Case Studies

Business is pick of the crop

Magnus Swanson talks to Business Gateway about his business Swanson’s Food Wholesalers.

14th June 2018

Where is it based?

Our Head Office is in Inverness. We also have branches in Nairn and Elgin.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

We supply a full range of fresh produce from fresh fruit and veg to dairy, grocery and much more. Our aim is to supply as much locally grown produce and products wherever possible. We operate from three depots, covering the entire Highlands and Moray from John o’ Groats to Glencoe and Skye to Huntly. Between our staff we more or less work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

To whom does it sell?

We supply hotels, restaurants, schools, shops and the public and have over 1k customers including: all the schools in Highland and Moray Council areas, as well as Gordonstoun School, restaurants from Sligachan and Café Sia on Skye, Glengarry Castle Hotel at Invergarry, to Rocpool and Culloden House in Inverness, several golf clubs, and the University of the Highlands and Islands. We also supply Inverness Caledonian Thistle with fruit for their players during training.

What is its turnover?

Several million.

How many employees?


When was it formed?

The first shop opened in July 1991 and the company became limited in 2003.

Why did you take the plunge?

I had been working as a sales manager for a local wholesaler in Inverness. It was in that job that I saw just how much fruit was being sold to, amongst others, the late Ken Ramage who had seven shops. I left my job and opened my own fruit shop, Fruitique, behind Woolworths in Inverness town centre. Very soon after, Marks and Spencer started selling fruit and veg so to pay the town centre rent and rates I had to start wholesaling as well. I think self- employment was always in my blood.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

I come from a Caithness farming family and Plan A was to become a farmer like my Dad. I studied Agriculture at The University of Edinburgh before travelling the world for a year. I returned to the family farm, but after a year my father retired and our cousins took over. I then moved to Inverness to work for the Potato Marketing Board in 1987 and have stayed in the city ever since. I stayed with PMB for two years before opening my shop.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

A combination of family and banks along with my own savings and putting our house on the line!

What was your biggest break?

Buying over competitors. It’s always a big risk, as there is no guarantee the customers will stick with you, but looking back our acquisitions have nearly always worked out well. It is by far the easiest way to double your turnover overnight. Winning major Local Authority contracts also adds large chunks of business to the group.

What was your worst moment?

I recall our first shop flooding on Hogmanay night due to the restaurant above leaving a tap on. New Year was cancelled that year! All setbacks seem major at the time but with hindsight are just part of the ups and downs of business life.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

The variety and the stories and laughs. Only last week one of our staff jumped into his van at 4.30 a.m. and drove to work. He heard banging in the back of the van and assumed it was some loose boxes. On arriving at work and opening the back door out stumbled a very drunk and disorientated man!

What do you least enjoy?

Having to let people go, but it can be essential for the overall good of the business and the rest of the 40 staff. Also losing any customer regardless of size, but this is a very competitive trade.

What is your biggest bugbear?

Slow payers and restaurants who say their produce is local when it isn't.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

In the past 27 years, I’ve owned five greengrocer shops and a baby goods shop, started a wild bird food company from scratch, opened two new wholesale food depots, and also bought over three existing food businesses. During that time, I’ve created hundreds of local jobs and supported numerous local farmers and growers. I enjoy the buzz of making deals and growing the company so to answer the question, I will probably carry on in the same vein but I am consciously trying to step back from the day-to-day running of the company and moving more to a Chairman’s role, much easier said than done! However, Business Gateway Highland is helping me put plans in place to help with the transition. The team there have been excellent, offering a range of services that have been invaluable to the business. Currently, I’m working with them on management training and restructuring projects to further develop my staff. That work being undertaken with Business Gateway Highland, who also put me in touch with the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service, will help me take a step back gradually.

What are your five top priorities?

1. To step back from the day-to-day running and plan the road ahead in a fast-changing industry while also developing new managers.

2. Develop our new Breakfast Club supplying the many excellent B&Bs and Guest Houses throughout the Highlands and Moray.

3. To continue to develop our direct sourcing of produce both locally and internationally thus adding value in terms of quality and price for our customers.

4. To continue to diversify the business in terms of what and where we sell while remaining true to our specialisation in fresh produce.

5. To tie everything we do to our company values, which are customer focus, quality, consistency, respect and trust, pride, strong communications and loyalty. This is another area where Business Gateway Highland has helped us to develop Personal Action Plans for our staff which relate back to our core values.

What single thing would most help?

Finding experienced, motivated quality managers will always be a top priority. Business Gateway Highland’s recent support with management training will go a long way to help us enhance the skills of our current team, developing their skillset to meet the needs of the business as it continues to grow and opening up potential opportunities for career growth.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

You have to take risks to grow. I have borrowed a lot of money from different sources but always managed to pay it back and often well before the deadline.

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