Wholesalers are facing a tough time and WH & HM Young, ranked 21 on The Grocer's Big 30 list, is no exception. But at least MD Lee Furness has been able to vent his spleen recently in his submission to the Competition Commission's inquiry into the grocery market.

"We've just passed our comments, along with those of the rest of the industry, on to the Federation of Wholesale Distributors. There are lots of issues with the supermarkets."

He says the key issue for his business is the supermarkets' increased involvement in the convenience sector. "And it's not just convenience stores but also petrol forecourts. Every area in fact. Tesco is into everything."

This has raised standards to the point where customers now expect them to be maintained by all the players in the market, says Furness. And this has not necessarily been the case with some independents.

To address this matter, he has been placing great emphasis on helping his customers raise their standards so they are better able to compete with the major multiples.

Part of this involves improving the fit-out of their stores and to this end WH & HM Young set up a shop-fitting business two years ago. "This helps raise standards and is growing at a ­rapid rate. Although it is still only a small part of our overall business, there has been a big take-up."

A much greater part of its business is its supply of goods to the Key Store symbol group of buying organisation Key Lekkerland - of which WH & HM Young is a member.

Although this business generates a decent portion of WH & HM Young's total annual sales of £125m, the company is looking to drive further growth through these outlets with the help of recent recruit Laurie McLeown, who heads up its symbol business. He was brought in from Londis where he was a regional director.

The company has a variety of customers within different fields, including schools, universities and the leisure industry, but its main business is derived from within the convenience sector. The health of symbol groups is therefore crucial to its success.

Furness says one of the positive aspects of the industry is the trend for many regional independents - with between five and 20 stores - to move into symbol groups. "The whole [independent] market is going to symbol groups. We are involved with pushing people down the symbol route so they can compete better," he says.

Another strand to the WH & HM Young business is its forecourt symbol, Petrol Express, but again this is pretty competitive. So much so that one of the company's key customers, Fuelforce, was bought out and its outlets sold off, with some sites converted for other uses and a number acquired by Somerfield.

Despite this being a "£20m client", and its demise undoubtedly dealing a blow to WH & HM Young, Furness remains confident: "We're managing, and apart from the Fuelforce situation - which was no fault of our own - we have kept driving forward for the past ten years."

This has included the purchase of AR Daunt in May 2003 from wholesaler BWG that added £40m of sales to WH & HM Young. Furness believes that such consolidation will remain a feature of the wholesale sector. "There has been a lot of consolidation and there will be more. There are lots of smaller players out there that are finding conditions difficult," he says.

Entering the foodservice sector is not an option for the business, he says. Despite it being touted to become as big a spend for consumers as retail food, Furness wants to stick with what he knows. "We can't get involved with foodser­vice. We need to specialise in what we already do because foodservice is a very different market."

As well as the supermarkets providing tough competition, he says the industry is also dealing with an array of other issues, such as increasing costs related to the minimum wage and the continued rise of energy prices.

In addition, Furness says WH & HM Young has had problems with recruiting drivers for its fleet of trucks that operate out of the group's main depot in Leeds or its trunking depot in Nottingham.

This problem has abated recently and the business has enjoyed some stability with its fleet workforce of 40 drivers.

Now all Furness needs is some ­stability to finally envelop the convenience sector.