As managing director of Landmark Wholesale, Martin Williams has achieved a couple of landmarks of his own lately. As well as celebrating his 50th birthday last month, he last week clocked up 25 years’ service at the buying group – not bad for someone who had no intention of staying long when he started out as a fresh-faced assistant buyer back in 1983.

“When I joined, I never thought I’d end up as managing director,” he laughs in an exclusive interview with The Grocer at Landmark’s Milton Keynes head office. “I’ve always wanted to do well but I never had plans to work my way to the top.”

Work his way up he did, however. And unlike Luton Town Football Club, which he has supported for even longer than he’s been with Landmark, the buying group is having a great year. It chalked up a 4% increase in sales last year, with confectionery and grocery both up 10%. Despite the worsening economic climate, growth has actually improved this year. Sales are currently up 7%, with cider sales up 28%, beer 27%, dried grocery 12% and chilled and frozen up a massive 50%, thanks to a push on the category by Landmark.

Williams nevertheless remains far from complacent. “It’s definitely getting tougher out there,” he admits. “There is more pressure on margins from the multiples moving into the high street in small-store formats. We’ve got to provide a service for our customers and bring in new strategies to combat the threats.”

Landmark Wholesale has had threats of its own to contend with, of course. In 2003, just a year after Williams was appointed managing director, Bestway Cash & Carry, which accounted for almost half of Landmark’s business, left the group, sparking speculation about the latter’s future. It was a low point for the company. But Williams and his team refused to give in, setting out a four-year plan to boost the business, strengthening the team and ploughing in further investment.

Their efforts have paid off. The group now boasts 32 members, operating 67 depots – in stark contrast to Key Lekkerland, which folded when it lost members.

“We’ve got a good, strong business and some great members,” boasts Williams. “We only accept new members when they have proven they run a successful, robust operation that has a healthy, assured future. I get at least three membership enquiries a week, but most are rejected.”

Williams says he empathises with suppliers. “I can sense they are having a tough time. Lots of them are struggling to make margins, but we have a strong relationship with them. John Searle – our trading director – and I visit our key suppliers on a regular basis. We talk about better ways of working. We’re no pushover, but I see no problem with price increases as long as they are applied fairly.”

As for Landmark, Williams believes it is well placed to weather the economic storm. “For the past five years we have outperformed the sector in nearly all categories. Chilled and frozen are doing really well, but are still from too small a base. These categories are a real opportunity, something we can push forward and something our customers really want.”

Another opportunity is in catering and foodservice. Landmark’s business is currently 70% retail and 30% catering and foodservice. The 14 members that operate in foodservice are working together to develop a dedicated strategy. The on-trade is also being targeted and Landmark will soon appoint a trading controller to push on-trade business in drinks, crisps and confectionery.

Williams is confident Landmark’s 1,560 Lifestyle Express stores will continue to thrive despite the economic downturn. “We’re bang on our target to hit 2,500 stores by 2010,” he says. “We’re currently working on a new business plan for 2010 onwards, where we will move the emphasis from recruiting new stores to developing as a proper symbol group. We’re planning to hit the 2,500 target and then invest and develop the business.”

Thanks to initiatives such as its campaign to encourage people to save money by shopping locally, Lifestyle Express is already winning praise from suppliers and customers alike, most recently as Best Overall Operator at the Him! Cash & Carry Awards held in London two weeks ago. The award meant a lot to Williams. “It’s difficult for a buying group to win awards like this, because we are usually known by the name of our wholesale members, so this is a significant achievement,” he says.

There will no doubt be plenty more to come. As well as working on plans for Christmas and budgets for 2009-10, the group is preparing to move to new offices a mile away later this year. The new building will be 40% bigger to accommodate the further growth anticipated.

It’s all very different from the business Williams joined back in 1983 – as is the wholesale landscape. “In the late 1980s, there were hundreds of wholesalers,” he recalls. “But there has been a huge change since, with companies merging, being taken over or going out of business.”

The key to avoiding such a fate is to embrace change. “That’s why I like this job,” he says. “There’s always something going on, I’m always working ahead of time and the next telephone call is always different from the last. Time really does fly.” Especially when you’re having fun.
Name: Martin WilliamsAge: 50Born: Welwyn Garden City, HertfordshireLives: Digswell, Hertfordshire with wife and three childrenCareer: Eight years with Fine Fare, then 25 years with Landmark Wholesale in the positions of assistant buyer, buyer, senior buyer, trading director and deputy managing director. Appointed managing director in 2002.Hobbies/interests: “I’ve supported Luton Town for about 35 years and every Saturday I go and watch them play – both home and away,” he says. “And on Sundays, I watch my sons play football.”His new prized possession is a framed, signed shirt and programme, organised by his colleagues and presented to him by Luton Town’s manager Mick Harford to celebrate his 25-year anniversary at Landmark Wholesale. “He’s always been my hero, so to meet him was fantastic,” says Williams.