andrew selley bidvest

For too long Bidvest had ignored the little guy. A cumbersome structure split its £2bn foodservice operations across three regional MDs. There were too many departments. Too many board members. And decisions were caught up in all the bureaucracy.

“We were obsessed with Brakes as our competitor,” says Andrew Selley, who was appointed chief executive in 2014 after 15 years at the business. “But, if you look at our sales and Brakes and Booker’s, together we’ve got maximum 45% of the market. The majority is made up of smaller, local wholesalers that do a fantastic job in terms of service flexibility.”

And it was those little agile operations that Bidvest was struggling to compete against. Selley has spent the past two years fixing the problem.

He axed regional MDs, cut the board by 20% and merged central departments for buying, trade marketing and supply chain. Crucially, he also handed power back to local general managers. “They’re empowered to do what they want, within reason, to hit their numbers,” says Selley. “They can do extended telesales, or Saturday deliveries, whatever they want to do to compete locally.”

He also snapped up smaller competitors too, with Caterfood acquired in March for an undisclosed sum to provide Bidvest a foothold in the South West. Its 2,000 customers may not have noticed the change though.

“We used to buy smaller businesses and then rebrand them but we found within 12 months we’d lost a load of the smaller customers and it was those we were trying to retain,” explains Selley.

With fine dining clients reluctant to take delivery from the same 18-tonne truck that dropped off school meals down the road, Bidvest now leaves local operators “to do their own thing. And that’s been very successful. Once you’ve done that it shows other businesses you might be interested in purchasing that it’s no bad thing selling to Bidvest. It’s a nice place to work and they [realise] we leave [them] alone.” He hopes this will pave the way for the “few more sites” he’s keen to add to the portfolio though he won’t say where.

The strategy has paid off. In Selley’s first year in charge sales grew 9% to £2.4bn and pre-tax profits were up 6% to £34.7m despite the cost of restructuring. And though full accounts aren’t yet available for his second 12 months parent company Bidcorp will say that UK growth has climbed to more than 20%.

A new name, its second in 18 months, crystalised the new approach with a switch from Bidvest 3663 to Bidvest Foodservice. About time, laughs Selley.

“At the time 3663 was innovative and trendy because mobile phones were just in and it used to spell food on one of those old-fashioned Nokias,” he says. “But I was explaining that to my daughter and she whips out her iPhone and says ‘what are you talking about?’ It went from an innovative name to a meaningless one.”


Name: Andrew Selley

Age: 51

Family: Married, four kids - three girls and one boy

Potted CV: Graduate trainee at Coca-Cola and left as trading director for wholesale. Joined Bidvest in 2001 to head up logistics arm developing business in Middle East, Baltics and Spain

Biggest learning curve: My first job was as a night shift supervisor in a warehouse in Warrington trying to manage a new team of half Scousers, half Mancunians

Leadership idol: Nelson Mandela, having forged a sense of unity and purpose when he could’ve forged discontent and revenge

Best piece of advice: Always tell the truth, even when it hurts

Career highlight: Taking over this role and this team. We’ve had a fantastic couple of years

Hobbies: I play the electric guitar - I’m a closet rocker. And watching my kids play sports.

Favourite food: Sushi


Did it also reinforce the old stereotype that wholesale wallows in the dark ages of tech?

“I don’t think that’s fair,” says Selley. “We’re overhauling all our technology whether that’s back of house with servers and data, or more forward-facing stuff.”

The new and improved e-commerce platform Bidvest Direct launched in May, and it’s “working on” a new CRM tool for sales teams that will allow staff to see “who is trading with us, what are they spending, outstanding payments and possible offers, so instead of having to flick through brochures or ring back to telesales we put that into their hands in the form of a personal digital assistant or a tablet.”

Selley also keeps half an eye on the latest developments at Amazon and Uber, where food is served by “Ray, 30 minutes away, driving a Toyota. The guy ordering food from us gets parcels from Amazon and taxis from Uber so he has this expectation of service.”

Far more troubling for Selley though is the lingering perception that Bidvest is little more than a trumped-up “ingredients supplier” delivering ambient-only goods out the back of lorries. He relies on a steady stream of “new innovative products” to dispel the view.

A “fantastic insights team” track the latest trends, from the humble burger to “chips served in a flowerpot or a bucket”, with a “trends bible” published each December. But rather than “launch a load of products and then delist them six months later because they haven’t sold” as it used to do, the company now rolls out eight to 12 new lines every two months via its New for You platform. And the sales team are “properly briefed and incentivised with promotions”.

Not that everything works. Korean pulled pork and Bulgogi, which launched in 2015, “didn’t go as well as we’d thought” and edgy trends “aren’t going to pay the wages”. But “innovation is needed to make yourself visible as an innovative supplier,” something Selley believes is required to avoid the “squeezed middle”.

“The two ends of the spectrum are getting more extreme and the middle is getting a harder ground to play in. We want to make sure we’re not stuck there as a run-of-the-mill company.”

On any extra pressure borne from Brexit, though, he’s refreshingly laid back. “The great thing is nobody has a clue do they?” he smiles. “It’s a fluid moving feast and the company that succeeds the most won’t be the one with the best plan, but the quickest to react. If we’re too slow and stodgy and stuck in our ways we won’t be able to react to whatever transpires.”

Whatever happens, “great service” will allow Bidvest to keep growing, he believes. “We have to obsess about the front line and those interacting with the customer. Are we delivering great service? Are we getting feedback from our customers when we’re not?” And what about revealing a price list as Brakes did last month to improve transparency and “put customers back at the heart” of what it does.

Selley pauses. “It’s not up to me to comment on what my competitors do,” he says, finally. “We’re selling 13,000 products. How can you communicate that range within the price list or find out what’s important to the customer? It’s almost an entry ticket, a piece of marketing collateral - here’s our range, flick through it. We think that relationship is more important to customers than a price list.”

And there he believes Bidvest has the edge on rival Brakes. “It’s a small industry so people move from us to Brakes, possibly some come from Brakes to us, and the general feedback I get is that it’s the people, it’s the freedom of the culture” that sets Bidvest apart. “I like to think we’re more entrepreneurial and the culture of the business is very can do, it’s very positive.”

Not that he’s obsessed with Brakes. Honest.