From car-boot crisp-seller to Scottish chief

Turnover: £5m Depots: 1 Employees: 15

While many of his peers were lucky enough to be born into wholesaling families, Iain Hill entered the trade the hard way. He began straight out of college in 1993 – selling crisps from the boot of his car to shops in Paisley. Fifteen years on from those humble beginnings, and Hill is now president of the Scottish Wholesale Association. The appointment is testament to the energy and entrepreneurial spirit that have enabled him to grow a car-boot money-making scheme into a £5m business. Wholesaling appealed for a number of reasons, he recalls. “Although I had no family connections or background in the industry, wholesaling had a number of attractions for a newcomer like me with no capital and no credit rating,” says Hill, citing minimal start-up costs and no immediate need for premises or transport beyond what he already had. It was far from a smooth start, however – initially nobody wanted his crisps. He was offering Highlander crisps, made at the time in nearby Bathgate. Local sourcing had not yet become a buzzword and his potential customers were only interested in his prices for Golden Wonder and Tudor. So he got back in his car, visited numerous cash & carries and packed in 25 boxes of Golden Wonder and Tudor. “I think my first few customers must have thought I was mad and probably felt sorry for me,” he says. Probably even more so shortly after when someone stole his car. But the old saying proved true – every cloud does indeed have a silver lining. The insurance money paid for a more suitable business vehicle – a van. This was the turning point. It allowed him to buy in bulk, filling up his parents’ garage with stock and making it his first depot. Expanding into their lounge, hall and kitchen while they were on holiday, however, did land him in some hot water. “Needless to say, after they returned and opened the door to a wall of cheese & onion, it was never allowed to happen again.” Soon he had opened national accounts with Smiths and KP and moved out of the garage and into his first commercial premises. Iain Hill Snacks was officially born. “The confidence of youth can carry you far,” he chuckles. Over the years, the business followed a pattern of moving into rented premises and filling them to the rafters until expansion forced him to move on to somewhere larger. This continued until six years ago when he bought a 12,000 sq ft warehouse in Ayrshire, seven miles from Glasgow airport. He now employs 15 staff and runs a fleet of three 18-tonne trucks. He is a member of Sugro buying group and offers a retail club, regular promotions and leafleting for retailers. While justly proud of his achievements, Hill is not complacent. “We always need to be looking out for ways to improve operations and to stay efficient,” he says. “As the business grows, the challenge is to ensure the quality of service delivery stays high.” To this end, he has made a major investment in his IT and logistics operations this year, which he claims is already delivering improved performance. Hill believes the biggest challenge to his business isn’t the competition or even the credit crunch, but the weather. “A distinct lack of a heatwave in the west of Scotland is having more of an impact on sales than anything else,” he says. Soft drinks, the biggest growth area for his business, have been particularly affected. While remaining focused on the core lines of crisps, confectionery and soft drinks, Hill is considering branching out into grocery, alcohol and tobacco. He is also keen to develop an online offer. “We have a number of options for growth,” he explains. “We could expand geographically or expand the range. But what I think is going to make the difference for us is Sugro’s retail club Sweet Break. We have already recruited 40 retailers to the scheme and there is definitely scope to increase this tally.” Hill may not have been born into the wholesale game, but he is talking like a wise old head. If he maintains his current energy levels and enthusiasm then it is a safe bet he will be a fixture of the wholesale scene north of the border for many years to come.