It is 10 years since United Wholesale (Scotland) opened its Queenslie depot in Glasgow and 10 years since Asim Sarwar took over as MD. In the midst of celebrations recognising these two important anniversaries, Scottish Grocer looks back at the journey Asim and his business has taken, and examines where they – and Scotland’s wholesale industry – are heading next.
THERE have been some big changes in Scotland’s wholesale and convenience sectors in the last 10 years. But few can be said to have been as dramatic or as visible as the growth of United Wholesale (Scotland), which recently posted turnover of £234m and boasts a symbol store estate in excess of 530 stores – an impressive feat for a company that only launched its first fascia, Day-Today, in 2005.
This year the firm is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of its Queenslie depot in the east end of Glasgow, which laid the foundations for its subsequent growth.
Immediately prior to that, the business had been split between its cash & carry on Maxwell Road and its licensed depot at West Street, which was also its distribution centre – a situation managing director Asim Sarwar describes as a “logistical nightmare”.
“We were pulling ambient stock from one depot and licensed stock from another depot and having to consolidate it to deliver it to the customers. So it was pretty tough going and took a lot to manage that operation,” he said.
“I was the distribution manager back then. My day would consist of a 9am to 6pm shift at West Street, overseeing the alcohol picking. Then I would go home and sleep till 10pm, when I would go and do a night shift at Maxwell Road, overseeing the picking of the grocery stock.
“Then at 5am, when that finished, I’d take the stock to West Street, consolidate it and head home at 6am to get another two hours sleep, before coming back in at 9am.
“I did that for two years and it put more years on me than any other experience in my life. We knew that it wasn’t sustainable. It was a nightmare.”
In late 2006 the West Street depot was closed and the operation relocated to the 70,000 sq ft depot in Queenslie. That allowed UWS to have a dedicated delivery warehouse with 1300 lines, including licensed, all under one roof, on the other side of the city from Maxwell Road. It also meant it could have a good cash and carry business on-site, operating distribution in a more controlled manner.
Queenslie was the basis for it all. It gave us the foundation we needed to do distribution properly and that’s what we needed to develop our symbol and retail estate effectively and efficiently.
The depot has evolved significantly since then, as has the business – with the tremendous growth of its symbol stores across the central belt and the purchase of a third depot, M9 in Falkirk, in 2015.
“Queenslie was the basis for it all. It gave us the foundation we needed to do distribution properly and that’s what we needed to develop our symbol and retail estate effectively and efficiently,” said Asim.
“I think the biggest hurdle we faced was just getting the branch open in the first place and getting it open on time, because I’d committed to selling the West Street property.
“I had to get Queenslie open or we would have no licensed business. I remember we actually opened the depot and there was a lot of stuff unfinished – the sliding doors, the shutters, things like that.
“But the launch went really well. We were quite lucky. Very quickly, within about four months of opening, we were doing over £1m a week.
“Now the depot turns over about £2.3m a week, easily. Even from 2007 to now, the branch business has doubled. But I find it easy, compared to what I used to have to deal with. Working in this environment is a lot more manageable.”
United Wholesale (Scotland) has its origins in the wholesale business established by Asim’s father, former Labour MP Mohammed Sarwar and his uncle Ramzan in the 1970s.
That business split in two in 2002 with the MP’s family keeping the Maxwell Road operation and Ramzan taking the Springburn business (and the United Wholesale Grocers name).
Eldest son Athif Sarwar became managing director, with Asim taking over the reins in 2007 – an important milestone the company has also been celebrating this year.
“I feel proud, because I look back and the achievements are there for people to see,” he said.
“There are areas where I think we could have done better, there’s always room for improvement. But in the main we’ve done well over the last 10 years and I hope we can continue that for the next 10 years.
“I was 25 when I took over and was probably, at the time, the youngest MD in Scotland,” said Asim, who admitted he always knew, growing up, that he would have the job one day.
“I was always involved in the cash & carry. I remember working in the sweetie aisle when I was just three or four years old and getting paid in Kinder Eggs. And then, after I started school, I would be at the cash & carry early in the mornings, from about 5am.
“I started very early, then during summer holidays, evenings, weekends, I would be working. I think my dad was pretty instrumental in all that. He wanted to make sure we knew the value of money and how important hard work was. He was quite strict with us in that sense. During summer holidays he made sure we weren’t messing about, that we were grafting, even when we were little kids. That’s always been the case.
“I think I’ve worked every section of the business. I was told the best way to learn was to work every section, so you learn what sells and what doesn’t, what the customers are looking for. I’ve worked every aisle. That’s how you build your knowledge up. And I’ve worked just about every role in the cash & carry. I’d done most of them by the time I was 18.
“Back then it was really hard. I remember in the cigarette room we didn’t have any scanning. So you had to memorise the price list by heart. I still remember the retailers giving me pelters because I was so slow.
“But it was very different back then. Technology evolves.”
The Queenslie depot has certainly evolved in the decade since it opened, with the introduction of tablet technology, a fast-pick area, bonded warehouse and smoother ordering processes.
Last year the company invested in Podfather, a vehicle fleet management system that looks after loading and routing, and introduced beacon technology in all three of its cash & carries, meaning retailers who download the Today’s Plan For Profit app are sent offers as they walk round the cash & carry. And there is plenty more planned for the future.
“The biggest development happening in the Queenslie branch is we’re expanding our chilled and frozen range this summer,” said Asim.
“Fairly recently we started doing chilled and frozen deliveries. We now have three multi-temp vehicles and are delivering chilled and frozen products to about 50 of our Day-Today stores. The plan is to roll that out to all our symbol stores and cash & carry customers. We’re hoping to have a fully-fledged delivery service on chilled and frozen.
“It is a growing area and we need to be on top of it for our retailers. We need to give them the tools they need to maximise their potential in the area. I think it’s increasingly relevant, because people are getting busier, they’re looking for convenience to offer more. If you want to get that business, you need to have the range.
“The other thing we’re excited about is we’ve just done a deal with OrderVago to give our Day-Today retailers a platform so that they can do home deliveries. We’re trialling it in six stores. That could be the next big thing for us. People can order online from supermarkets and get same-day delivery. Unless our shopkeepers can offer that, they’re going to lose out, so we need to make sure they can.
“I think we’ll be the first wholesaler to do that, but we’ve been first in quite a few things, such as Big DL and beacon technology. I get excited when we’re leading the way. I like to lead. If I’m not first, then I get annoyed.”
The development of its symbol estate, and the nationalisation of the Day-Today and Usave brands – remain key priorities for the business. And plans are afoot to develop a forecourt model for retailers.
“I think we’ve got a really good set of retail experts on that side of the business now. We are best placed to develop a customer’s store and get the most out of their business for them. I think this is the reason why, in Scotland’s central belt, for most customers, we’re their number-one choice.
“Quite simply, we’re the best in the country at what we do. That’s down to our customer service, pricing, range, our flexibility and our Day-Today and Usave offerings. They’re probably the most relevant offerings in Scotland.”
Maintaining that relevance means keeping on top of the latest trends, and even getting ahead of them, where possible, a feat that requires innovative thinking, flexibility and investment.
“It’s a challenging time, but there’s still opportunity out there,” said Asim.
“I think the guys investing for the future, who keep their stores at a good level will be okay. But the guys who are stuck in their ways? I do worry for them.
“Education is important. That’s why we launched Usave. We take responsibility for the retailers. We need to take them with us. We can’t just say to a retailer ‘sorry, you don’t fit the criteria, good luck to you’. We’ve got to do something for them. So, with Usave, for retailers who didn’t qualify for Day-Today, we could at least offer them something. They could still be affiliated with a promotional offering and we could get them thinking about improving their store standards. Independent retailers who don’t invest are a worry.”
To help develop the company’s wholesale and symbol group operations, Asim has made a number of new hires – more than a dozen in the last two years – gathering experienced and innovative professionals from across the trade to join his team.
These include Day-Today controller Mike Leonard, bringing a wealth of experience and knowledge from his years at Spar. Sean Scrimger has joined as trading director, along with two new buyers, Sheharyar Khan and Ash Raseed.
Mike Howard joins the team this month to head up the wholesaler’s newly-created on-trade division. The company has a new operations director in Bernie Brandsma, who spent 15 years running a chain of cash and carries in South Africa. Ehmar Ehsan, an expert in the field of digital marketing has been hired to enhance the firm’s capabilities in the areas of e-commerce and social media, while Peter Thompson has joined to develop the growing ranges of e-cigarettes in depots and stores.
Asim is confident he has found the team that can help take the company to the next level. And he had seen the results of hiring the right people.
“I always used to say to my Day-Today team that I would accept we’d finally made it when we started winning retail awards. And for years we never won anything,” he said.
“I think, after years of trying, we realised it wasn’t happening and that’s what spurred me to go headhunting, bringing in retailing expertise from across the industry. And since they’ve come in we’ve started winning awards and being recognised as the market leaders.”
2017 has already been a good year for UWS, with a number of award wins to add to the trophy cabinet, including the sought-after Champion of Champions award from the Scottish Wholesale Association.
“That feels brilliant. It was a very proud moment for me and the team,” said Asim.
“It’s satisfying, but it’s also a relief, in a way. In the last few years I’ve spent a lot of money on my team, going out and headhunting guys with real expertise in the areas where I felt we needed to improve. To see their hard work and ideas acknowledged gives me a feeling of confidence that I’ve made the right decisions and made the right investments in my team.
“We scooped quite a few at the SWA, but it’s been a great year for us in terms of awards. We picked up a couple at the Scottish Grocer Awards, we were voted Power Business of the Year at the Glasgow Awards, and over the last couple of years our trophy cabinet has been filling up.
In the last few years I’ve spent a lot of money on my team, going out and headhunting guys with real expertise in the areas where I felt we needed to improve.
“I find that quite encouraging because it shows the investment we’ve made in the people and the investment made in IT and technology is coming to fruition. We’re being recognised in the trade, which is a big thing as far as I’m concerned.”
As president of the Scottish Wholesale Association, a position he held for two years, Asim solidified his relationships with other wholesalers and continues to work with them to seek solutions to new challenges affecting the trade.
“We all share the same problems, so it makes sense to work together on these things. And we do work together on the SWA,” he said.
“Competition will always be there, but it makes sense for us to act as one voice on the big issues.
“I think the deposit return scheme and the sugar tax are the critical items that are coming up in the future. And the more we work together the better it is for the trade.”
I’ve loved the last 10 years. I’d like to thank my retailers, my staff and my supply partners for all their support and sometimes brutal honesty over the years. It’s been a joy.
Whatever the future brings, Asim is excited about it, and feels United Wholesale (Scotland) is well placed to meet any challenges head-on.
“I’ve loved the last 10 years. I’d like to thank my retailers, my staff and my supply partners for all their support and, sometimes brutal honesty over the years. It’s been a joy.
“As a family we’ve got several businesses I could be working on. I have a degree in pharmacy and we own a chain of pharmacies so I could go run them and it would probably be a lot easier and I would make more money.
“But I love wholesale. I like the customer interaction, the supplier dealing, I enjoy it and what makes me happiest is when we give retailers the tools they need to do well. That’s what satisfies me. That makes me feel I’m doing my bit for the convenience sector.
“I grew up in this business and I’m excited about the next 10 years in this industry and what this team could achieve.”