simply by working from home.
Technology- working from home really can work with video conferencing but a balance is needed and when we are through the pandemic we will have a more balanced approach because “office time” with colleagues is good for morale and keeps the team ethos intact and “sampling” new products in a collective to share views is essential. We have web based systems and use web based data bases which can be accessed from any location at any time allowing us to update files for Members to use in real time. Covid-19 will also act as a catalyst to speed up the transition to digital marketing, digital product information, digital selling and hasten the demise of “paper brochures and price lists”- which is a benefit to the environment as well as a significant cost saving.
Teams Video Meetings on set day and time every week for all the team are invaluable – social chat as well as business issue discussions and plans can be conducted by video reasonably well. “Meetings” with suppliers can be conducted by video perfectly well and also with groups eg our Members to discuss topics as well as formal meetings like AGM and EGM.
Trust- I have always had a high degree of trust in my team- trust to do the job to the best of their abilities and we all work towards individual and collective results using objectives and targets so there is no issue for me with “where” anyone works from-its all about agreeing the objectives and achieving the results.
Environment- working from home is better for our environment, less miles driven, less energy used in the office this has to be one of the most important consequences of the “new” working ways.
Staff- there are four less in our team now because our income is directly linked to foodservice and has suffered substantially over the last 12 months and so we had to make redundancies. The job functions have been re allocated but some tasks have simply not been done over the last six months- we have to focus on the essential and not the “nice to have”.
As we hopefully head into a post-Covid world, what advice/tips can you offer from what you’ve experienced?
I regularly undertake SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) and PEST (Political, Economic, Social, Technological) analyses on our business and I am pretty sure no one could have predicted the closure of “all” foodservice outlets for an extended period of time under any risk analysis of business- it’s a whole industry which closed with “no notice” so its really hard to find a lesson in risk assessment to forecast such a dramatic situation and how to be prepared. The situation with Government actions made it impossible to plan anything other than short term and have to react to circumstances as they changed- all businesses have to adapt to change but change is usually something which takes some time to evolve in foodservice and not “immediate”.
What lessons can be learned form the last 12 months?
Digital- businesses can continue to operate and communicate with Customers (and find new customers and opportunities) using digital marketing
Data- once you find your customers having data is crucial to knowing your customer and being able to offer the right products and services to help them
Delivery-everyone wants everything delivered and this trend wont stop