Booker Direct MD Mark Aylwin tells Beth Phillips how he has created the fastest-growing delivered wholesaler in the UK

When people talk about the turnaround at Booker, they talk about Charles Wilson - and little wonder.

The former second-in-command at Marks & Spencer has brought Booker back to the stock market, taken it to India and turned net debts of £361m into £7m cash.

But he's not the only Booker boss worthy of plaudits. Mark Aylwin, MD of Booker Direct, the cash & carry giant's equally successful delivered wholesale business, has also pulled off a remarkable transformation of the business created by the shock reverse takeover of Booker by Blueheath in May 2007.

In three years, Booker Direct has become the fastest-growing delivered wholesaler in the UK, its delivered sales soaring a whopping £320m to £800m. The wholesaler is also making more than 12,000 deliveries a week and is winning new business every day recent contract wins include HM Prison Service and an extension of its contract with HMV to provide soft drinks.

When you consider that in the dying days of Blueheath, the business was generating £132.3m turnover but carried losses of £4.9m, that's quite an achievement. So how has he done it? And what's next?

The takeover was a move borne out of necessity, says Aylwin in his first interview since the Blueheath takeover at Booker's giant depot in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. "It was acquire or die," he admits, frankly. "If something hadn't happened, Blueheath wouldn't have been around today."

The problem for the UK's first internet-based wholesaler was that although it boasted state-of-the-art technology, it lacked critical mass. "Once I saw Booker, its plans and the team, I knew it was the right thing to do; a no-brainer in fact," he says as we tour the depot, which is located right next door to Ocado's DC.

Aylwin met Wilson for a drink to discuss their options, and five months later the pair unveiled plans to merge the businesses and create a one-stop shop for national delivery and top-up of fresh, frozen and ambient foods, alcohol and non-food.

Aylwin has kept a relatively low profile until now because Booker Direct has been getting, as he puts it, "all the ducks in a row". That includes winning business with Marks & Spencer, WHSmith, Odeon and Gala Bingo. He has also had to integrate Blueheath into Booker a process that included nearly all the team moving from Blueheath's Essex HQ to Hatfield.

Booker may be best known as a cash & carry, but delivered services are a growing part of the equation, he says. Business is booming judging by the bustling Hatfield depot one of three Booker DCs. Aylwin stops to inspect a pallet destined for a cinema customer, complete with boxes of 3D glasses, and points out a pallet laden with Coca-Cola ready for delivery to M&S.

"Booker's main focus is on independent retailers small drops on a local basis," he explains. "But with Booker Direct, national customers can benefit from our central distribution. We're bringing to their business something that is not necessarily core for them, but needed. They don't want to do it themselves."

With nearly 30 years' experience in supply chain logistics, chiefly with Safeway but also with Musgrave Retail Partners GB, Aylwin has developed a business model nimble enough to appeal to clients large and small. The largest customers such as M&S receive bulk deliveries straight from Booker's DCs to their own distribution hubs.
Meanwhile, players without their own distribution infrastructure English Heritage, S&N Pub Enterprises and The National Trust, for example have smaller orders distributed to local C&Cs, from where they are delivered to individual outlets. Last year, about 90% of products were delivered via C&C branches and 10% from Booker's DCs.

Cinemas have been the main beneficiaries of centralised deliveries. Booker Direct claims to be the largest food supplier to the cinema sector, with customers including the Odeon, Vue, Reel and Apollo chains. It won many of the contracts following the collapse of buying group Key Lekkerland, of which Blueheath was a member, in September 2008.

"With our cinema accounts, it's all about being one step ahead of the game," Aylwin says. "No one guessed that Avatar would explode the market for 3D glasses and make them so popular. We were lucky that we spotted that and can now supply our customers with them. Sex and the City also changed drinking habits in cinemas. People wanted individual glasses of rosé, so we've got them in."

His team were also able to test out the 3D glasses first hand. Last Christmas, one of Booker Direct's customers hosted a 3D screening of A Christmas Carol the first 3D film many had seen, which Aylwin said "went down really well".

Keeping tabs on what customers want is one of the things that keeps Aylwin awake at night. His team carries out regular surveys, polling customers on five key areas service, delivery, availability, drivers and customer service. One result has been Booker Direct's push to develop its chilled offerings. The chilled warehouse at Hatfield doubled in size to 40,000 sq ft last November at a cost of £500,000, in response to customer demand.

Customer service is a near obsession for Aylwin, who says it is this that can make or break deals. "The DNA of the supply chain is customer service that's why we talk to our customers every day," he says. "My team is a real asset. Once, we were working on getting a big customer. We were down to the last two and I got the call from them saying that it had been really close but we had it because of Kylie in our customer service team." Kylie Hollington is one of the stars of that team and followed the business to Hatfield when Booker took over Blueheath. Her customer service ethic is something Aylwin tries to foster in all of his 40-strong team, most of whom started their careers on the shop floor. Many came with him from Safeway so "know how everything works".

This perhaps helps to explain how the company has won contracts for customers with particularly demanding and unique needs. Booker Direct delivers for NAAFI, the official trading organisation of HM Forces, stocking tuck shops on navy ships and camps across the world, for instance.

Aylwin reveals a personal understanding of the service it required. "My dad was in the forces and my first retail experience was of a NAAFI shop," he says. "We help provide a home from home for service personnel and I'm really proud we're able to help them in some way."

The last three years have not been without their challenges, however. Last August Booker Direct lost its contract to supply Little Chef shops with confectionery and drinks and there have been other casualties along the way. Alywin is confident, however, that Booker Direct can continue its strong growth by keeping its eye on the ball and doesn't rule out future acquisitions "if the right deal came along".

Booker's delivered wholesale rivals will be looking over their shoulders in coming months as Aylwin who insists there is a future for both delivered and cash & carry within wholesale continues his pursuit of power in the sector. "We are not far behind our competitors," he smiles. "Those that are able to provide value will succeed businesses also need to lead the way with new ideas and spot opportunities."

Aylwin has proven he can do both in the past three years. Mention Booker in another three, and his could be the name on people's lips. 

Mark Aylwin snapshot
Age: 47
Lives: In Maidenhead, Berkshire, with wife Ann and two grown-up sons, one at university and one working for Booker at its cash & carry in Slough.
Career: Aylwin spent 25 years at Safeway, starting out on the shop floor before progressing through the ranks to become supply chain director. He left shortly after Morrisons acquired Safeway to take the same role at Musgrave Retail Partners GB. He became CEO of Blueheath in 2006 and was named MD of Booker Direct following the reverse takeover in 2007. He was appointed an executive member of Booker's board of directors in November last year.
Hobbies: A die-hard Charlton Athletic fan, Aylwin says supporting the League One club is "far more stressful than working".

Big screens, big sales
When Avatar hit cinemas last winter, a new dimension was added to Booker Direct's business. Already the biggest supplier to Britain's cinemas, the company foresaw the market for 3D glasses created by Avatar and cashed in.

And the succession of 3D releases that followed has kept the money coming in. Aylwin, who says Pulp Fiction is his favourite film, didn't have a crystal ball, he says, just good relationships with his customers.

"This is essential in the joint development of accurate forecasting techniques for each film genre in order to maximise sales opportunities," he says.

Numbers of bums on cinema seats hit a seven-year high of 173.5 million last year, according to the UK Film Council, and the new 3D films are likely to push that even higher. Cinema-goers are also happy to pay a premium to be fed at the flicks.

Just as Booker Direct came quids in after stocking up on rosé wine in anticipation of this year's smash hit Sex and the City 2, the hunt is now on for the next big movie-going must-have. With the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows out in November, magical cross-merchandising is a cert.