New horizons

After a challenging year laced with uncertainty, Sugro made a big statement by hiring former Nisa CEO Neil Turton as its new managing director. Now, with a new team in place, things are looking up for the buying group

Neil Turton took a while before taking the plunge. After weeks of mulling over the vacancy, the former Nisa CEO applied for the position on the recommendation of his trusted industry contacts. A few weeks later and he was named as Sugro’s new managing director.

It was a big moment in the Nantwich-based buying group’s history and possibly for its future. With months of uncertainty and a perceived lack of leadership since the exit of Turton’s predecessor, Philip Jenkins, at the end of last year, the appointment made a confident statement.

While rumours were circling that Sugro would be swallowed up by the Unitas merger, putting a man of Turton’s experience in charge of the business suggested an ambition to remain independent.

“The members of the Sugro board could see that it would be very easy to be sucked into consolidation and go with the Unitas merger, but they wanted to stay as Sugro, and keep the identity and function we have,” Turton explains when Wholesale News meets him in his new office.

“If the Sugro board wanted to give it up as a bad job, and say the organisation had served its purpose after 30 years, and consolidation was inevitable, then I wouldn’t be here.

“But Sugro’s board decided they wanted to remain as an independent organisation, and their members wanted to be a big fish in a smaller pond so they got more attention, because consolidation can see you become somebody’s bottom tier.”

New leadership

And it was that sense of entrepreneurial spirit that impressed Turton. After meeting with Sugro’s board for an interview for the position, he was left glowing by the warm, friendly atmosphere that has won over so
many members and suppliers in the past. Turton has no plans for Sugro to be taken in by industry consolidation, but wouldn’t rule out collaboration

After spending 23 years at Nisa – seven of those as CEO – as the convenience store brand grew to become the recognisable name it is today, Turton appears to be the perfect fit with Sugro – an impression that wasn’t lost on him either.

“I’d been working in the Co-op’s head office in Manchester and, at the end of the day, you’re just a small cog in a big wheel,” says the Barnsley FC fan.

“So there were attractions for me going to a smaller organisation, especially one where there was a need for something to be done.

“There is a fondness for Sugro, but there was a recognition that it was at a turning point. Its relevance was being called into question by the consolidation in the industry and that it seemed to be rudderless – people said, if anyone can sort it, it was me with my history of buying groups and so on.

“Part of the attraction is that it reminds me of how Nisa and Today’s was when I joined there 25 years ago when they were smaller organisations, and were at the start of their growth curve.”

Since starting on 3 September, it’s been all hands on deck for Turton as he aims to quickly arrest Sugro’s perceived problems and make it a more attractive proposition. He’s joined on the mission by another new recruit, Yulia Goodwin (pictured above), who started a week before him as Head of Trading.


Growing numbers

Goodwin is familiar with Sugro, having worked there for five years before taking a short hiatus at Princes. It has been a real baptism of fire since returning, as Goodwin aims to roll out a host of strategies to catch up with Sugro’s competitors, help to grow the buying group’s offering beyond just soft drinks, confectionery, crisps and snacks, and launch new retail and digital plans.

“We’re opening up 20 new accounts at the moment, with alcohol, pet care and other suppliers, as this is a big part of our strategy to broaden our product offering, so we’re keen to hear from any suppliers who can
help,” she says.

“The biggest focus is now on marketing and digital. We have no presence on social and very little online, although we have all the standard products you’d expect from a buying group. However, we plan to make some new and exciting developments to add to this base, so it’s an exciting time.

“Another big part of what we’re doing is helping retailers become better as well, so they can sell more product. So we’re educating them on product range, NPDs and providing them with different materials to improve their margin.”

Marginal gains

“There’s dozens of things,” Turton adds. “If we do all of them, then we can look back next September and show how Sugro has improved in a year.

“There’s no one silver bullet to fix Sugro, but I bang on a lot about marginal gains and if we do 1,000 things one or two per cent better, it adds up to something material.

“Even if it’s things like receiving supplier payments and paying through to our members. If you’re going to be small and niche, then we should improve and make sure we’re doing it faster than anybody else.”

That mindset is a thread intertwining throughout Sugro’s future strategy. The job for Turton and Goodwin now is to translate that to members and suppliers to make sure they’re on board.

But with the backdrop of a forecast 10% year-on-year growth by the end of 2018, there’s plenty to work with – although Turton is refusing to be too ambitious with his predictions for the coming years.

“I’ve got a 12-month plan to start with,” he adds. “Sugro was at a crossroads when I arrived, so I think it’s naïve to start making grand statements about this or that, or where we want to be in a few years’ time.

“In five years’ time, I want to ensure we’re still successful and independent, and leading the way in the core categories [Sugro specialises in] and possibly more while achieving high member satisfaction.

“From the place we came in at, simply existing in three years’ time is a goal because that will mean wholesalers themselves will do the same.”

If Sugro continues to be a success by going it alone, then Turton’s appointment might just be crowned as independence day.

Neil Turton Sugro wholesale Yulia Goodwin