Standing out from the crowd: Colin McLean’s ambition for SPAR Scotland

Just over a year into the job, CJ Lang’s CEO Colin McLean has succeeded in making the business the top sales performer among the UK’s five SPAR wholesalers. He talks to Cash & Carry Management’s managing editor Kirsti Sharratt about his strategy for profitable growth.

The first indication that CJ Lang is undergoing something of a transformation is a bright new reception at the Dundee HQ. This modern space, which leads to new open-plan offices, is a small part of a big shake-up of the 100-year-old business by CEO Colin McLean, who joined the SPAR wholesaler and retailer in March 2018 from Scotmid, where he was chief operating officer.

McLean is the first to admit that CJ Lang, which services 114 company-owned and 205 independently-managed SPAR stores in Scotland, had lost its direction. He is determined to address this by developing a compelling proposition for the group’s retailers, with a specific objective of driving average margin up from 20% to 30% by focusing on profitable categories like food to go.

Cash & Carry Management spoke to McLean about his plans for “awakening the sleeping giant”.

What appealed to you about the role?

I think that CJ Lang is a great business. It’s got a tremendous heritage in Scotland and was long recognised for bringing exciting ideas and initiatives to the Scottish marketplace. However, in recent years, it lost its way, it lost its identity and its uniqueness. Being able to put my own stamp on the business and take it in a very different direction is a fantastic opportunity. I understand the market and I’ve got the experience from my time at Scotmid (2005-2018).

What expertise gained in your previous roles has been most useful so far in this one?

A really good understanding of the Scottish market. Lots of other retailers struggle to get their heads round it and its nuances, such as the licensing laws and other regulatory issues. There is a real advantage to having been born and bred in Scotland and having run one of the big operations here (Scotmid and Semichem). It’s given me a great opportunity to understand the Scottish customer. Scotland is different from the rest of the UK.

What influence does the Scott-Adie family have now over the running of the business?

The family are quite clear that they want people with retail and wholesale expertise to drive the business, and the board are being very supportive in allowing me to get on with the job. Joan Scott-Adie (granddaughter of the founder Charles J Lang) is life president and she attends the board meetings, and her four daughters are non-executive directors. They are keen to get a better understanding of the business, so we have taken them round the warehouse and they have spoken to the team. This has reinforced what a great asset they have in CJ Lang.

What changes have you made so far?

We have put more money back into the business – investing in our people, new stores and new systems.

We have brought in a new team, which includes chairman Jim Hepburn (ex Premier Foods and Dawnfresh); finance director Craig Tedford (ex Heineken); and distribution director Colin Chapman (ex Tesco). Also in the management team are sales director Mike Leonard (who returned to CJ Lang from United Wholesale Scotland); head of food to go Stephen Brown (ex Scotmid); and company stores director Brian Straiton (also ex Scotmid).

Brian’s appointment has allowed me to bring former company stores director Jamie Buchanan into the centre, and he is now looking after formats and merchandising, which is a key role as we make the switch from the stores running the business to central control.

More recently, Sonya Harper and Karina Matuszek (both ex Scotmid) have joined as head of central operations and space planning manager respectively. Head of marketing Paula Middleton (ex First Aberdeen) is also new and is making a big difference.

As part of putting together a really strong team, I have changed the structure so that we can focus initially on the customer. We need to be clear about how we improve our customer proposition across Scotland because we have had 300 stores with different products, different services and different availability. Our priority is to fix our company-owned stores first and then showcase those to the independent SPAR stores.

We have a five-year strategy, which is in three phases: back to basics (getting better pricing, availability, products and ranging); growing the business; and beyond.

Were there any other issues you wanted to address quite quickly?

Belief! I want the team to have belief that together we can deliver. Being able to articulate to 2,000 colleagues that we’ve got a plan is very important. There is fear of change – I would be daft not to recognise that – but the business is not going to go forward unless we do some heavy lifting. We’ve had to make difficult decisions and we’ll have to make more going forward. We’re up against the Amazons of this world: technology will change the market.

What investments in technology have you made since joining the business?

TranSend electronic proof of delivery (ePOD) software is probably the biggest investment. The team have done a cracking job rolling it out.

How are you determining the best proposition for your customers?

In the past four months, we have conducted exit interviews, customer-assisted interviews and customer panels with around 400 people to really try to understand what it is they think about SPAR, what the issues are and what we can do differently. This data will help the executive team decide how to segment the stores and how to manage their profitability and focus.

How many formats of stores are there now and how many will there be?

There’s really just one now – we have a one-size-fits-all proposition, which isn’t ideal – and we’re working through how many formats we think we’ll have based on the current estate. Broadly, 80% of the 319 shops are convenience stores, with the remainder split between CTNs and larger convenience stores. The challenge is to change the margin mix and the customer proposition to differentiate against the competition. I think we can do that well.

What is your assessment of the retail marketplace now?

The UK retail market is very tricky but there are some amazing stores out there, a great network we can tap into.

SPAR International embraces 48 countries and is a 36 billion euros business. I have teams going out to China in September, October and November to see some of the stores there. Closer to home, we recently visited Henderson’s and James Hall & Co (two other SPAR RDCs). Martin Agnew and Andrew Hall have been very helpful, very supportive.

I don’t want to reinvent the SPAR proposition; instead, I’m looking at how to take the best of SPAR International and the best of SPAR UK and bring them together for Scotland.

Are any of your stores in Scotland ready to showcase your ‘best practice’?

SPAR Havannah Street, a brand new 2,000 sq ft company-owned store in Glasgow, is probably the best example of our latest thinking and is a great advert for SPAR Scotland.

It’s a very different model and is designed as a food-to-go hotspot for students and shoppers. It has the SPAR Daily Deli range, with a menu of fresh food-to-go including quick, hot breakfasts and a chicken bar. There is also a substantial self-serve food-to-go offering. It’s got instore seating, free Wi-Fi and LED lighting and has already won awards. The SPAR Guild have been round it, as have our competitors!

By showcasing this model within our company-owned estate and then taking it to the independently-managed stores, we are hopeful that retailers and suppliers will want to come with us on our journey. We can give retailers the tools they need to be successful but I expect the compliance and standards in return.

We are also highlighting our delivery proposition – the fact that we offer ambient, chilled and frozen – which is a real stand-out against the competition.

How else are you encouraging suppliers to support your strategy?

We aim to get the best deals into the market and to give suppliers confidence that when they do a deal, it will actually be put into the stores. Historically, it was up to the individual store manager to decide what to stock, and this was frustrating for suppliers and our buyers. We are already changing this. For example, for the first time, all of our stores had Irn-Bru Energy on day one of the launch. It’s a good example of how – with the right suppliers, and by engaging our distribution, operations and marketing teams – we can get it right. I want to be able to offer that package to other suppliers.

In what other ways are you building the profile of SPAR Scotland?

We celebrated CJ Lang’s centenary with a trade show and gala dinner in St Andrews and we used the opportunity to articulate to suppliers, independent customers and our company-owned store managers the different strategies we are trying to pull together. We had all the company stores and close to 90 independent customers there.

We also sponsored the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Glasgow in March, and we are supporting the Scotland Women’s Football Team. At the end of August, we will announce another sports sponsorship.

Are you seeing growth coming through yet as a result of your new approach?

Yes. For the last 26 weeks, we have outperformed the other UK SPAR wholesalers on a like-for-like company-owned store basis. We also have evidence that our best independent retailers are growing ahead of, or in line with, our company-owned stores. Ultimately we are here to support retailers and help their businesses grow.

We have plans to open two brand new company-owned stores – one in Edinburgh, the other in Larbert – and we are managing the Penny Petroleum and Certas Energy contracts that we won earlier this year.

We do have targets for new stores, which is culturally quite different for this business, but it is much more about profitable stores than a race for numbers.

How would you describe your management style?

I like to think I’m open, honest and fair, with a very visible presence. I was out on the delivery vans last week – it’s the second time I’ve done it in 12 months – and I was in the warehouse again this morning. I also like to think I’m strong on communication. I commute every day from Edinburgh and while I’m driving, I can talk to people, find out what’s going on. I was on the phone this morning at half-seven chatting to the area managers. It’s a very different management style to what was here before, but I’m trying to change a culture.

Final thoughts?

To all 2,000 staff, I would like to say a massive thank you. Achieving our objectives and targets is about all of us pulling together and we have made a great start. We still have a long way to go but we can do this!


Colin McLean is an Ironman twice over, having conquered the punishing 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run in Dorset and Bolton.

He also completed the half-Ironman triathlon in Edinburgh with his wife Suzy (pictured approaching the finish line).

He also enjoys skiing and watching football (he is a Manchester United fan, an affiliation that stems from his time working in Manchester for GUS plc).

Married with four sons ranging in age from 13 to 23, McLean says he’s still learning how to get the right amount of downtime and he credits Suzy with “running the team at home”.


CJ Lang fast facts:

Turnover: £183 million (year to April 2018)

Profit: £490,000 (year to April 2018)

Employees: 2,000

Company-owned SPAR stores: 114

Independent SPAR stores: 205

Product lines: 4,500

Own-brand lines: 750

Distribution centre: 164,000 sq ft

Delivery vehicles: 33


Tel: CJ Lang and Son (01382) 512000

Published Date: July 16, 2019
Category: Wholesale Industry News