Ellie Krupa explains why she returned to wholesale after eight years with the multiples
ER : Tell us more about your role at Premier Foods.
EK: I started my career in sales at Walkers selling packets of crisps out the back of my car to independent retailers. Then I moved into wholesale as a sales rep, working for Walkers and United Biscuits for eight years. I followed this with a role at Britvic, working closely with multiple retailers. I mostly recently returned to wholesale when I took up the role with Premier Foods last January. I manage foodservice, discounters, impulse and wholesale, and my job is to define and articulate the strategy and long-term vision for these channels.
What’s it like returning to wholesale after so long with the multiples?
I was surprised to see so many familiar faces after such a long time away. It’s nice to come back to a business that has a different way of doing things – wholesale is very social and the channel’s approach to working with suppliers is more collaborative and relationship driven.
Your job involves having to deal with big personalities like Charles Wilson, Martin Williams and Bill Laird – what’s that like?
They’re all very different in character – in fact they couldn’t be further apart – but they are all similar in the passion they show for the channel and their customers.
It’s good to see that all the groups are now looking at a differentiated foodservice strategy, even though retail has previously dominated the agenda.
What can wholesalers do to improve their service to customers?
There’s lots of opportunity for both retailers and wholesalers to think more about shopper behaviour – we know that people are doing more frequent, smaller shops.
But do retailers have the solutions to respond to this? Retailers need to offer the right ambient grocery and fresh ranges.
Consumers will look at the fresh offering in a retailer’s store and will make an immediate judgement about that store, so anything they can do to improve this will give them a real advantage.
It’s not that independent retailers can’t do it – wholesalers are upping their game in this area. Retailers just need to take advantage of it.
How can wholesalers help retailers to differentiate themselves?
Value-perception is important and price-marked packs are important here. Shoppers trust price-marks and promotional activity.
Ensuring you have a point of difference from major multiples is also important. Retailers may not be able to offer as wide a fresh range as their local multiples, for instance, so they need to find other ways to differentiate themselves.
Personal service and community involvement are ways that symbols and independent stores can have an advantage over the multiples. Wholesalers must think about whether they are supporting retailers in doing this.
What’s your proudest moment in wholesale?
Last year, Premier Foods won Landmark’s Top Grocery Supplier award and the Most Improved Supplier of the Year award. On the foodservice side, we were also awarded Most Improved Supplier of the Year.
From a personal perspective, I was delighted to have been invited to be on the Federation of Wholesale Distributors’ Supplier Council this year – it will be a really useful way for me to get a better understanding of the channel.
How do you go about recruiting and retaining talent?
We have no problems recruiting talent, but we shouldn’t be too precious about trying to retain people in one channel. There’s nothing wrong with moving across channels because you get a better breadth of experience that way. If people are genuinely talented, they are going to be ambitious and work across a variety of areas. And we fully encourage this.
Booker always says to us ‘we want the best people working on our account’, but the best people are going to be the ones who want to progress. It’s not a bad thing – I went away and brought back a wealth of experience.
Does that mean there aren’t enough opportunities for development in wholesale?
It depends on the supplier and the sector. Quite a significant proportion of our business sits with the multiples. We have quite a flat structure so if people want to develop their careers, they need to take a sideways move before they can step up.
What’s it like working in a male-dominated environment?
I’ve always felt comfortable working in wholesale and I’ve always been made to feel welcome, but attracting and recruiting other women has been a bit of a struggle.
Saying that, it’s certainly improved compared with many years ago. The recent Today’s conference in Rome, for instance, was very different to the last Today’s event I went to about 16 years ago. This time people brought their families and there was a mixture of people socialising – it’s not just a ‘boys’ weekend’ any more.
What’s been the biggest challenge in your career to date?
Many years ago, I spent time in Poland running a small business as a distributor. It was really hard and it taught me about the importance of cash flow. You’re shielded from that when you work in a large business. The experience gave me a better understanding of the challenges smaller businesses face.
If you could go back and do it again, what would you do differently?
We tried to make certain things work that haven’t been working for a while – I would have stopped doing this sooner and just focused on the areas that were working. I would have tightened our range and kept things simpler. We could have reduced our overheads and our stock holding if we really thought about what our best-sellers were. A lot of this is very applicable to the job I do now.
Some people ignore my experience in Poland when they see it on my CV, because they don’t understand it, but for me it was a massive learning experience.