Sean Ramsden MBE

An opportunity to do my own thing in the family business

HOF Entrepreneurs Sean Ramsden 1920X1080

Published: 21/01/2020

Sean’s accession to the family business wasn’t an inevitability. A history of art degree from Cambridge didn’t immediately lend itself to a life in commerce. However, he’d grown up with the family firm, working in his summer holidays as an undergraduate. While there, he spotted an opportunity.

The family business had started in 1946 as a UK-based retail business. By 1963, it had built up a wholesale business. It had been dabbling in exports since 1990, and it was here that Sean saw a chance to expand.

He says: “My father didn’t put any pressure on me and the idea to develop the export business was my own. At that point, my father was running another business and I felt it was an opportunity to do my own thing - to build an international wholesale business for British brands.
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To that point, the traditional model had been that the manufacturer appointed an importer within a specific country. They brought stock into the country and then sold to retailers. Sean created a new model, going directly to retailers overseas offering a supply service for a consolidated range of British grocery products. Nobody had done it at the time.

The group started out supplying expats with key British products – think Marmite, Ribena or Heinz Baked Beans. It also provided overseas retailers with a high level of service and support. However, as the reputation of British produce grew abroad, so did the reach of the business.

Sean says: “It grew well beyond the expat market. It used to be that British products didn’t have a good reputation internationally, but that has really changed over the last 20 years. They have moved into gourmet and specialist foods, health foods and confectionary. UK manufacturers are good at food and there has been so much innovation.
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The business now operates in 133 different countries with a range of around 24,000 products. Today, an important part of how it creates value and drives sales is category management: “We work on our ability to understand individual markets. We do this through knowledge and data analysis. We can say ‘these things happen in your market and we think these are the correct products’. It is an iterative process that develops over the course of a relationship. Instead of ‘tell us what you want’, now it’s more about us saying ‘we think your customers will want this’. We can supply anyone who wants to buy.”

For the time being, Sean is satisfied with the group’s geographic reach. Elsewhere, there is either little opportunity, or there are regulatory reasons they can’t do it. Fortunately, given the current tightrope on Brexit, only around 25% of their business is from the EU. However, the group tends to be a beneficiary of weaker sterling.

Its greatest challenge has been finding the right people. The group’s Grimsby base doesn’t afford them the same talent pool as, say, London. They work hard at being a good employer, consider themselves an important part of the local community and have no plans to move, but took the decision to use an overseas sales teams. They now have people based as far afield as South Africa, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and Australia. This brings its difficulties: important members of the team are 1000 miles away. Nevertheless, Sean meets everyone at least twice a year.

The business is well-insulated from crises in specific countries, he says: “In terms of external challenges, the great advantage of being in 133 countries is that if there is a disaster in one, there’s usually an opportunity in another. This is something we’ve consistently seen in our sales. We’ve seen a steady rise in our growth, but there are lots of stories beneath that.
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He has never taken external funding. The business operates a no stock model, via its partnership with NISA/Co-op, so this means if it needs to grow, it simply takes on more people. Sean has proved it is possible to build and grow a family business generation after generation.