Crawshaw Group’s Noel Collett oversaw Lidl’s explosion in the UK. Now he’s bringing butchers back to the high street
Walking through the North entrance of Leeds’ Merrion Centre, there’s a bright light from a shopfront and the aroma of bacon butties.
Pristine white walls are lined with chiller cabinets of packaged meat: steak, belly pork, burgers, sausages.
Opposite, near-empty breakfast trays are replaced with curries at a hot food station, ready for the lunchtime rush.
A chicken rotisserie turns baking birds to be sold through the day, while a butcher can be seen through the back, preparing meat for the fridges.
This is one of the latest Crawshaws outlets - and it’s the one that has kicked off its race to 200 stores.
Last year, AIM-listed Crawshaw Group - which at the time had 21 stores - announced plans to dramatically expand over the next eight years.
It followed a year in which the Rotherham-based firm was Yorkshire’s best performing listed company.
A project that big needs someone in charge who knows what they’re talking about.
Who better than the man behind one of this decade’s biggest retail growth stories?
Noel Collett spent 16 years at Lidl. For the last 12, he was UK chief operating officer.
When he started, the German discounter 200 UK stores; by the time he left late last year, it had reached 600.
Collett, who joined Crawshaw as chief executive in March, is enthusiastic when he talks about the scale of what’s to come. “In my opinion, this is the most exciting and scalable retail model that’s out there in the retail landscape today,” he says.
Just as the discounters forced the grocery sector wide open, he believes this is the business to rejuvenate the meat sector.
He says: “We’re already the number one independent butcher in Britain, with a 1.7 per cent market share.
“Our aim is to reestablish the independent butcher on the high street. There’s an opening there and we’re excited about the opportunity.”
Twenty years ago, there were 30,000 butchers’ businesses in the UK. That has now dwindled to less than 7,000 he says.
As well as competition from supermarkets, the meat industry has faced difficulty in attracting young people into the sector.
Mr Collett says: “Traditionally butchers were handed down from family member to family member.
“Over the years, there’s been a lack of that next generation appeal. There’s a wave of retirement and closing down of butchers, not just because they’re loss-making.”
According to E-Plex, 75 per cent of the UK’s butchers have been working in the field for 25-plus years, he says.
Retaining skills as butchers are disappearing from the high street is a challenge, he admits. But, he adds: “We’re able to capitalise on that.”
Crawshaw now has 35 stores primarily in Yorkshire and the North West. By the end of the year, it will have 39; it plans to add another 15 to 20 stores next year.
When it reaches its target of 200 stores, its current workforce of 450 will have grown by a further 450 retail managers, 400 skilled butchers, 400 cooks and around 900 retail assistants.
Within that, the firm is looking to create 450 apprenticeships.
“The greatest challenge for us is going to be the people and the skills of those people,” Mr Collett says. “That is our priority in the coming months.”
Leading Lidl through its growth boom has taught Mr Collett some valuable lessons about making rapid expansion work.
He says: “It’s about leading the business, surrounding yourself with people of a similar mindset.
“You do it as a team. No single person will make this work.”
Understanding where the company fits in the sector is also essential, but the trick is not to lose focus, he says.
“You’ve got to understand where your strengths are in the sector and you’ve got to play to those strengths.
“You have to keep an eye on what everyone else is doing, but you mustn’t let that distract you from your journey.
“I think some businesses have come unstuck from that.”
Crawshaw prides itself on quality and value. Prime cuts are delivered to store from its factory and distribution centre in Rotherham, before being prepared on-site.
Fresh meat packs are available at three prices - £2.50, £5 or £10 - which are also available on multi-buy, making the cost even more appealing. The brand is firmly positioned as a discounter, but is targeting shoppers of all kinds.
“Whether you’re a prisoner of price or a savvy customer who’s just looking for great value, we cater for all families of all demographics, and all family sizes,” Mr Collett says.
The discounters caused a “seismic shift” in retailing, which has opened shoppers’ eyes to value, Mr Collett says.
While that was initially driven by squeezed budgets, the phenomenon is here to stay.
“I don’t see the retail sector changing back. Discounters really changed customer perception about quality and value.
“I don’t see customers going back, even with the growth of disposable income. Customers have gotten used to that excitement of that bargain hunt.”
While the appetite for good value prices is high, there’s no doubt there’s a mammoth task ahead of Crawshaw.
Are there any concerns the business needs to address to make sure its plan succeeds?
“I don’t define them as concerns, I would say there are going to be challenges and pitfalls,” Mr Collett says.
“I have created a legacy, I have proven a rapid growth strategy in the retail sector.”
He smiles, adding: “I’ve done it before, and I intend to do it again.”
Job title: Chief executive, Crawshaw Group
Education: Oakfields in Swindon and Bournemouth University; I studied Business and Hospitality Management (left with first class honours!)
First job: A milk round at 13 - 5am to 8am before school everyday. I’ve never been unemployed since.
Favourite holiday destination: Florida, USA.
Favourite film: Shawshank Redemption or Lean On Me.
Favourite song: Greatest Day, Take That, or Sam Smith. It depends on the mood.
Last book read: Jack, by Jack Welch.
Car driven: Land Rover Discovery.
Most proud of: My family.