The changing of the guard

The changing of the guard

Food Force Ireland welcomes new leader Jonathan Crawford as outgoing chairman Henry Emerson steps down after 25 years of service.

Jonathan Crawford, owner of Crawford’s of Maghera, has been involved in Food Force Ireland (FFI) for most of his professional life having joined the board in 1999.

In Jonathan’s first year as Treasurer, FFI secured an income of £20,000; this year that figure is estimated to exceed £1.6m with further growth forecast in 2020.

Following in his parents’ footsteps, Jonathan recalls seeing the minutes from the creation of the organisation where his father, seconded the motion to establish FFI. Now, after 20 years of his own service, Jonathan is the natural fit to take over as chairman when Henry Emerson steps down this year.

“Henry will be missed,” Jonathan tells Neighbourhood Retailer. “He has been through everything right from the formation of FFI and has paved the way for the size and the success of the organisation today. The industry is changing and he has left FFI in good shape for the future.

“He could have stepped down at any point over the last five years but we encouraged him to stay on as long as he did. He’s brought a wealth of experience to the board and has always been a safe pair of hands guiding the organisation selflessly over his term.

“I am honoured to be taking over from Henry and hope to lead FFI as it continues to grow at the same trajectory.”

The board will also welcome two fresh members this year; Finlay Robinson who owns Robinson’s of Ballymena and Fresh Food Centre retailer, Michael Johnston.

However, before any new board business can commence, there is much buying to be done and deals to be secured at the organisation’s annual Direct Supply Trade Exhibition.

Describing 2019’s event as “bigger and better than ever before”, Jonathan reports he is looking forward to the group’s annual pilgrimage to the Culloden Hotel & Spa on September 24.

“It’s always a great day away from the shop to meet with suppliers and talk directly without any distractions,” he says. “We’ve got some great show deals this year and that’s something our members get quite excited about. Sometimes throughout the year it can seem quite samey but the Direct Supply Trade Exhibition always gives you something different to offer your customers. Everybody knows they are going to bring back something special that will help get more customers into the shop.”

Along with the trade exhibition, the full-day event incorporates a lunch and a short awards ceremony designed to recognise a selection of FFI’s top local suppliers.

“The awards show our appreciation for all the hard work that our suppliers put in over the year. At the end of the day we’re all trying to please the Northern Irish public by delivering the right product at the right price,” says Jonathan.

Recounting the day as mutually beneficial for both suppliers and retailers, Jonathan believes it is the direct contact between both parties which makes FFI such an attractive organisation for Nisa retailers across the province.

“There’s no middle man between FFI members and local suppliers; the have direct contact and direct payment. This provides a flexibility that you can’t get with any other group and means our members aren’t being controlled by an outside force.”

The strong relationships forged between FFI members and suppliers present opportunities throughout the year too.

“Suppliers will support you if you want to do something out of the norm; whether that’s tastings, promotions, or celebrations,” says Jonathan. “The supplier is happy to do that because it gives them direct contact with the store owner or manager. Having those contacts means they can influence what happens in-store without have to talk to head office.”

As well as opportunities, challenges are also better faced as a group. As October 31 edges closer, shoppers are spending cautiously and the trade is nervous about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit. Despite concerns, Jonathan regards FFI members to be in the best possible position to navigate the unknown.

“I think FFI members are uniquely positioned to take advantage of what will come about. Everyone is concerned with how supply will be affected, but the ethos of FFI offers means our members are not tied to supply chains and are able to source products in whatever way they want.”

In his 20 years as a FFI member, Jonathan is no stranger industry change, having come through both testing and buoyant periods of trading. Throughout everything, supporting local has always been a key priority for this Maghera retailer.

Last year, Jonathan purchased his second shop, a forecourt site approximately 100 yards from the main supermarket. Having “surpassed expectations” in terms of sales, Jonathan reveals there has been lots of transformational change in-store with more new ventures ahead.

“Our company motto, ‘Giving you More’ ties in with FFI’s values, he says. “Members of FFI tend to be family-run businesses with links to local suppliers, whether they are big or small. I want to be supporting local suppliers and they want to be in my shop and supporting me. That’s the way we’ve extended over the years and that’s the way we’ll continue to expand.

“There are so many modern twists you can put on it, but if you really tracked the carbon footprint of a FFI retailer, it would be surprisingly low. Supporting more local products means less transport. This also ties in with having good, local shops close to the consumer so they don’t have to travel to the big multi-nationals.

“This is just one of the many reasons why FFI provides s a vital service to its members in Northern Ireland leaving them in the best possible position to continue retailing successfully in all corners of the country.”