The Arena Network has long been a must for networking in the foodservice and hospitality industry and today saw another stellar event attended by the great and the good of the industry. As the leading out of home agency we were there (along with a full ballroom at the Dorchester) to hear pearls of wisdom from Charles Wilson, Chief executive of Booker in his ‘Face to Face’ with ITN newsreader and long standing supporter of Arena, Alistair Stewart OBE. It was an enlightening afternoon, giving a more personal insight into the man behind Booker’s turnaround. I didn’t know for instance that Charles went to Durham University (where I also studied) and was the Head of Ents. Indeed, the wholesale industry may have been a very different place had he taken up an offer to go into the field of music management. But it would seem that despite a foray into fashion with Top shop and a stint at P&G, he was set for a career in food from an early age, as one of his first entrepreneurial endeavours was making and selling raspberry jam.
2005 saw him join Booker with a view to turn around a failing business – and that he did! Today it has a turnover of 4 Billion (including 1 Billion organic growth) and an enviable 90/100 customer satisfaction survey result from its catering customers. Booker now also has ‘Chef Direct’ a growing delivered wholesale side to the business, in addition to their core cash and carry business and is going global with six sites and 14,000 customers in India. As for where the business is going, well, he sees the web as a huge opportunity to engage with customers and currently has 300,000 customers using the Booker site (although he is clear that nothing will ever replace person-to-person customer service). Embracing technology and driving organic growth with an eye on sustainability is very much key to his business strategy.
Its a sobering fact that to feed the world’s growing population we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the past 10,000! But quite rightly he sees suitability as not just an ethical choice, but also simply good business sense, helping Booker to make cost savings for itself and its customers, as well as saving the world. By his reckoning their recycling initiative will save an average Booker customer £2,000 per year which is not to be sniffed at, when you hear that 14,000 of them are using it.
As for the wider wholesale market, he doesn’t see Booker as striving for third player status in the market after 3663 and Brakes, but would rather concentrate on driving customer satisfaction to building organic growth. He doesn’t seem too worried by the power of the supermarkets, taking the view that the retail mindset is very different to wholesale (requiring a 24hr customer focused business) which he feels may hamper their ambitions.
And his advice to future leaders who look to be as successful as he has been with Booker? Play to your strengths, build a team that complements your weaknesses, know your trade, focus on management (not necessarily leadership) and most of all, have fun!
Wise words from a name who has been there and done it.
A final word must go however to the team at Arena for another great event. To make sure you don’t miss out on the next Arena lunch visit www.arena.org.uk and hopefully I may see you there!
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