Country Range Group: Evolution… not revolution

After being officially anointed as Country Range Group’s new chief executive, following more than 20 years of working in the business, Martin Ward reveals what to expect from the foodservice buying group

[Image above, L-R, Dean Pendlebury, Emma Holden, Martin Ward, Katrina Crabtree]

Congratulations on being appointed chief executive. It’s a role you’re relatively familiar with…

Yes, I did it before as a stand-in for the best part of 12 months a few years ago [when predecessor Coral Rose was on sick leave], so no major changes in that respect.

There’s no sort of revolution from a team perspective, we’ve just evolved things. I’ve got a really good and enthusiastic team, so I’m very lucky.

You were trading director previously, so has anything changed in that regard?

When the board asked my thoughts on the new role, I knew I wanted to remain in the trading side of things because that’s what I know and what I get a kick out of. With so much inflation about and the need for our member businesses to be as competitive as possible, it makes sense to have someone with my experience involved in the day-to-day.

Through conversations we struck a really good balance. Our members want someone who has their finger on the pulse in terms of the suppliers and buying side of the business. If I had to put numbers on it I would say 70/30 in favour of focusing on suppliers and trading, and communicating at a senior level. I also have a very strong and energetic senior leadership team.

Have you shuffled things around?

We’ve clearly defined the structure within the group. We’ve got Dean [Pendlebury] who heads up the trading and I liaise with him on a daily basis, we’ve got Emma [Holden] who looks after the marketing and Katrina Crabtree, who is our commercial controller. Katrina is a buyer by trade but is also analytical, so we’ve set up a new data department within central office and she’s looking after our insight and setting up a product information management team as well.

It means we have four clearly defined areas: trading at the core, marketing, data and finance.

We’re beefing up our team with another buyer and two marketeers, and I’m interested in bringing in younger people at a university-graduate level so we can grow our own people because that’s really important across every department.

What can we expect from Country Range Group in the coming years?

We’ve just been through a strategic process with the board and we’ve identified the key workstreams that we’re working on in the next five years.

The first one is our sustainability strategy, which is very important to our members and here at central office. We’ve appointed an outside agency called Climate Partner and we’re putting together a strategy and targets for individual members and the group to work towards for carbon neutrality and net zero.

We are also assisting our members in the digital transformation of their businesses. We have just made a six-figure investment that will enable us to provide and enrich the best product data possible to support their online sales strategies.

From a supplier perspective, we are helping them by becoming more efficient in collecting their product data.

Soon all product attributes will be able to be collated on one line form instead of all members asking for individual product data, saving time and cost for our suppliers.

And you’re tapping into a lot of external industry expertise to deliver this…

I say to my team that we can’t be experts in everything, so we need to use experts – whether that’s TWC for data, +24 Marketing for digital, Akeneo for product information management or Climate Partner.

Our members don’t want us to have hundreds of people here doing things for them, they want us to be a lean, mean machine and to deliver as many benefits to them as possible.

Is adding to the existing membership a key aim?

It’s about having the right kind of member, it’s not about numbers – it’s adding businesses that understand what we’re trying to achieve. There will be opportunities for new members to come in, but it’s about being the right fit.

Perhaps in the future we could change our membership and we could have full members like we have now but with so many benefits of being part of the group, we might say there’s an opportunity to be an associate member of the Country Range Group as well.

What I would say is that if you’re an independent wholesaler and you’re not part of a successful buying group, you’re missing out on something. Some of those independents don’t know what they’re missing out on until they’re in one because there are a lot of benefits and collaboration to being part of the Country Range Group.

With all the cost of living pressures expected to hit hospitality hard, how do you see the next 12 months unfolding?

I don’t think anybody is under any illusions that it’s going to be easy over the next 6 to 12 months and I think hospitality will, potentially, be hit the most.

At the moment, I don’t feel like anything has really changed and there’s still a bit of momentum within the hospitality sector and I think that will carry on until Christmas.

But it’s January, February and March next year when we’ll be in a very different place and there’s a lot of inflation yet to come through. There’s a lot of big commodity areas in food that haven’t even hit the warehouses or the shelves yet that are going to come through and that will impact throughout 2023 – whether that’s canned goods, potato products or dairy. I think Q1 in 2023 is going to be tough for everybody.

buying group Country Range Group digital Martin Ward membership sustainability