Grocery buyer Stuart Harrison joined JW Filshill when he was just 13. Working his way up from part-time warehouse staff to senior buyer, Stuart has made an impact on the industry, winning the FWD Young Wholesaler of the Year award in 2012. BW caught up with him to talk about the secrets to his success – from shelf stacking to sun tan lotion…
BW: What inspired you to join wholesale at such a young age?
SH: Initially, it was a weekend job packing shelves that I started as a teenager. My plan was to go to university and study physiotherapy but I took a year out at 16 to work full-time at Filshill and everything fell into place from there.
BW: Many people use wholesale as a stepping stone to the multiples – what’s inspired you to stay?
SH: Having money at first when I worked in the warehouse, but later on when I went into buying, I realised the opportunity that was available. I moved into the buying team when I was 23 – I was very lucky. I think if you go to a bigger place, you’re just a number. Staying at Filshill means you can make a name for yourself and your opinion is respected. I’ve spoken to people who have made the move and now regret it. It’s not for me. Wholesale is a cracking industry, especially in Scotland – everyone knows everyone and it is very social, too.
BW: What opportunities are there for young people in wholesale?
SH: In Scotland, there’s the Scottish Wholesale Association mentoring programme. I think it can be a challenge to get into something like buying, as there are a lot of older people in the roles, but there are opportunities and programmes out there.
I’m part of the mentoring programme and it’s brilliant. I meet up with my mentor about every four weeks and we talk about everything. Having insight from someone who is outside the business has really opened my eyes. A mentor doesn’t tell you what to do, but helps you to realise that you can do it.
BW: How do you think the channel can retain more talent?
SH: I think it’s really down to the individuals themselves. They have to realise that working for the big guys is not the Holy Grail. The wholesale industry will never pay as much as the multiples, but if that is all you’re interested in, you’re probably in the wrong job. My experience has been that the industry offers a lot of encouragement and training.
BW: Where do you think the wholesale channel needs to improve?
SH: The biggest problem is too many egos! Everyone thinks they’re right but they need to sit and listen. The category guys at suppliers are actually very good at what they do so listen to them.
I think the other area is technology. It’s changing so fast and the industry needs to embrace it.
BW: What’s been the best moment in your career to date?
SH: In 2012, I won the Young Wholesaler of the Year award at the FWD Awards and that was amazing. It gave me encouragement and confidence – and one of the best nights out I’ve ever had down in London.
BW: What’s the worse decision you ever made?
SH: I’ve definitely made a few clangers along the way. I bought six pallets of sun tan lotion a while back when we had two sunny weeks in Scotland. Since then, it hasn’t stopped raining and three years later, I’ve still got five pallets. I also bought a load of hand sanitiser when there was a swine flu scare but that never materialised so I’ve still got it.
BW: How can suppliers improve their support to the channel?
SH: I have seen a massive improvement in the level of support from suppliers over the last few years and I’d say it’s because they have started listening to us. One of the things that is working better is offering local level retail deals. It was killing me trying to get suppliers to understand it. They have definitely benefited from spending time in stores and depots – it’s been invaluable. Another improvement is big value packs for wholesale, which allows us to go head to head with the multiples. Some of the suppliers have been really impressive.
BW: How important has Today’s Group been to you and the business?
SH: Being a member of Today’s Group has been fantastic – they have been really supportive. I spent some time with the team in Doncaster and it was brilliant. In particular, it was really useful to learn that other buyers have some of the same frustrations as me.
BW: What are your market predictions for the next five years?
SH: It’s obviously going to continue to be tough. Impulse is saturated, apart from new product development or getting a good summer. Alcohol is struggling in Scotland because of all the legislation. Some people think that the mults having local stores is a bad thing, but I think it could encourage people to shop locally, which would be a good thing for us. I think we can rise to the challenge as an industry, but we need to embrace technology and social media.
BW: Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
SH: Hopefully still at Filshill. I love what I do and I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. Grocery is still a developing category. I’m looking forward to it. You definitely won’t see me in the multiples!