Supporting smaller wholesalers

Atif Rashid, director at Alfa Wholesale, considers what wholesale associations could be doing to further support the ‘little guys’.

I’m still trying to get my head around what it is to be a wholesaler. Coming from an engineering background, I joined my father’s business four years ago in the hope it would allow him to relax in his later years. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from the career change.

Four years on, I continue to be impressed by the resourcefulness of our industry and the continual drive for improvement that’s exhibited by the best wholesalers. The professions (engineering, law, accountancy and so on), with their long-established institutions, benefit from these central bodies that research best-practice and establish standards. They act across competitive pressures for the betterment of the industry, and society, as a whole. As a graduate engineer learning the ropes, their guides and resources were a constant and invaluable reference for me.

[pull_quote_right]I’ve seen rivals with depots just minutes from each other, sharing a drink at the Today’s Group annual conference [/pull_quote_right]

What impresses so much about our industry is how far we’ve come in what is a comparatively short history. It’s only a hundred years or so since ours was a local, market-based economy. Yet, today the vast majority of our food is shuttled around the country in bulk by very slick, efficient operators. You don’t make that sort of rapid progress without sharing the ideas of some very bright people.

Unlike the professions however, there are no qualifications required in wholesaling. We welcome everyone, we learn by doing, and the best naturally, efficiently, rise to the top. It’s imperative, therefore, that we look after, train and encourage our developing wholesalers. This can be difficult for the smaller players – like my father’s business – to achieve. Who do we turn to for advice on best practice? Where do I go to learn the nuts and bolts of wholesaling? Who’s looking at the bigger picture on our behalf?

Our trade bodies – the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) and, up here in Scotland, the Scottish Wholesale Association (SWA) – are remarkable achievements of our industry. Wholesaling is fiercely competitive and yet here we are, collaborating for the greater good. Buying groups are another example. We are members of Today’s Group and I’ve seen bitter commercial rivals with depots just minutes from each other, sharing a drink and laugh at the Today’s annual conferences. And then there’s trade press such as this very publication, whose sole mission is to share best practice.

The SWA has an active training programme that fills a vital role for companies lacking the scale to develop in-house courses. Topics are suggested by the membership, and the sessions actively encourage attendees to share and learn from one another.

Then there’s the SWA’s flagship Mentoring Programme, launched last year. It’s a great example of cross-industry collaboration. Developed with the support of its members and our suppliers, this is a perfect example of competitors working together for a greater good – the development of the next generation leaders.

I suspect we could be doing more, however. How about some FWD and SWA guides on wholesaling best practice? These guides could cover nuts-and bolts issues for newbies like me, covering topics like ‘Buying for Beginners’, ‘Wholesale Pricing Strategies’, or ‘Distribution 101’. I’d also like to see a more regular roster of training courses offered, rather than the sporadic approach we see currently.

Perhaps most importantly, however, I’d like to see more small businesses spending on the development of our staff. We owe it to our staff to enable them to be the best they can be, and to ourselves to invest in our long-term futures. 


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