It’s been six months since Jason Fisher took the helm at Rowcliffe. MICHAEL LANE meets him to discuss the future of delis, new trends and the big changes afoot at the wholesaler.
Plenty of people in the food industry claim they have the best job in the world and Jason Fisher is one of them.
It might seem like empty rhetoric but if you’ve ever watched Rowcliffe’s recently appointed MD tasting cheese – I witnessed him take on some very funky, almost unpalatable blues with glee at last year’s World Cheese Awards – then you’ll know he really does enjoy his work. And he has applied the same vigour to all of his tasks at the helm of the Kent-based wholesaler since being promoted to the top job last September.
There is already a new senior management team, largely promoted from within, and the number of area sales managers (ASMs) on the road has increased from five to seven. Despite a healthy independent customer base of more than 2,000 retailers, worth some £10m in annual sales of cheese and other fresh deli staples, Fisher is not sitting back and admiring the balance sheet as growth ticks over at 5-7% year-on-year.
“There are definite gaps in our range, which we are looking to fill, and there are definite service improvements that we will make,” he tells FFD.
His re-focussing of new product development will be evident in the new catalogue. Fisher quickly corrects himself to call it a brochure, nodding to a forthcoming rebrand set to be unveiled in the next couple of months, and he coyly alludes to another “first to market” service introduction coming later this year.
Involved in almost every aspect of the business since joining as head of operations in 2002, Fisher stresses that none of these changes will come at the expense of Rowcliffe’s “traditional values”. Even though more than half of its 1,500 lines are now other deli items, speciality cheese is what it will remain known-for.
Independent retailers will also be in focus during 2017. For those worried about the absence of owner Tim Rowcliffe from this article thus far, he is very much at large and will be touring the country to visit customers throughout the year.
“Rowcliffe is not just about the product,” says Fisher. “When you buy into Rowcliffe you become a partner and we supply you with a package. A fantastic product makes up part of that,” he adds, citing service aspects like next-day deliveries and organising in-store tastings.
There is also the expertise offered by ASMs on everything from merchandising to waste management, not to mention assisting in the training of counter staff. In Fisher’s estimation, 70% of a counter sale is down to a knowledgeable salesperson and just 30% is the product itself.
While he admits that certain lines, like Cheddars, Stiltons and Le Gruyére, are becoming more and more popular in pre-packs, Fisher says that serve-overs are still crucial.
“I don’t think deli counters will ever die, purely because there are two different types of customers. There’s the customer who wants to shop for convenience and will always go to the pre-pack and there are customers who want to be made feel special, who like that counter experience.”
Regardless of how they like to buy their cheese, British consumers are changing their preferences and Rowcliffe is moving to cater for them.
Fisher says the effect of Brexit and the Euro exchange rate means he is anticipating increases in sales of British cheese during 2017 after 2016’s “massive” sales growth in Continental cheeses. This is despite milk prices causing cost increases for cheesemakers here too.
“There are more and more British ‘Continental’ offers – British Halloumis, British Gouda-style cheese, British ricottas – and that is a great growth market,” he says, adding that organic and healthier styles will also be added to the Rowcliffe roster this year.
Continentals will still have their place too, especially if Fisher is right in predicting that rising food costs brought about by the economic situation will see more people dining in, boosting sales of cheese centrepieces like cheeseboards, fondues and Raclette burners.
Anticipating trends is all well and good but every Rowcliffe employee – from the warehouse staff through to Fisher himself – is primed to spot new cheeses and products. There is also the matter of keeping up with current suppliers if the company is to find the point of difference, or as Fisher calls it the “Holy Grail”, that keeps it ahead in the competitive world of deli wholesaling.
This is some task, especially as more than half of Rowcliffe’s 1,500 lines are not cheese, and the supplier base stands at over 400 different companies. The support goes beyond just chatting, too, as the company offers technical and NPD assistance, which brings obvious benefits, and potentially exclusives, for Rowcliffe
“Our suppliers are as important to us as our customers,” says Fisher. “Without them we haven’t got a business.”
Fisher is willing to wager that no other comparable MD spends as much time on the road with producers as he does but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Yes, it’s important that I drive the business from a strategy point of view but I don’t want to be sitting at a desk 24-7. I didn’t sign up to that. I want to be out there speaking to people, learning about the suppliers.”
To him, at least, his job really is the best in the world.