Posted: 16/02/2017

Hitting the ground running

This year has already seen Somerset-based Diverse Fine Food unveil a radical rebrand and move into a bigger warehouse as it copes with demand both in its native West Country and across the UK. MICHAEL LANE talks to the distributor’s founders about rapid growth, shunning exclusivity and how they mix business with their passion for fitness.

Mark Wiltshire and Nicki Stewart
Founders Mark Wiltshire and Nicki Stewart have already relocated and unveiled bold new branding in 2017

Pounding the roads on foot seems a strange way to start a fine food distribution company but that’s exactly how Somerset-based Diverse Fine Food began.

Admittedly, Nicki Stewart and husband Mark Wiltshire weren’t couriering goods by Shanks’s pony but they were out running when the idea of entering the wholesale market first came up.

Fast forward three-and-a-half years and those training runs double up as “board meetings” for the endurance-mad pair.

While a marathon or an Ironman triathlon might require it, they’re not exactly pacing themselves when it comes to business.

Diverse’s latest sales figures are up 160% year-on-year and it has just relocated to a 12,000 sq ft warehouse in Bridgwater near the M5 – its third premises since launching from a small unit nearby in June 2013. It supplies independent retailers nationwide, not just in its native West Country, and even exports to Europe and Asia.

Its catalogue has grown from a modest selection of 25 start-up brands into a line-up of 1,500 products from some 200 different producers, 50 of which are new for the 2017 edition.

This month also sees Diverse unveil new branding, which will appear across the catalogue and website. It will also be emblazoned across the new lycra kit that Stewart and Wiltshire will be donning to take on a mammoth series of 40 events as ‘Team D’ for charity over the course of 2017.

Nicki Stewart and Mark Wiltshire admit to regularly working 14-hour days, the pair still find time to partake in their passion for running and endurance events.

Hiring food branding and marketing consultancy The Collaborators to replace the previous self-designed logo was a big step, Stewart tells FFD, but it is proof that Diverse has graduated from being a small start-up to a fast-growing company.

“There are no similarities between this and the old logo,” she says. “We’ve been quite bold with it but we’re confident.”

The design, which incorporates a large illustrated D made up of products from the Diverse catalogue, is certainly a departure from its old look and different from the traditional branding sported by other wholesalers working in the sector.

“We wanted to bring some of the products that we work with into our logo and it’s going to be modular as well so we could use it for Christmas with Christmas products in it,” says Wiltshire. “The constant will always be the D but the products within it may change.”

Stewart adds: “Hopefully we’ll get to the point where we can drop ‘Diverse’ because people will just recognise the D.”

The black and white colour scheme has been introduced to let Diverse’s colourful portfolio stand out. “It’s trying to emphasise that we’re in the background, here to do the distribution side, and the focus is on the brands that we work with,” says Wiltshire.

After all, the brands are ultimately what convinced the husband-and-wife team – debating it during several runs, of course – that moving from Stewart’s hamper business into wholesaling was a good plan.

Stewart had been buying her products direct because she wanted something different from the usual wholesalers’ fare and the hamper company (also called Diverse) was increasingly becoming a vehicle for small, artisan brands. But they needed a route to retail.

“We were very lucky when we came into the market with a lot of small producers popping up,” says Wiltshire, who left his corporate job to work at Diverse full-time. “And not just in the way they have in the last 20 years – very twee, very ‘farmer’s market’ products. Now they are very professional products, fully-formed, ready to go to market, and have great packaging and a good story behind them.”

These kinds of brands are still being added to the broad church that is Diverse’s catalogue, which covers a variety of ambient lines, from chocolate and crisps through to craft beer and spirits. That said, not everything in the book is an unknown quantity. As Diverse has grown, some of the more prominent speciality brands have joined the roster – such as Belvoir, FeverTree tonic water and Artisan Biscuits.

“We needed to move into the realms of becoming retailers’ number one supplier,” says Stewart. “So if we stuck by only having smaller artisan products, we were looking at alienating people that wanted to go to us as their first supplier.”

Regardless of reputation, every product faces a “stringent” tasting process and it must have top notch packaging.

Leafy kale crisps
Diverse Fine Food’s catalogue spans a wealth of ambient goods from drinks and snacks through to condiments and ingredients

The third and final selection criterion is attitude. Producers need to be willing to work in partnership with Diverse, rather than just handing over the goods and leaving them to it. But it’s a two-way street. For instance, Wiltshire and Stewart are happy to put producers directly in contact with retailers, despite the commercial risk, so they can arrange sampling sessions or discuss merchandising options.

They also think it’s imperative for distributors to advise and guide start-ups, hence their involvement as mentors for South West start-up programme The Seed Fund, alongside industry stalwarts like Tracklements’ Guy Tullberg and Olives Et Al’s Giles Henschel.

Having advised Somerset-based raw chocolate specialist and eventual Seed Fund prize-winner Adam’s Raw Chocolate on its pricing model and margin, Diverse has now welcomed the company into its catalogue.

Adam’s and its all-natural spin on an established category are also a good example for the kind of ‘different’ product Diverse is looking for. Another recent listing that fits the company’s modus operandi is FitBeer, a professionally branded alcohol-free drink with the hoppiness of a craft beer.

And, despite investing the time in small suppliers, Stewart and Wiltshire are not covetous about their line-up. In fact, they are unequivocal when asked about producers using other distributors to get to market.

“We hear about the ‘exclusive’ rule quite often now,” says Stewart, “And we always say we would not advise producers to go down that route if you’re asked because not one distribution company deals with the whole of the UK’s independent retail sector.”

Wiltshire adds it would be “naïve” of Diverse to presume that it could offer a producer all the volume it would ever need but it is wary of brands who are looking to use the independent retailers as a stepping stone to the multiples.

“I think those days are almost gone. If you want to be in the independent sector, create a brand for that. If you want to be in the supermarket, create a product for them. Don’t try and blur the two, because they don’t go very well together.”

While delis, farm shops and garden centres are Diverse’s core market, it also supplies product in retail formats to cafés, restaurants and bars as well as hotels. Wiltshire says these avenues are beneficial to both its suppliers and its retail customers.

“The producers are getting the brands in people’s hands a lot quicker but it also benefits the retailer because consumers have more awareness. If someone goes to a hotel and has a drink in the mini-bar, they will recognise it when they walk into a shop.”

Despite expanding into these markets, Diverse does not plan to start selling catering quantities in its catalogue and any move into chilled products is a way off.

If anything, it will be dealing with more retailers because, Wiltshire say Diverse is seeing more shop owners – both large and small – looking to go with a distributor rather than dealing direct with producers.

“Buy through us you’ll get it at the same price as direct,” he says. “You get the same support – we will still arrange tastings, things like that – and we also feed back information about where the products are sold to our producers.”

Whether it’s on the backs of Team D’s running tops or on the side of a delivery van, it seems a fair bet you’ll be seeing more of Diverse’s new livery in 2017.

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