Driving change at The Distributors

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Ahead of The Distributors’ expo and conference in Queensland, Convenience World caught up with General Manager Alessandro Garofalo to discuss his role and background.

David Burton.

“We’re looking for exclusive products and/or exclusive arrangements that we can offer as a point of difference to our customers.”

Alessandro Garofalo is a quietly spoken man who is passionate about the business he runs and his favourite Italian football team, Juventus. He left Italy more than 15 years ago, but some things never change.

As General Manager of The Distributors, he has overseen the ongoing restructuring of the group’s business model, leading from the front in inspiring a national organisation of 37 warehouses owned by 26 different businesses.

His background with food companies in sales and marketing gained him extensive experience, especially, but not only, in Asia Pacific with Barilla and in the US as head of sales with De Cecco.

Always working with distributors, wholesalers and brokers, he is now entrenched in the distribution channel himself, running a major wholesaler group partner to most suppliers in the convenience channel.

A food heritage

With his Italian heritage it is no surprise that Mr Garofalo has worked for two leading Italian pasta companies.

He worked with Barilla, in Italy at first, then across the Far East and South-East Asia, and in Australia, where Barilla is today a very well known brand.

The other pasta company he joined, De Cecco, is not a household brand in Australia, but is the number two pasta company in Italy – after Barilla – and the leading premium brand in pasta and pasta sauces.

In the US, Mr Garofalo held the position of vice president sales for De Cecco and spent around three years based in its New York head office. He travelled around the country, working extensively with retailers, distributors and brokers.

He said the challenge for De Cecco in the US at the time had been identifying the right target market and retailers.

“At the end, we got De Cecco across 60 to 70 per cent of the US retailers, in a much more fragmented retail market than Australia, while reinforcing the brand presence across foodservice outlets and independents,” Mr Garofalo said

On his return to Australia from the US, The Distributors was seeking a general manager and he felt this role would suit his background and experience while providing new and exciting challenges.

The Distributors’ role

Joining a longstanding business creates the opportunity for new thinking and reviewing the way the processes, communications and back-end structure work.

“The challenge with a group like the current one of 26 businesses and 37 warehouses is actually to be able to provide consistent product offer and service across the country, which means also being consistent in terms of systems and processes,” Mr Garofalo said.

“So, basically, the past three years have been characterised by an ongoing revision of the group structure and processes, a broadening of the product range and a strengthening of customer relationships, locally and nationally, while making The Distributors brand much more visible to the market as one group.

“It’s an ongoing process with the ultimate goal being a cohesive, powerful, leading group.

“My passion for cycling provides me with solid stamina when it comes to long-term strategies and their execution. [Australia’s Tour de France winner] Cadel Evans did not succeed in the Tour by winning just one stage.”

The importance of working together nationally, yet having a strong local identity, serves The Distributors well.

“We cover the whole country,” Mr Garofalo told Convenience World. “We cover every corner of Australia. In the one or two regions where we don’t have a warehouse, we supply freighting goods from a warehouse hub. I can confidently state that we cover 100 per cent of this entire country.”

With 26 individually owned businesses making up the group, progress has been achieved in keeping everyone on the same page when it matters, while allowing individual identity to shine through. Policies and processes are in place for supporting compliance and consistency across the group.

“At the same time,” Mr Garofalo said, “each individual business has its own peculiarities, as you would imagine, and this is of great value when it delivers on the local needs and requirements.”

The big advantage that encourages him is the hybrid structure of the business. “This is why we always say we try to be as much of a national group as we can, but we leverage at the same time the local strengths within our group, and that’s the unique competitive advantage that we have,” he said.

“This is backed up by having a great, extensive sales force calling our customers on a regular basis – weekly, fortnightly or monthly, depending on the account.”

No longer just confectionery and snacks

Chips and chocolates were king in the early days of convenience stores. The Distributors has, over time, broadened its product range while continuing as the source of supply for many products in those original categories.

Times have changed and with this has come greater opportunity to expand the offer.

“We’re looking at growing our drinks product portfolio and our grocery range, which we introduced thanks to contracts with leading convenience customers,” Mr Garofalo said. “The opportunity is to represent a one-stop shop for all our existing and new potential customers.

“Talking about customers, and independents in particular, currently IGA, FoodWorks and the like are not our core target as their store offer today goes beyond what we stock in our warehouses. The disruption happening across market dynamics anyway may change things in the future.

“Today we’re not in a position to supply those stores across the full range, but the fact that we’re locals and that we’re there with our warehouses and with our people helps us establish a relationship with those retailers, so providing them with a potential alternative.

“Besides providing a national platform to our supplier and customer partners, our business is very much community focused. Our warehouses’ people have been operating in their community for decades. So if we can help the local customers provide a competitive offer to their consumers, then we definitely help and work with them.”

The next phase 

Mr Garofalo is excited about the potential for The Distributors to take ownership of its product offer taking supply relationships to the next level and establishing exclusive arrangements with brands and products – perhaps exclusive to P&C, leveraging its group expertise and heritage.

Committed to an ongoing process to make the group consistent, compliant, dynamic and also stronger in terms of product offer, Mr Garofalo says a challenge for the group in the future, besides consolidating its role as leading national group, is being able to offer customers a product portfolio that goes beyond the traditional core of confectionery and snacks.

“We’ve made some inroads but there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area,” he said.

Mr Garofalo confirmed that The Distributors had recently signed an exclusive arrangement for convenience and route with the importer of Jelly Belly, the overseas household brand of jelly beans sold across the US.

“We’re bringing this brand throughout the convenience and route channel, aiming to grow it as big as they are abroad,” he said.

“We’re going to do more and more of this. Exclusive arrangements are definitely part of the long-term plan for the group. We need to balance our offer, not only for us to better compete in a market where all the major brands are sold by everybody, but, most importantly, for our customers, who need to enrich their offer with different and unique lines.”

The Distributors already has its first own brand in the growing water category, Water Please! It will not be the last.