Sean Ramsden: Britain’s wholesaler supreme

The business goes back three generations. It started out as a small grocery store, set up by Ron Ramsden in the forties. His son Dudley (Sean’s father) then joined the business, adding a wholesale operation in 1963 and establishing Nisa-Today’s, a consortium of independent food retailers and wholesalers. The organisation uses its combined purchasing muscle to negotiate the best deals from food manufacturers, stores the products in a huge, 625,000 sq ft warehouse in Scunthorpe and then distributes them to its members, ranging from tiny corner shops to chains such as Costcutter’s, Tuffins and Mills.

Sean walked into the family business in 1994, straight after graduating from Cambridge University. He’d been studying History of Art but had a seriously sharp business brain. Straight away, he sniffed out a new market – export. “Export sales had always been done on an opportunistic basis – the odd order here or there,” he says. “There was no strategy. It was absurd. There we were getting great deals on grocery products through Nisa-Today’s and yet we were only distributing them within the UK, the Channel Islands and the Republic of Ireland. I realised we were missing a trick.”

So, in 1997, Ramsden struck a deal to become Nisa-Today’s exclusive export distributor and set up Nisa International, supplying British groceries to international markets.

His timing was spot on. Weak sterling and the creation of the European Economic Area in the nineties made exporting from the UK easy. “The demolition of the Iron Curtain also meant that, for a period of two or three years, there was an enormous market for anything Western,” explains 38-year-old Ramsden. “We saw a real spurt in demand for British food products from the Soviet Union.”

Today, Nisa International supplies 18,000 UK grocery brands to more than 100 countries around the world and has bagged the Queen’s Award for Enterprise twice in the past five years. The grocery sector has notoriously wafer-thin margins so how has Nisa International hit double digits with 11 per cent? “All the labour-intensive stuff is handled by Nisa-Today’s,” says Ramsden. “They do all the fiddly bits like purchasing, warehousing and product picking. We also outsource the international logistics, which leaves us to get on with sales and account management. Essentially, we’re a service business.”

Sean Ramsden was shortlisted in the Company of the Year category at this year’s Growing Business Awards 2009. Read about the event here. The full interview with Sean Ramsden is published in the November/December edition of Real Business magazine.

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