Deep in the Scottish Highlands in the coastal city of Inverness, Williamson Foodservice can be found. It has been providing service to the food and drink businesses of this picturesque, rural landscape since 1957.
Dedicated to sourcing locally-produced goods, the £11m business thrives on its products’ locality, with exclusive distribution rights to some of the region’s specialities.
MD Gary Williamson proclaims himself the “wholesaler who didn’t intend to be a wholesaler”, being roped into the profession for which he found he had a knack.
He adds: “My father was in the business so I worked here during the summer holidays. Before I even drove, I was a van salesman, so I had an early induction into selling fruit and veg.”
Williamson Foodservice has its headquarters in Inverness, but it also has depots in Stor- noway and Glasgow. Williamson, meanwhile, also runs his own deli-cum-café, Corner on the Square, 12 miles west of Inverness in Beauly.
The wholesale business was formed by Williamson’s father to help open up new sales avenues for a local fresh produce grower. For many years, it was the biggest fruit and vegetable wholesaler in the Highlands, and had supply contracts with The Co-Operative and Marks & Spencer.
However, as the years went by, the major supermarket chains centralised. Williamson notes: “When I joined in the 1980s, I saw the end of that era and the beginning of another, one that involved more catering and less retail. I encouraged the business to diversify, so when we converted the fleet to be temperature controlled, it led to a certain amount of third-party distribution. We then grew category by category into other lines.”
Now supplying hotels, caterers, restaurants, butchers and retailers all the way from Aberdeenshire in northern Scotland through to Argyll in the west, the business serves around 1,200 customers, most of whom it delivers to.
Predominantly a fresh produce wholesaler, sell-by dates are unsurprisingly a challenge
for Williamson Foodservice. To overcome such concerns, Williamson says the company has to buy products within the best window of opportunity and then sell them on to customers quickly: “It’s the most hands-on-driven aspect of what we do,” he adds.
One area where the wholesaler excels is social media, which Williamson describes as a “valuable, real-time tool”.
Among the favoured social media tools are Twitter and the wholesaler’s blog, which it uses to promote items, and to help make the firm and its staff as approachable as can be. Williamson adds: “If we were to email our customers each time there is a news story, they’d ask us to stop. We’re trying to encourage more customers to follow us on social media so they can make the most of the deals we have to offer.”
Despite its growing tech agenda, Williamson says that the business’ biggest competitor continues to be the supermarkets: “Whenever there is a distortion in the market, there is distrust,” he notes. “For example, this spring, the weather saw fruit farmers grow an additional amount of strawberries. Tesco helped them out by selling large amounts at a cheaper price. However, our customers asked us, ‘Why can’t you match these prices?’ People didn’t understand that it was a crisis sale, not just us hiking our prices up.”
Nevertheless, he adds: “I like to think that people prefer buying from us because we are a good, solid, honest company. For us, our customers and suppliers come first.
“We have more of a local accent on our goods than others. We know our suppliers really well. We listen to what they have to say, and this helps us understand what they need.”
Williamson says that he would love to sell more local products than the business does already, as consumers are increasingly wanting to experience local food and drink when visiting the Highlands. But he adds: “Things that could be produced locally still aren’t being done so.”
To ensure that the wholesaler stocks products that are in demand, Williamson highlights that Williamson Foodservice constantly reevaluates what it is stocking: “If a producer or a supplier has a good story and a product that my customers can benefit from, then I would be happy to consider working with them,” Williamson says. Additionally, Williamson gets direct feedback from customers through Corner on the Square: “You quite often know what the trend is going to be because it’s already happened in a major city,” he says.
“But the retail shop gives an insight into when that trend is coming to the rural Highlands. You can then advise your wholesale customer on what’s to come so they can prepare.”
One area that will continue at the forefront of its operation is its digital strategy: “We’re an unusual business, because we do so much for our customers that other wholesalers would see as ‘bells and whistles’,” Williamson says. “But these are things that we see as essential to maintaining full availability, maximising the freshness window on the product, and being efficient.”
To help achieve this, Williamson stresses the importance of acquiring a strong system that can track what the business is doing and prompt when errors are made. He says: “Have we achieved that?’ Almost. For now, I want customers to see what they’ve bought through a future app or portal. But, it’s the tech behind it that’s the most important part to get right.”
For Williamson, being a part of the Confex buying group has helped the business work with the wider wholesaler network: “Confex has helped us to find good supply partners and negotiate better arrangements,” he says. “It’s an earnest group.”
Looking to the future, Williamson aims to improve the business’ efficiency by reformulating its warehouse space. But he wants to stay in the area: “To move further from Inverness gives us more of a headache – in particular, on staffing,” he notes.
However, when it comes to the wholesaler’s biggest challenge, Williamson says: “Access to as wide an employment market as possible is a requirement for us. Tourism is also a major driver for us, so if visitors to the Highlands were discouraged, our business model would have to change overnight.”