Blog: Lanarkshire wholesaler on Brexit, DRS and alcohol ad ban … – HeraldScotland

At 63, two years away from semi-retirement, he is looking back, and forward, at the wholesale game.

As well as reminiscing about his journey, he is confident of the future of Dunns Food & Drink, one of the country’s largest wholesale suppliers, which he has been with since 1996.

Mr Rowan and business partner Julie Dunn, the operations director and descendent of founder Joseph Dunn, who set up his soft drinks business in Arcadia Street in the east end of Glasgow in 1875, expect further interest in the business from both families.

“We have a robust succession plan,” Mr Rowan said. “There are five coming through from the next generation, one of whom has been here for two years and is making his mark. All the kids [when they come of age] come in for holiday jobs – be it shredding or sweeping the yard.”

He said the firm has recently faced Brexit issues, supply problems, and staff shortages.

“We just applied ourselves and got on with it,” he said.

READ MORE: Scottish drinks wholesaler warns of glass beer bottle shortage

“We have responsibilities to 130 staff and therefore you don’t have time to sit back and think ‘what next?’.”

Mr Rowan said a strong online presence allowed it to accelerate out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said: “We like to think we are a small player in a very large market and as the very big companies make decisions, they tend to drop a few balls and we pick them up, and that is what happened coming out of Covid.

“We budgeted to be about 70 per cent of 2019, which we thought would be quite good, because we had never experienced anything like that.

“We indexed 130% of 2019. The problem we had was we couldn’t get staff and we couldn’t get fleet.”

READ MORE: £7 pint to be ‘the norm’ amid soaring costs for brewers

He continued: “We kept the stock high. We now have 70% of our business online, so that exploded for us. We were picking up work from our competitors, but we didn’t know if this was a bump or if it was sustainable.

“Coming up to three years of the anniversary of Covid, we are still growing at a very strong double-digit [percentage] growth.

“It has allowed us to invest in the business better than we have ever invested.

“It is the 150th anniversary of being a family business in 2025. Julie is fourth-generation family so we are still very much linked to the original founder of the company.

“It [the target] is to do £50 million by the time we hit the anniversary of 150 years in business.”

READ MORE: Lanarkshire family business warns customers on cost hikes

He said: “We are putting the foundations in investing. We think it’s necessary to remain a player and to remain relevant in this sector.”

Mr Rowan added: “What it has allowed us to do is expand our range of products. Before lockdown we probably carried around 4,500, to 5,000 lines. We are now up to nearly 8,000 lines.

“Everybody sells the main core lines and 80% of our turnover will be 20% of our lines.

“It means we think we are in tune with what our customers want, like bringing on new sustainable products, artisanal products, local products, as well as the big products, tomatoes, oil, butter, Budweiser – these are just core people expect us to buy.

“So we are in a nice position.”

Mr Rowan said his mentor was Julie’s father, Christopher, who died in 2018.

“He always said ‘if you look after your staff everything else will come’,” Mr Rowan said: “We try and make sure that staff feel secure.”

Investing £1.5m in a range of major sustainability measures to support its long-term net zero ambitions helps.

The investment includes a £1m energy-efficient CO2 freezer, solar panels, and LED lights with motion sensors.

In the 1990s the company was “almost forced under” by a devastating fire at its Cambuslang site that led to its move to Blantyre.

He said with headwinds such as Brexit “we import a lot, so there is an awful lot more paperwork involved, but you just get used to it”.

Mr Rowan added: “The biggest single problem with Brexit is that people left the country and didn’t come back, and that created the labour shortage.

“Therefore we were all scrambling around trying to get people to work for us and we are still scrambling around.

“What have I noticed? Getting the stock in takes a bit longer, but we don’t export, so we don’t have that problem, and labour.

“You just have to increase your wages, offer more benefits, you have to be very competitive and understand what people want in a job now – and it is not just security. They want hybrid working, they want health insurance, staff discount, more holidays, and we do it to make sure we are fully staffed.”

Holyrood’s deposit return scheme (DRS) is also creating challenges.

“The DRS is not ready. It is not the right time. It just doesn’t strike me as being the finished article, and I think that is what is worrying businesses,” said Mr Rowan.

On the proposed Scottish Government alcohol advertising ban, he said he was “not quite sure where that one is going”, and added: “It would have a devastating effect.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

I’m not a great person for business travel – I leave that to others in the organisation and my holidays tend to be European based. I have particular fondness for Italy.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

Car mechanic – I loved taking things apart and putting them together. As young men, my brother and I haunted car scrappies to find parts for our ancient Opal Manta. With the dawn of electric cars I would have had to take early retirement!

What was your biggest break in business?

In 1989 being headhunted by the Joseph Dunn Group and meeting Christopher Dunn who became my mentor and great friend.

What was your worst moment in business?

We’ve had a couple. The pandemic was pretty difficult – uncharted waters for the world.  The bank crash of 2008 was challenging and we had the “great fire” of 2000 at our Cambuslang depot which is how we ended up in Blantyre.

Who do you most admire and why?

My Mum and Dad who raised nine of us and taught us the value of education and the importance of contributing to the community. 

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson.  I’m more of a podcast listener than a music fan.

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