The Big Interview: Julie Dunn, Operations Manager at Dunns Food and Drinks


She describes her early days in Dunns’ small food depot in Stirling as the “defining moment” of her career, before working her way up and learning every part of the trade “wherever it was needed”.

The businesswoman now runs Dunns alongside managing director Jim Rowan, and the Blantyre-based business can date back to 1875 when her great-grandfather Joseph Dunn set up a soft drinks business in the East End of Glasgow.

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However, it debuted in its current incarnation in 2001 following a management buyout of the distribution arm of the family business, and says it is now a “delivered wholesaler with a remarkable portfolio of craft beers, wines, spirits and food products from around the world”. the world”, achieving a turnover of over £30 million and supplying over 400 hospitality and catering businesses across Scotland.

‘I’m always aware of who came before me and who may come after,’ says Ms Dunn, a family business owner (pictured at Dunns headquarters in Blantyre) Photo: John Devlin.

Can you explain what Dunns Food And Drinks does and how your role fits into it?

Dunns Food and Drinks is a delivery wholesaler. We deliver thousands of food and drink products from hundreds of suppliers, primarily to the Scottish hospitality sector.

My role holds me responsible for the warehouse, distribution and storage teams, insurance, the four-acre site, security, health and safety and the fleet. If I summarize in one word? Compliance – ensuring we operate legally, safely, responsibly and provide the best possible service.

The historic company was born in its current form in 2001 – how did we get here?

The businesswoman notes the impact of the pandemic on the business, which at one point saw its team of 130 grow to 31 with the rest furloughed. Photo: John Devlin.

Dunns Food and Drinks was incorporated that year as the third generation members of the Dunn family prepared for retirement and wanted to leave their Joseph Dunn Group shareholding – a previous incarnation.

This enabled a restructuring designed by my father, Christopher, and our MD Jim Rowan, which shifted ownership into three family groups, including the Rowans – whose next generation is already shaping us for the digital age!

How quickly and how severely have your operations been affected by the pandemic? On the positive side, you started a home delivery business, for example, and would you say the lockdowns have made people more aware and grateful of the food supply chain?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested on March 16, 2020 to limit our interactions by avoiding pubs, bars and restaurants. There has been a horrific week of waiting for the lockdown ax to finally drop, as orders dried up and customers demanded that stocks be increased.

At that time, there were so many things to consider and so many unknowns that we were wading through molasses.

The job retention program was a relief – 60% of our overhead was salaries and without money coming in, the capital we had would quickly run out. We had 130 employees.

There are more families in the business than the Dunns or the Rowans, and in some cases two or more salaries paid to a household came from the business.

We still had our traditional soft drinks business serving outlets and retail, and we had a number of nursing homes to supply, so we had to stay open, but from April 1, 2020, a team of 130 became 31. Everyone else was furloughed.

Wholesale is a link before hospitality in the supply chain, so we had filled our warehouse in anticipation of Easter and the start of the season. Therefore, like many, we have “pivoted” to consumer sales – either door-to-door deliveries or customer collections.

We worked with local charities and food banks to ensure that as much as possible was put to good use, but as was the case with all suppliers to the hospitality and leisure industry, flows cash were a serious concern.

Very, very early on, we knew we had to keep talking – to everyone. For example, we called and texted customers to keep in touch.

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As the reality of queuing outside a supermarket or the fear of the outside world for the protection of people has taken hold, we have seen our home deliveries increase as well as a recovery in the independent convenience store sector, and so another opportunity arose which enabled us to offer our beer and spirits business to retailers.

Never has the food and beverage supply chain been more talked about than in the last months of 2021. Consumers have realized that empty shelves do not mean that we are running out of food, but indicate rather a break in the chain, whether it is fuel or labor shortages, the cost of shipping, border controls, a supertanker blocking the Suez Canal or a pandemic, with each part of the world experiencing different phases at different times.

You are also chairman of the Scottish Wholesale Association (SWA) – how do you think the sector has handled the pandemic, including the impact on mental health, and is the level of support given to it sufficient? Last month, the SWA noted that the Scottish Wholesale Food & Drink Resilience Fund had opened…

Wholesale trade is a resilient industry. All [firms] have been impacted by the pandemic and SWA has had to recognize and respond very quickly to the needs of its members. Half of us, Dunns included, lost over 60% of our revenue overnight while the other half experienced unprecedented demand.

We all had to navigate new laws, working methods and personnel issues. Our staff were fearful, stressed, on leave, protected, working too little, working too hard. We were all experiencing the same collective shock.

Our members have come up with ways to ensure inclusion and encourage mental well-being, and we have shared these initiatives with each other.

SWA’s role was to ensure that the Scottish Government understood the importance of a healthy wholesale sector to the supply chain and to continued economic recovery.

While many of our members are still struggling to emerge from the pandemic, it is a source of great pride that the Scottish Government is the only one of the four UK countries to recognize the importance of wholesalers within the supply chain. , as important local employers. , and seek to compensate – at least in part – for the losses we have suffered.

Can you give your opinion on the sustainability of the wholesale trade delivered in the wake of COP26?

As an industry we need to be fit to be part of a fairer and greener economy, which is why over the past 12 months the SWA has launched two initiatives with its members.

This includes our wholesale decarbonization project, where, working in tandem with Arcola Energy, we hope our members will be among the first to use heavy-duty hydrogen vehicles. This follows a survey conducted among our members, the results of which were presented at several COP26 events.

We have also launched a local and regional sourcing training and education initiative, working with Scottish food and drink wholesalers and producers, called Delivering Growth through Wholesale. This project has potentially excellent consequences for both the economy and the environment!

In 2019 the company acquired Norfood – do you see potential for further transactions/wider industry consolidation in the coming years?

We bought Norfood from a man who wanted to retire and whose family did not want to take over the business. We bought our craft beer wholesale company, Dameck, a few years ago for the same reason. Our aim remains to expand our geographical coverage in Scotland and increase our specialist food and drink offering. Therefore, we will always be on the lookout for acquisition and growth opportunities.

To what extent is being a family business an advantage?

Being part of a company that wants to remain a family business gives a sense of self and place in the world. I am always aware of who left before me and who can come after. The main drivers are therefore longevity and survival, not lifestyle or personal wealth. This responsibility extends to all families involved in the business and to the community in which we are based.

Who do you admire in business?

Those who see the success of their business as a way to benefit many and who understand that as an employer they have a responsibility to do good in the wider community – my own father as well than [Tunnock’s boss] Sir Boyd Tunnock and [entrepreneur] Lord Willie Haughey comes easily to mind. I can see around me, both at work and in my personal life, the benefits they have brought to the local community by donating not only their money, but also their time. I realize this is very 2019, but I really admire Bill and Melinda Gates.

What is your outlook for Dunns – and the wider wholesale market in Scotland – this year as we recover from Omicron, and beyond?

My outlook is always positive. Quite simply, I can’t wait to look forward.

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