Monday Interview: Athif Sarwar, United Wholesale

Athif Sarwar has big plans to expand the family wholesale firm. Picture: John Devlin
Athif Sarwar has big plans to expand the family wholesale firm. Picture: John Devlin
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Few start out in business as the head of a multi-million-pound company, but at the age of 21, Athif Sarwar inherited responsibility for the United Wholesale operation founded in 1982 by his father, former Labour MP Mohammed Sarwar.

What was then a business turning over £10 million has since grown into a £200m cash and carry powerhouse along the west coast of Scotland, supplying the family firm’s 350 Day-Today and U save symbol stores as well as other independent retailers. Together with younger brother Asim, who is managing director of United Wholesale, Athif is now eying up expansion to the north and east.

“We want to try and target Dundee, Inverness, these sorts of places, but these are hard for us to service from Glasgow,” says the eldest of the Sarwar sons. He looks after strategic projects; Asim handles day-to-day operations.

The attempt to raise United Wholesale’s 40 per cent share of the Central Belt market to a 60 per cent slice across all of Scotland will be underpinned by a new depot near Edinburgh Airport. Purchased at the end of 2013 in a deal thought to be worth more than £2m, the opening of the 68,000sq ft facility marks United’s first significant advance outside its Glasgow powerbase.

“We had been looking for a site for about four or five years, but we wanted to be on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It was important that we be accessible to these other parts of the country as well.”

United has been supplying shops in Edinburgh on a limited basis since 2006, and has employed a business development manager in the city for the last two years. This base of sales will transfer to the new site when it opens in the second quarter of next year.

Group turnover in the first full year of trading from the new depot is expected to rise to £300m. The facility will also help drive expansion of the network of symbol stores towards the target of 600 Scottish shops.

But it’s not just a numbers game. With the likes of Aldi and Lidl moving from the cut-price margins into the mainstream, Sarwar sees scope to develop the symbol network along the same lines.

“We want to create a range of products for our retailers,” he says. “Rather than our retailers selling discount products, they will be selling a branded product at a value price.”

The first of these was last year’s launch of Dynamite, which will soon benefit from a consumer campaign aimed at forging the brand into “Scotland’s energy drink”.

Dynamite is a joint venture between Sarwar and Garvies Soft Drinks, run by managing director Nasir Hamid. Although the brand is not owned directly by United, it is the sole wholesale supplier of the energy drink.

As with every product throughout the wholesale and retail chain, keen pricing is key. Made by a firm in Hertfordshire, Dynamite typically retails at 35p per can. While this keeps down the value of sales, volumes are such that the Day-Today estate consistently sells more cans of Dynamite than Red Bull.

Sarwar says United Wholesale is looking at other products where it can create brands exclusive to the symbol store chain, ranging from cereals, sugar and coffee to pet food, chocolates and additional soft drinks.

“We have always wanted to do it in the past, but the problem is you have got to have a certain volume going through your shops to take up a minimum production run … we couldn’t do it in the past because we didn’t have the sales volumes.”

Current trading is “doing extremely well”, driven by the re-launch in July of United’s depot in Maxwell Road, Glasgow. Sarwar is predicting pre-tax profits of more than £2m in the current year, in line with the £2.08m generated on sales of £212m during 2013.

The £2.5m overhaul has doubled the size of the Maxwell Road site to 41,000sq ft, allowing it to offer an extended range of products. The depot has been part of the business since its inception, though Sarwar’s main office is at the group’s other Glasgow cash and carry, in Queenslie.

The amount of time he spends working on projects at United Wholesale varies, with Sarwar dividing his efforts between other businesses. These include United Leisure, which owns eight takeaways under the Spice and Spice of Life facia. There is also a pub and a small portfolio of flats and shops that are rented out. There is another separate and larger portfolio of commercial and industrial property. Like all the other businesses, it is owned by the family.

Sarwar says this set-up was hugely beneficial when he took over at United, where he was the main person in charge until his brother joined the company seven years later.

“It was a lot of responsibility, and I was given a fair bit of freedom by my father, though he was always there to give advice,” he says of his dad, who returned to Pakistan in 2013 and is the current governor of the Punjab province.

“If something big needs to be decided I can always go to the family, and I know the family will tell me what they think because their pound is on the line as well.”

• Today marks the start of Scottish Family Business Week

30-second CV

Born: Glasgow, 20 August, 1978

Education: Woodfarm High School; Hutchesons’ Grammar; University of Glasgow (Business Administration)

First job: Working in the sweetie and crisps sections at United Wholesale’s Maxwell Road depot, age 14

Ambition while at school: It always was to do business – I had no interest in politics

Can’t live without: My family

Favourite city: To live in, it is Glasgow, without a doubt. For a break, to visit, it is London

Favourite mode of transport: Car

What annoys you? If things don’t get done in a certain amount of time

What inspires you? I get my inspiration a lot from my father, from what he has achieved and done since he came to this country with nothing

Best thing about your job: Making the deal happen, and seeing things completed. I love structuring the deal

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