Waking the beast: How CJ Lang has been turned around in less than two years

Colin McLean is the chief executive of CJ Lang


Ever since I took over two years ago, I knew CJ Lang was sleeping giant full of opportunity,” explains Colin McLean, chief executive officer of the Scottish Spar wholesaler.

Taking over in March 2018 and with a vast retail background, he has overseen the wholesaler achieve more than the other Spar wholesalers, while also performing better than the Scottish market in general.

“The business recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary, and at this stage we are just recognising the potential,” he says.

“I’ve implemented a lot of changes and with 2,000 employees covering all of Scotland, we have so much potential to get the public to recognise it and get the message out there that we are Scottish at heart,” he explains, pointing out that he has now hired and created the best team possible in order to provide the strongest proposition for the Scottish market.

This has involved the signing of a new finance director and a new business development director, which was announced at last year’s SWAs. “Since then, I’ve employed a new central control manager and a new format manager, as well as a new food-to-go manager. A lot of these are new sources as we attempt to make the business run smarter,” he says.

Working within three stages since its inception, CJ Lang is still in what McLean calls the “back-to-basics stage”, in which the company sticks to the essence of wholesale. “Wholesaling can become very complicated, but we aim to keep it simple. That’s the trick,” he says.

Read more: Brakes drivers and vehicles added to CJ Lang logistics team

As well as the hiring of a new management team, customer research also had a big part to play in the growth, with the wholesaler putting out a huge television campaign to get its name out there further.

“This is us attempting to engage with our consumers and to get people talking about our products and our customers’ stores. The Scottish heritage is also a massive factor – we’ve got the heritage and we’ve got the team.”

On top of this, the company is also creating its own trade show, which McLean claims will be the biggest one in Scotland this year.

With one big depot in Dundee, it serves 325 different locations across Scotland including

To mark its 100th anniversary, CJ Lang gave away £1,000 to charities in the vicinity of
each of its company-owned stores

a model store in Dunfermline in which it demonstrates to suppliers what can be achieved within its customer stores.

On the subject of its stores, McLean claims that the independent base was stagnant for a long time – something he is rectifying. “For many years we had around 180 customers, but we’re now on a lot more and currently trying to understand where we can take the business profitably. It’s not a numbers game. It’s about looking at company-owned stores and seeing how we can improve them.

McLean also welcomes competition from the likes of Budgens, which is gradually moving up north. “Competition is healthy as it forces us to raise our game. We, as a business, focus on what we can do and it’s my own remit to fix what I can,” he says.

“Food to go is a good example. We’ve been rolling out Costa Coffee machines throughout our business, and we’re now working on how to roll out food to go further. The experience of doing it in our company stores first will allow us to roll it out to the rest of the independents.”

Read more: C J Lang reports positive growth

With a long-term strategy now in place and signed off by the shareholders, CJ Lang is prepped for future growth. “We previously didn’t have one, but now we have a clear plan that we’ll be announcing properly at our trade show,” he adds.

Having established growth in his first year and made the company outperform the market in his second, McLean has entered his third year in charge looking to grow even further and make CJ Lang one of the most profitable wholesalers north of the border.


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Paul Hill
Paul Hill is the Editor of Better Wholesaling. Paul can be found on Twitter on @BW_PaulHill, or can be contacted via paul.hill@newtrade.co.uk and 020 7689 3376.

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