charles wilson
Former Booker chief executive Charles Wilson

Charles Wilson is making the right moves with the Tesco deal, says Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski.

In the days after the Tesco-Booker merger was announced, the wholesale and convenience store sectors went into hyperdrive. It is almost certainly the biggest story in the industry this decade.

This comment, from Glaswegian Family Shopper retailer Shahid Rassaq, was typical of those Booker retailers that I have since spoken to: “Every promise he has ever made us, he has delivered on, and he has turned Booker around. I think we should give it a chance.”

Who is “he”? Charles Wilson, Booker’s talismanic chief executive, of course. Rassaq was not alone in sharing that opinion – numerous retailers expressed similar sentiments. As Premier Broadway’s Dennis Williams put it: “Ultimately, retailers trust Charles Wilson.”

At a wholesale dinner a few nights after the shock merger’s announcement, those in attendance expressed their admiration for the enviable position in which Wilson finds himself.

Not to equate the Tesco-Booker merger with lemmings jumping off a cliff, but you can get the sense speaking to his retail customers that if Wilson were to tell them to leap over the edge, there would be more than a few Premier or Family Shopper retailers on the 7.20am to Dover the following day.

Tesco-Booker mergerThere are two reasons for this level of trust. The first is that, as Rassaq says, Wilson has so far followed through on his promises. Wilson has made a number of commitments to retailers about the deal: they will have better prices; they will be under no pressure to accept a Tesco-centred click & collect service; and there will be benefits through Tesco’s banking arm. Wilson’s history means retailers know they can rely on his promises. The second reason fires a warning at any wholesale boss hiding away in the office: the Booker board has communicated to customers as much information as it can, as often as it can. Wilson was on a conference call with retailers on the day the news broke and has made himself readily available to the trade press since.

Wilson, Booker’s managing director for retail Steve Fox, and the heads of the Premier, Family Shopper, Londis and Budgens fascias have also all made themselves available at different times as part of a national roadshow allowing store owners to put any awkward or pressing questions to them directly.

Legitimate questions remain about the impact of the deal on individual store owners. How will they compete with Tesco Express stores that use the same supply chain, for example?

Yet, by being so visible and available, Booker’s management have made it crystal clear that they believe in this deal and have nothing to hide.

And as Fox told Better Wholesaling’s sister title RN last month, once retailers understand the deal, “they go away very positive”.

However, not every Booker retailer I have spoken to is completely happy. Premier retailer Vince Malone has worked with the wholesaler for a little over a year and has a number of concerns about the deal. Not least is how Booker will ever be able to beat Tesco on prices without the retail giant feeling the heat from its own store managers.

Malone arrived at his local Booker depot on the morning of the merger’s announcement and found staff unable to provide any substantive answers to his questions. They had been told of the deal just a few hours earlier by email and had no more information than was available to the national media. Yet Malone’s less-than-perfect experience only underlines the importance of Wilson’s open and honest approach. No doubt Booker will have already stepped up its communication to ensure its depots become the place any customer can get the personal assurances and wider detail about the merger for which they are looking.

This merger turns Booker into the wholesaler to beat – the industry goliath. If others are to compete they would be best off learning any lessons they can from Wilson and his colleagues. The relationship he has built with his customers is, almost certainly, the most important.


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