?A new year and a new number one. Martin McColl has dethroned frozen discounter Farmfoods after a three-year reign as the UK's largest independent retailer.
The retailer hit the top spot on our list having completed its first full year of trading following an HBOS-backed management buyout in September 2005. Last year it recorded a turnover of £680m, giving it a more than a comfortable lead over nearest rival Farmfoods, with sales of £415m.
And Tony Start, McColl's trading director, sees no reason why it won't be able to maintain its position. "It will be a very long time before any of us become complacent," he says. "We have a hungry team in place now and we are all focused on one thing - growing the business."
Martin McColl previously traded under the name of private equity-owned TM Retail with six separate fascias, but the MBO resulted in owners Montagu Private Equity and Electra Partners exiting the business for £145m. Today only the Martin's, McColl's and RS McColl fascias remain.
The retailer is clearly revelling in its independence. "As TM Retail we had acquired the unfortunate reputation for not delivering, but with a new team in place we are definitely putting this right," says Start. "Now we own the business, the future is clear. Staff understand where we are looking to take the company and everyone is pulling in the same direction."
The team holds regular meetings to ensure it is hitting its targets, says Paul Taylor, the retailer's general manager of marketing. "If someone flags up a problem it's not a case of 'well it's in someone else's area' or 'I'm glad it's not in my department'. We all work together to get the project back on track."
The biggest change since the MBO has been the company's ability to deliver, adds Start. Convincing sceptical suppliers that the new team could come through on its promises was critical.
"Without suppliers on board from the beginning we couldn't have moved the business forward," he says. "It took three months of meetings, with us going to see those we had identified as the 35 key suppliers. Our whole management team went so we could show them how it would work at every level."
These meetings set the template for everything the group has achieved since. At the time of the MBO, TM Retail and subsequently Martin McColl did not carry sufficient brand equity to grow as quickly as the management wanted, admits Start. So it decided to use the pulling power of top brands to encourage more people through its doors.
"Having McColl's above the door wasn't enough so we used key brands on our fascias alongside our own brand."
In November 2005 the company set itself the challenge of rolling out these jointly branded fascias across its 1,300-strong estate in 12 months. In fact, it completed the project in just 10 months - so much for a company that can't deliver.
The story was much the same in-store. This year the company intends to revamp all its interiors and roll out overhead signage for brands such as Tetley or Kellogg's Corn Flakes. Last year it also replaced 2,000 soft drinks chillers with open-fronted ones from GlaxoSmithKline, its category champion; replaced all tobacco fixtures with new gantries and introduced impulse confectionery fixtures at its tills.
Start makes no apologies about the demands he is prepared to put on his own team and suppliers. "Now, when we start a project we come up with what is reasonable, set a timetable then knock 25% off," he says.
Despite this, suppliers are on side, insists Taylor. "We had a suppliers' conference last month in St Moritz and were able to show we had delivered on all the things we promised the year before," he says.
Suppliers have also gained confidence from the retailer's more efficient implementation of promotions. Its latest compliancy rating, carried out by independent consultancy The Brand Company, was 91%.
"The systems we now have in place are as robust as I have seen during my time in the industry," Start says. "I am happy with where we are and don't think we should be obsessed with chasing the extra few per cent. Our focus has to be on expansion.
"Basically, when we set out our stall in 2005 we had a three-year plan. First we had to gain control of the business and get suppliers on board, then we had to rebrand fascias and stores. This is nearly completed and we are now looking at ways of growing the business."
The key development Start has in mind is the acquisition of a rival chain to give a quick boost in scale, although he warns that the company will not be pressured into overpaying. "The money is there, we want to buy, but we certainly don't have to."
If it can't reach an agreement on a deal then it will seek to grow one step at time. It is currently adding about 80 stores a year. While a large-scale acquisition is preferable, says Start, this process could be speeded up at any time.
So far the company has concentrated on soft drinks, chilled food and beers, wines and spirits, but it is sizing up newstrade for its next big push. Start says. "We make 200,000 home newspaper deliveries a week but this is certainly something we have not yet fully exploited."
Martin McColl ambitiously positions its stores as having the standards of a Tesco Express with the community feel of a local c-store. This is not an easy path to tread and will become increasingly challenging as the company grows. Yet, with the management continuing to make its "unreasonable" demands in terms of performance, it seems to be sailing a sure course. n