Peter Blakemore tells Tan Parsons that the way to win is specialisation
It is almost 50 years since Peter Blakemore joined the family business. In that time, AF Blakemore & Son has expanded and diversified through a mixture of organic growth and acquisition, and now has businesses spanning delivered wholesale and cash & carry, serving both retail and foodservice customers. The group has consistently been ahead of the curve, visionary even, but above all, it is a family business, and at its head is Peter Blakemore.
The industry has changed out of all recognition since he began his career. To put it in perspective, calculators didn’t exist back then and it was an ongoing challenge to work out the value of a purchase order from a supplier.
Fast AF Blakemore Facts
8,000 members of staff
£1.3bn expected turnover for 2014/15
Founded in 1917
Sectors: Cash & carry, delivered, foodservice
But for all the technological changes since that time, Blakemore says if he were doing it again, he would take the same approach as the one that has worked so well over the years.
“To achieve growth like we’ve had, you’ve got to find new ways of serving the big markets with new ideas,” he says. “Test them and roll them out.”
The speed of communications today makes it difficult to develop ideas in secret, he says, and the way to win is through specialisation.
“Probably what I’d need to do if I was someone else starting again is to take a different approach. I might pick a niche market and become really good at it.”
Moving away from the ‘one size fits all’ approach over the next five years will mean being open to change and innovation – an area where wholesalers have an advantage over the multiples, according to Blakemore. This is because their customers – the independent retailers and foodservice operators they serve – have proven to be a hotbed of innovation.
He cites Walthamstow retailer James Brundle as a great example of an innovative entrepreneur. But in testing your ideas, you have to be prepared to make some mistakes, he warns.
“If you’re going to change and innovate, which is part of our DNA at Blakemore, you’re not always going to get it right, so you make mistakes, learn quickly, change and do something different.”
[pull_quote_right]I think stores of 30,000-40,000 sq ft will continue to do well. But their vision of being all-encompassing retailers has changed forever[/pull_quote_right]
The past couple of years have been torrid for the big four supermarkets, with disappointing results and market share pinched by both premium operators and discounters. But Blakemore says it would be premature to write them off, not least because there will always be a market for range.
“It doesn’t mean to say that the big boxes are going to be dead, certainly at the smaller end,” he says.
“I think stores of 30,000-40,000sq ft will continue to do well. But their vision of being all-encompassing retailers has changed forever.”
Despite the challenges faced by the big four supermarkets, he says wholesalers face a serious threat from the multiples’ growing c‑store estates.
The reason convenience is expanding so quickly is that consumers now ‘get’ the 70-30 rule that 70% of sales come from 30% of the lines, he says.
60 seconds with Peter Blakemore
Team: I’m a Wolves season ticket holder Music: I’m a big fan of Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. And the Rolling Stones. It all went wrong after punk Hobbies: Walking. I was in a mountaineering club for 10 years and used to go away to the Alps Favourite meal: Anything that’s modern British
Last book I read: Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey
Favourite place: I’m a keen traveller. I once hitch-hiked to Baghdad. But my favourite place is Europe
Most important lesson learned: Have a vision and keep at it until you prove it’s right or it doesn’t work and you drop it
“Consumers now buy that and understand it. They know that they can get, say, 70% of their needs in a convenience store.”
Suppliers have a role to play in making sure the independent sector stays strong. What he would like to see from them is not necessarily more point-of-sale material or category education for retailers – after all, changing the face of retail is what AF Blakemore does.
“I think it’s more to do with trading issues – I’m looking at it through a Spar lens,” he says.
It is always a concern when a Tesco Express or Sainsbury’s Local opens next door to a great Spar store, and it would help if there were more of a level playing field in terms of product and price.
“I think suppliers will get a great return from our sector. It’s important to keep a vibrant independent sector, because although the multiples can do well, as a supplier, I wouldn’t want to have five customers that have got 80% to 90% of my manufacturing capacity.”
There is still plenty of opportunity for independents, however. What’s more, he believes competitive pressures in the market will gradually ease over the next five to 10 years as the supermarkets’ c-stores increasingly cannibalise each other’s trade.
“We’ve got to make sure our independent retailers survive – there’s a lot of tough competition now but there’s also a great opportunity for independent retailers if they can play to their advantages.”
Where wholesalers and independent retailers can do well against online and discounters is in specialising in fresh foods and tonight’s dinner, he says. And Spar is well placed to deliver on both counts.
“I think we’ve got to ask: within the symbol sector, what are we good at and how do we stack up against the rest? I think we’ve got the best brand, best own-label and the best fresh foods. We’re right on that trend so that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
With such a vast and diverse business, there was a concern that the values for which AF Blakemore stands could become watered down. So in 2007, the group defined its purpose under ‘The Blakemore Way’: to grow a family business in ways that are profitable and sustainable, for the benefit of staff, customers and community.
“There are two things to running a business – what you do and how you do it,” says Blakemore. “We are still a family-owned business. Most of our competitors are PLCs, particularly at our size, but we think our heritage and roots are a point of difference for us and where we get competitive advantage from.”
The business has a huge programme of management and staff education and training. “This is what we stand for. It’s really changed the business. There’s no point putting the plaque on the wall and not living by it.”