Next month is very significant for Steve Parfett, MD of Stockport-based Parfetts Cash & Carry. First, June 1 is the second National Independents’ Day, an initiative that Parfett has supported since day one and for which he feels rightly proud. Writing in The Grocer last year, he noted it was the first time wholesalers had put aside competitive issues to undertake a generic campaign on behalf of their customers.
Second, June 30 marks 25 years since the founding of the family business, AG Parfett & Sons. In that time, the “independent for independents” has faced an infestation of the Australian spider beetle, the razing of its first depot to the ground and, at times, “a fiery relationship with general managers”. Yet it has overcome all these to grow from one depot to an operation employing 530 staff in six depots with a predicted turnover of £225m this year, placing it 14th in The Grocer’s Big 30 wholesalers ranking.
The company’s relationship with its depot managers is key to its success, says Parfett. “We have got some characters, but that is what marks us out… I have tried being autocratic and it doesn’t work. The general managers have autonomy and treat the depots like their own business. This delivers the best service to our customers.”
Parfett spent his childhood watching his father, Alan, carve out a successful career in the industry and confesses to have been “fascinated by The Grocer when I was young”. After gaining a degree in maths from York University, he cut his teeth at Waitrose.
Then, one Christmas, everything changed. “I came home and my father asked me whether I fancied starting a family business,” Parfett recalls.
By then, Alan Parfett had spent 40 years in the industry, latterly as chief executive of cash and carry chain Lonsdale & Thompson, part of meat empire Vestey. In 1979, Ace Cash & Carry approached Lonsdale & Thompson to see if it was interested in buying its Redditch depot. With Steve Parfett able to add his practical skills to his father’s long experience in the industry, it all appeared to add up.
Parfetts’ 25-year birthday comes at time of upheaval for the sector. Bestway’s acquisition of Batleys is of particular concern to Parfett, who is also chairman of Landmark, which Bestway, the largest member, pulled out of at the end of 2003. “It makes Bestway an enormously powerful player - and they are formidable at the best of times,” says Parfett.
Then there is the question of growth in a declining sector. Parfetts’ turnover has been static for five years. “Our five existing depots were mature,” says Parfett, explaining why it took a major step forward last year to open its first greenfield site, situated in Sheffield. One thing he will not consider is delivered wholesale. “Although there is a decline in cash and carry, we think we do it well and that it is better to stick to our knitting.”
A much bigger issue, says Parfett, is the future of the independent sector as a whole. “We could be in a position where there are very few stores that multiples have not acquired. Unless they are doing £50k a week, we will be counting on one hand the number of true independents left,” he says. “The only legitimate way individual businesses will survive will be if they are owner-operated. Independent wholesalers need to provide an alternative to symbol groups.”
The challenge is to help customers do a better job and, like others in the sector, Parfetts has launched a retail club, with a Go Local organiser in every depot.
Parfett says the strategy is to continue to develop conservatively. He sees opportunity in catering, although the company has just 10% of business coming from this sector.
Another area of relevance is local sourcing and Parfetts is talking to local brewers. “We could do this better. It is a real opportunity and naturally fits.”
IT is gradually being updated and Parfett concedes the business is not as good as it should be when it comes to stock and availability. But, despite the challenges, Parfett says: “There are not many days I don’t look forward to the job. It might be tough in cash and carry, but we know the business.”