Nisa International product range, Frosties, etc.

Sean Ramsden was voted International Businessman of the Year for developing a distribution service supplying grocery products around the world

Name: Sean Ramsden
Title: managing director, Nisa International
Background: history of art graduate
Home: Lincolnshire and London
Interests: food and wine, skiing and luging, country sports, politics and music

Nisa International supplies more than 12,000 UK grocery products to retailers and wholesalers in 93 countries.

Sean Ramsden has been managing director of the Grimsby firm, which acts as export distributor for Nisa-Todays, since 1996.

Ramsden was lucky. When he graduated from university in 1994 he was able to walk into his father’s very successful business. However, the young Ramsden wanted to prove himself and spent the first two years building up an in-depth knowledge of the operation. He recognised a potential opportunity within the organisation. The export side of the business had existed since the late 80s but it had never been developed.

"Export was done on an opportunistic basis, by one man, playing it down really, with a very tiny turnover," Ramsden recalled. "It was aimed at buyers wanting bulk – large quantities of a single item.

"I came to realise that there was a completely different market out there of people needing a continual wholesale service with a wider range of products. That also linked to what Nisa-Todays was doing in the UK."

Over the past decade, and with a staff of just 16, Ramsden has built up a 15 million turnover and has ambitious plans for further expansion.
"Because we only have a small staff each one has an important part to play," said Ramsden. "We are a service company. We provide an effective supply service based on food and Sean Ramsden was voted International Businessman of the Year for developing a distribution service supplying grocery products around the world grocery. Customer service is very important and this is derived from the quality of our staff. So a key part of the strategy is making sure that we recruit the right people.

"We look for people who are capable and hungry for taking on responsibility. Our management structure is very flat and I regard my management style as consultative. Although we have no formal in-house training - the company is too small - we do adopt a flexible staff development programme."

All staff are encouraged to develop professionally, for example by studying for the Institute of Export qualifications or part-time MBA courses.

Language skills are also important and an essential part of the everyday running of the business. Staff have a range of five foreign languages and are encouraged to expand that knowledge. Ramsden is now looking into implementing the Investors in People standard.

Nisa International’s overseas customers are wholesalers and retailers ranging in size from sole traders, selling groceries from a van shop, to Carrefour, one of the world’s largest supermarket chains. Ramsden and his team have put a lot of effort into developing new markets, sometimes in distant outposts like the Falkland Islands.

Distant markets

"We supply a whole variety of places," he said. "Out-of-the-way markets sometimes work well and the Falklands is a very good example. There are only five shops on the islands and we supply all of them with most of their requirements. Ascension Island is entirely reliant on us for grocery products. So sometimes these obscure markets can be quite good for us.

"Having said that, our number one market by a long way is Spain, followed by France and the US. We develop a micro strategy for each market, recognising each one is different and we cannot use the same template for all the different places where we do business. How we approach the Falkland Islands is, of course, very different from how we approach the US, South Africa or Hong Kong, for example."

In developing the market strategy Ramsden and his team carry out desk research as well as visiting the markets. "We use the services of UK Trade & Investment whenever possible," he said. "We have a close relationship with our local business link international trade adviser Barry Precious, who is our regional food and drink specialist.

We have used a variety of services including commissioning Overseas Market Introduction Service reports from the various embassies.

"We try to visit the markets as much as possible. We have two people permanently based in Spain but we deal with many places, some very small, and we haven’t got round to visiting all of them yet.

"In most cases we are supplying British people either holidaying or living abroad. We deal with 12,000 products but what we are providing is an effective supply service backed up by really high quality account management.

Product advice

"The service we are selling is not necessarily baked beans or Marmite but the ability to supply very effectively and to give advice on which products, or range of products, would work best.

"Generally our customers take a wide range of goods – some have 2-3,000 items. Because of our experience we can advise them on what we know will be popular in their market. That’s how we add value because we understand their market, their business and their customer base.

"Factors like laws and logistics can be influential. Food is one of the most regulated areas in most countries. There is harmony within the EU, so that makes things easier, but in every other country there is legislation covering the import of food, labelling regulations, how it can be sold and what it can be called. We can supply them in such a way that the customer can make a profit out of the service we give."

Nisa International has achieved 50 per cent sales growth in the past three years. The company exports groceries worth more than 15 million each year, making it the largest food export wholesaler in Europe. Ramsden’s aim is to achieve a 25 million turnover by the end of the decade, which would make Nisa International one of the UK’s largest food exporters and the world’s largest food export wholesaler. He hopes to add value to the company through e-trading and is currently developing e-commerce capabilities, which will play an important part in the long-term plans.

"We spend a lot of time on formulating strategy," he continued. "Obviously I don’t want to give too much of our future plans away, but there’s lots of potential growth if we carry through with some of the ideas we have.

"In addition, the market is buoyant. There is great consumer-led growth. The number of people wishing to relocate overseas is climbing year by year, as is the number of tourists, and then there’s the general globalisation of tastes. We are finding increasingly that we are not just supplying the Brits overseas but local people too with a taste for something different."

This story first appeared in Overseas Trade Magazine (published on behalf of UK Trade & Investment, the government organisation that promotes UK exports.)

Posted 7Feb2006