James Bielby, FWD Chief Executive

James Bielby – 2023: The year of…?

Federation of Wholesale Distributors Chief Executive James Bielby shares his thoughts on the coming 12 months for the sector

So what kind of year is it going to be? Already this decade we’ve had the year of lockdown, the year of shortages, and the year of inflation. What will the one-word summary of 2023 be?

If we’re optimistic we could predict it will be the year of normality, or at least stability. There are huge challenges still to be navigated, particularly for our members working with the hospitality and leisure sectors, and the first few months of the year will reveal just how depleted consumer spending in those customer businesses will be. Inflation will start to fall, but that’s unlikely to mean price reductions, and wage inflation won’t match the rise in costs.

These at least are known knowns, and therefore easier to manage than, say, an unexpected pandemic or a European war. While we will continue to represent the interests of the wholesale sector in these most immediate matters, FWD is starting the new year by dusting off the playbook that was put aside in early 2020 and returning to the development strategies that will help our members prosper in the longer term.

Top of the list are sustainability and the requirements of Net Zero targets; building better wholesalers though recruitment and development of talented people; and using FWD’s platform to encourage co-operation, understanding and information sharing among supply chain partners. If that’s too much of a mouthful of a manifesto, try this: Planet, Talent, Trade.

The food and drink sector has a responsibility to make a full contribution to the UK’s emissions reduction targets, and trade associations from the NFU to UKHospitality have announced ambitions to reach Net Zero by 2040. Distributors have to be as much a part of this as the farmers and producers, and it’s now our priority to help them understand and reduce their emissions through initiatives that also increase the efficiency of the supply chain.

In the biggest external investment project in FWD’s history, we are working with sustainability consultancy 3Keel to gain a greater understanding of the emissions of food production, storage and distribution, and offer wholesalers guidance for reducing their emissions. Over the coming months we’ll produce a roadmap to Net Zero, and a calculator to help them measure their progress. The aim is for this to be as effective for smaller wholesalers as it is for our larger members who have more internal resource in this area. The process is already underway with 15 of our members providing detailed data on their emissions and their capacity for meeting the government’s targets.

On talent, we already have successful development structures for people already in the sector, with Women in Wholesale, the Future Leaders’ Forum and the Introduction to Wholesale sessions for new starters. Acquiring that talent in the first place requires two things from us; we need to make wholesale attractive to a generation of workers who don’t sell themselves cheap, and we need to sell it to them as an opportunity. On the first, the onus is on individual wholesalers and suppliers to build a working environment that meets the expectations of the most talented jobseekers and matches or exceeds what they will be offered elsewhere. On the second, we need to raise the visibility of wholesale as a career option to school leavers, graduates and people returning to the workplace. FWD has a role to play in both of these.

And on trade, nothing greases the links of the food supply chain better than human contact, something which there’s been too little of in recent years. FWD is perfectly placed to bring wholesale together and we’ll be doing just that, with initiatives like our Supplier Council and our Category Focus evenings. Our Business Lunch in February is a chance for our Supplier Partner members to meet and hear from the FWD Council, and our bigger-than-ever conference in June is the sector briefing you don’t want to miss.

We’re also extending our offer to suppliers with a monthly Member Day, an opportunity to speak to the FWD team about your goals in the wholesale channel, and how we can help you achieve them.

Finally, and on a personal note, I want to say a huge thank you to Coral Rose, whose term as FWD Chairman comes to an end this month. It’s been an extraordinary three years to have been in the role, and Coral has excelled both as a supporter and as a leader to our head office team, our Council, and the membership. She has championed our work in diversity and inclusion, and developing skills and nurturing talent, and spoken up for the wholesale sector when it most needed a strong voice.

Thank you, Coral, from all of us.

Coral Rose Federation of Wholesale Distributors Future Leaders Forum Government James Bielby net zero sustainability Women in Wholesale