Nice guys shout louder

Roger Trapp looks at a family firm grafting a higher profile on to its `people first' philosophy

In A Business environment that extols the professional manager and puts cost-cutting a long way ahead of loyalty, the food distribution company Cearns & Brown would not seem to have what it takes. A family business for a century, it has its origins in a wedding gift to the grandfather of the current chairman, Alastair Stoddart.

He was a good all-round international sportsman who, in those amateur days, would have had nothing to live on had a wealthy uncle, Sir William Bowring, not been able to give him a business to "keep him going", explains Mr Stoddart.

But after that unpromising start the business passed to Mr Stoddart's father who, despite ill-health, ran it until the early 1970s. Then Alastair and his brother, Wilfrid, took over and a new generation is moving in to keep the connection going.

Originally a ships' store company that served vessels visiting Mersey docks, Cearns & Brown was part of a Liverpool group which had been given to Sir William, then Lord Mayor of the city, in settle-ment of a debt. Since the Depression of the 1930s forced it to diversify into areas such as catering, it has become Britain's second-biggest wholesale supplier after Booker, but no one has heard of it.

That is about to change. Alastair Stoddart, who joined his senior executives in addressing nearly all of the 920 employees at a recent meeting, says the management has decided that after quadrupling in size in the past few years, the company must raise its profile. What has always been "very much a private company" is going to start promoting itself.

From March Cearns & Brown, based in Runcorn, Cheshire, will be ending its relationship with the Countrywide company and marketing its own branded products.

Moreover, the once-sleepy family business has embraced current management theory to the extent of commissioning Wolff Olins to create a corporate image that will be presented on the company's lorries as well as its products.

Mr Stoddart says the decision to change approach was not taken lightly. It followed extensive research which showed that while those who dealt with the company thought they were "really nice people", those who did not do business with it had never heard of it and even some of those who did deal with it did not know the full range of its activities. "We decided that we had to change if we were going to carry on progressing," says Mr Stoddart.

The trick is to maintain the approachability of a family firm while becoming modern enough to exploit the opportunities that will exist for the efficient service provider in the years to come. Mr Stoddart, who manages to make logistics sound fun, sets great store by the quality of people at his disposal and clearly hopes the quirky logos and brochures will help get the "people friendly" image across.

"We have a lot to offer. It's time we communicated that. The aim of the relaunch is to commence that process by increasing awareness among our potential customers and creating a public image for Cearns & Brown that reflects the unique personality of our company."

Since shifting its focus away from the shipping side the company has increasingly served the contract catering business, supplying such household names as Compass and Gardner Merchant as well as nursing homes, hospitals and schools.

"The catering market has expanded hugely in recent times. The niche has become a bigger and bigger slice," says Mr Stoddart.

However, despite the corporate make-over and the introduction of such management techniques as customer focus and action teams, he is adamant that he does not want the pounds 150m-plus company to be the biggest player or to float on the stock market.

"What you have to concentrate on in the service business we're in is making yourselves very much indispensable to your customers. Unless you're part of a customer's business you're not going to be around," he adds.

To this end, he and his fellow senior executives are seeking to turn the company on its head so that it is focused entirely on the requirements of the customer. And to make sure that they are aware of issues and concerns, each member of the management must spend at least a day a month at the "customer face", in such activities as accompanying lorry drivers on the road, and answering the phones in telesales and in the warehouse.

It is all part of Mr Stoddart's conviction that the staff are the key to the company's success. "We're in the hands of all those people because the driver is the company to customers."

The antipathy to flotation stems from Mr Stoddart's concern about the market's treatment of investment plans such as the one he has embarked on.

"We're always looking long-term," he says, pointing out that the company has recently moved into the frozen-food market. "You can only break into the market because of service, and that's not cheap."

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