Driving change at a fast pace: Darren Goldney of Unitas

In his first in-depth interview since the launch of Unitas, managing director Darren Goldney (pictured) talks to Cash & Carry Management’s managing editor Kirsti Sharratt about his aims and plans.

Darren Goldney’s belief in the merger of Today’s Group and Landmark Wholesale mirrors Aristotle’s famous quotation, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.

“One and one can equal more than two if we all work together,” insists Goldney, who was appointed managing director of the enlarged organisation, Unitas, just eight weeks ago. “Our plan is anchored on efficiency (reducing costs) and effectiveness (selling more) and we have a whole host of plans and initiatives to achieve this.”

Goldney explains that, for the first 12 months, Unitas will focus on a 10-point consolidation programme covering aspects like contact points, the own-label range, central payment and events.

Running concurrently is a three-year plan focusing on the efficiency and effectiveness objectives – these are intended to bring about improvements in data, compliance, digital innovation, central services and category expertise, as well as a consolidated central distribution partnership network using spare capacity in existing member depots.

Cash & Carry Management spoke to Goldney about the job he has to do:

How have the last few months been?

Exhilarating, exciting, at times exhausting. We are doing things that should probably have been done a number of years ago so there is a sense of urgency. I think we will get 90% of the tasks right along the way and the 10% we get wrong will be correctable and will be far less of a negative than if we don’t do the 90% quickly.

During your time with Coca-Cola, Whitworths and P&H, did you have to do anything similar to this merger?

Yes, at Coca-Cola we acquired and sold brands and small businesses, and I also had to merge two regions, which involved the closure of an office. The merger of Landmark and Today’s is on a larger scale, but the issues are the same in terms of identifying goals, pooling resources and working through the change curve where a lot of people don’t like the journey along the way.

What has been your approach to managing the change in relation to the staff?

Firstly, I should say that the staff have been immensely professional in difficult circumstances. Of the 72 employees in total, 50 have been retained and reluctantly we had to make the other 22 redundant. I explained to them that I’ve been in the same position myself three times and although I ended up with a better job on two of those occasions, it was an uncomfortable process.

We chose to have Doncaster as our HQ because it is bigger and cheaper. We tried to give the Landmark employees every chance of working for Unitas by developing a long-distance working policy and by offering flexible hours. We also implemented a phased exit programme and liaised with our members about employment opportunities.

How are you getting on working with John Mills (former MD of Landmark)?

John has been absolutely brilliant – the insight, wisdom and counsel he has given has been great. As deputy managing director, he has distinct areas of responsibility: he is looking at our whole marketing programme and longer-term strategy on things like central distribution and third-party providers of services.

When we explained to members what our vision is, they could see there’s a hell of a job to do, and if we are ever going to reach those end goals we need additional expertise in the company that John can deliver.

What is your primary objective in the merger of the two groups as Unitas?

Our mission is to be the ‘Champion of Independents; Champion of Brands’. We are dedicated to supporting our independent wholesaler members, who in turn support thousands of independent retailers and small businesses. We are not going to open up a shop next to them to try to take their business away.

What has been the reaction of suppliers to the merger?

I think that both suppliers and consumers want a vibrant independent sector because having just the likes of Tesco/Booker in the market place gives a fairly narrow choice. Suppliers want to have more choice, but they want these companies to have the same efficiency and effectiveness as a national account. They want fewer points of contact and to be offered more, but not to be bullied (not that I‘m saying Tesco/Booker takes that approach!).

The average margin among Landmark and Today’s members (last time it was monitored) was 0.8%, whereas for Tesco/Booker it was between 2.5% and 3%, so I think most of the supplier community would recognise that independent wholesalers have a strong role to play.

There is an argument that every case suppliers sell via Unitas is better for them. The vast majority of people that I have met through my 25-year career would probably recognise that the margin share of a case going through independent wholesalers is more equitable for the brand owner and the end outlet, although the independent wholesaler would argue that they need more margin! Even if suppliers have to invest a little bit more in the independent channel they will still be making more money than they would if it didn’t exist.

So, are you asking suppliers to invest more in Unitas?

I hope that suppliers will want to invest more when they see what we can offer in return. We are beginning to walk the walk – we have taken out a huge amount of inefficiency by going from two offices to one, and suppliers will have lower costs in terms of account management, attendance at events like the annual conference, admin such as invoicing and credit control, and participation in trade marketing and category management.

And if we can demonstrate over time that we can give them better insight and improved compliance by using tools like our new optimum distribution tracker, I would hope that they will back our business. That’s the cultural change we want to make – we want to do it hand in hand, more of a carrot than a stick approach.

My message to suppliers is if they believe in our strategy and our management team, they really should be supporting us. What we want is suppliers’ good intent: it’s not just about money. We want them to help us along the journey and not to club us if we can’t get there on day one. There are lots of proof points – I have deadlines coming out of my ears – so our actions will be evident and measurable.

You are emphasising the point that 99.4% of sales through your members are of branded products, and yet own-labels give members a point of difference. What is your thinking around that?

Being so heavily focused on brands is a massively positive USP when speaking to branded suppliers, but own-label suppliers will probably see the small percentage they have as an opportunity to grow, and that could indeed materialise. Having one own-label range in each area can reduce the proliferation of brands as the own-label can work well alongside the big brand.

For example, if you take tuna, a retailer could stock the own-label product alongside John West or Princes as the main brand, rather than cluttering up the fixture with various tertiary brands bought on deal at different times.

We are keeping Caterers Kitchen for catering/foodservice (Today’s moved out of own-brand in this area in 2015), and we have chosen to go with Lifestyle for retail because it was bigger than the Today’s range and growing on a like-for-like basis (excluding Blakemore). We haven’t taken a decision as to whether the Lifestyle name will stay in the long-term, but for now we are rolling it out to the larger estate.

Effectively all the Landmark brands that previously existed – including No.3, LSV, Prince Consort and Vintners Collection – will continue under Unitas.

You have said that you are going to keep the Today’s and Lifestyle retail fascias. Is that a long-term decision?

Yes, we intend to keep both. When I speak to retailers and members, the local differentiation opportunity is very important to them. There are different regional strengths anyway – for example, Day-Today is strong in Scotland and Lifestyle is strong in the south of England.

Across the Today’s and Lifestyle retailers, we can have 80% of the same promotions and 80% of the same core range, which will give suppliers the efficiencies to get to consumers without losing the local differentiation – that’s the sweet spot we are trying to find.

In the same way, some of our members arrange local promotions and events, and this will continue, but if we get the central deal right first time, suppliers will be able to spend significantly less time haggling with individual members and significantly more time executing sales and activities.

What steps are you taking to achieve your aim of increased effectiveness?

Across our retail, foodservice and on-trade divisions we have about 15 different selling initiatives, such as a business-to-consumer leaflet and digital magazine. In year one we will look at every one of those initiatives to decide which is the better of the two – Landmark’s or Today’s – where there is overlap. We will then determine if the chosen initiatives can be scaled into the new entity and if anything should be done differently. Once that process is complete, we will share each initiative as best practice among our members.

An example of a decision already taken is to offer the ‘Plan for Profit’ category advice programme to all of our members. The Lifestyle core range scheme was limited to about 1,000 retailers and hadn’t been executed through the wholesalers to unaffiliated retailers, whereas Today’s ‘Plan for Profit’ is digital – there’s an app and website – and about 7,000 retailers use it regularly.

Are you going to tier your members into those who want/don’t want to participate in all the initiatives offered?

Yes. Members of both Landmark and Today’s have paid an annual subscription up to the end of March/April 2019, and at that point, a new membership structure will kick in and each member will get the choice as to what level of participation they want, based on their preferences and abilities. The subscription for each level of engagement will be transparent to our members.

Have any members decided to leave as a result of the merger and have any wholesalers joined the new group?

No, none have left and none have joined, although interest in joining has slightly accelerated because of Unitas. However, the number of members we have does not define our success. We have 179 members, and 179 are enough guns as long as I can point them in the right direction.

Regarding the other wholesale buying groups, we are not arrogant to assume they will want to be members of Unitas, but we are always open to collaborate in any way that adds value.

What is going to be the format of the trade show and the annual conference?

The trade show will take place on 5-6 March at the Exhibition Centre in Liverpool. It will be bigger than ever and will have separate sections for foodservice and the on-trade to take into account the diversity of the Unitas membership: of our 179 members, 80 are retail/multi-customer based, 41 are foodservice orientated, 20 focus on the on-trade, and 38 are specialists in the discount, ethnic foods, non-food, export or residual stock sectors. We anticipate that the number of members attending the trade show will rise by about a third, with obvious benefits for our suppliers.

We will hold an overseas conference in September but we haven’t finalised the timing or the destination. Like our trade show, the conference will have retail, foodservice and on-trade syndicates and there will be more break-off events, like speed-dating type meetings, because members and suppliers get real value out of those.

What effect has your role as managing director of Unitas had on your work-life balance?

In reality it hasn’t been good for my work-life balance but I’ve never felt more invigorated! I’m in a position whereby all the experience I have gained during my career is relevant to what I’ve got to do now, and with the great network of people I have around me, I know I have the resilience to see
it through.


• Unitas’ head office is the former Today’s premises in Doncaster. The Landmark HQ in Milton Keynes will close at the end of April.

• Of the 72 people employed by Today’s and Landmark, 50 will work at Unitas. Andrew Thewlis is finance director, John Baines is trading director, John Kinney is retail director, and Sam Wilcox (Blakemore Wholesale MD) is chairman.

• Combined turnover of members: £8.5 billion.

• Membership: 179 members, comprising 80 with a retail/multi customer base; 41 foodservice focused; 20 servicing the on-trade; and 38 specialists in the discount, ethnic foods, non-food, residual stock or export sectors.

• Infrastructure: 300+ depots, 2,200 vehicles.

• Fulfilment: 58% cash & carry, 42% delivered.

• Reach: 31,000 retail customers, 120,000 foodservice customers, 26,000 on-trade customers.

• All Landmark own-label brands will be retained, including Lifestyle, Caterers Kitchen, No3 cigarettes, LSV soft drinks, Vintners Collection wines and Prince Consort spirits. Today’s own-label range is already being phased out.

Tel: Unitas Wholesale (01302) 249909

Published Date: November 20, 2018
Category: Wholesale Industry News