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Saturday Interview: Daughter is driving force as family firm rises from ashes


WITH unprecedented sunny weather shining down on Scotland this summer and the World Cup along with other big sporting events lifting spirits, the country’s pubs and bars have been enjoying brisk business as customers flock to the beer gardens to eat and drink al fresco.
For Julie Dunn, whose Lanarkshire-based family business Dunns Food and Drinks supplies the licensed and catering trades across Scotland and manufactures soft drinks, the hot spell has also come as welcome relief. In a market that is hugely competitive and facing many challenges, Ms Dunn knows only too well that a little sunshine goes a long way towards making her customers’ tills ring.
Her smile, however, is tinged with sadness – Ms Dunn lost her father, Christopher Dunn, in June. He was hugely influential in the licensed trade and encouraged the young Julie when she joined the business after leaving the University of Strathclyde with an honours degree in French and Italian. “I appreciated his insight and advice more as I got older though,” she admits.
Now operations director of the
£30 million-turnover business she runs with managing director Jim Rowan, Ms Dunn points to a “competitive market” but believes two major acquisitions within the last four years have been a game-changer for the firm, helping to grow its customer base and geographical reach.
In March, Dunns acquired Glasgow premium spirits wholesaler Hotsauce Drinks. This followed the firm’s acquisition of West Lothian-based craft and world beer specialist Dameck Drinks Scotland in 2014. “We’re an ambitious business operating in a competitive and challenging marketplace so we are always looking to hone our offer and move into new markets,” says Ms Dunn.
“These acquisitions have created a new customer base for us by extending our product portfolio and Dameck has given us the means to really expand our business in Edinburgh.”
While Dunns Food and Drinks was founded in 2001, the company’s roots go back to 1875 when Joseph Dunn, Ms Dunn’s great-grandfather, started his soft drinks business in the east end of Glasgow. The firm went on to be famous for its Dunn & Moore licensed trade division and later owned the Solripe soft drinks brand and Strathmore bottled water. Dunns still manufactures soft drinks, including its popular Currie’s range which includes the best-selling
Red Kola.
Like many other long-established family businesses, however, Dunns has a colourful history. In 1999, Ms Dunn’s uncle, Gerry Dunn, led a management buyout of the wholesale soft drinks division of the Joseph Dunn Group. Ms Dunn and Jim Rowan then started exploring a management buyout of their own when other shareholders were looking to exit the business, at that time based in Cambuslang.
“It would take all day to go over every detail of the history of the business,” Ms Dunn says, “but we’d done a lot of soul-searching and decided to refocus and restructure the business to focus on distribution. We were ready to go to the bank with our business plan when there was a fire at the depot in Cambuslang – it was absolutely devastating and couldn’t have happened at a
worse time.”
But like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, Dunns was reborn. The firm found new premises in Blantyre and within nine months was up and running again. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy but we had a steely resolve and were determined to come back,” she continues. “I would say we are a business that has always pushed boundaries but coming back after the fire tested us to the limit.”
While those dark days seem like a long time ago now, Ms Dunn reckons that it is important not to forget about the tough times. “When you’re faced with a problem or have a dilemma on your hands you can say to yourself, ‘Well, that fire almost destroyed our business but we got through it so we can get through this’ – you can rise to the challenge of the day, whatever that
may be.”
One of Ms Dunn’s many challenges, working with Mr Rowan, has been to modernise operational systems. In the last five years, the company has invested £100,000-plus in its IT system to improve customer service and completed a £250,000 refurbishment of its 70,000 sq ft depot and offices in Blantyre.
Dunns has also launched its own wine academy and installed a cutting-edge test kitchen for suppliers to demonstrate their products. The firm’s investment in its fleet of vehicles is ongoing as it continues to forge its position as a “one-stop shop” for the licensed and foodservice sectors.
With a further £1.2m earmarked in this financial year for a new warehouse to accommodate its growing business, Dunns is making its mark in a sector that keeps the wheels of the food and drink industry moving.
“Wholesaling is a wonderful industry but it’s a misunderstood industry,” she points out. “We shift boxes so it’s not deemed very ‘sexy’. But wholesale is big business – we are the route to market for Scotland’s food and drinks industry and its associated products – so we need to attract, train and retain wholesale talent.”
Ms Dunn, both in her own business and as the current president of industry body the Scottish Wholesale Association, is on a mission to make wholesale an attractive and viable career option. “Working in wholesale doesn’t just mean picking orders or driving a fork-lift truck,” she points out. “There are great jobs in marketing, sales, logistics and finance – it’s getting that message across that’s a big challenge for us.”
She recently told the Scottish Wholesale Association’s annual conference wholesale should be “the destination, not the stopover, on the way to brand central”, pointing out the trade body’s work in developing links between education and industry. “Once we get young people through our doors we must have the training infrastructure in place to keep them,” she says. “That work is ongoing and quite challenging but moving forward.”
Dunns Food and Drinks has first-hand experience of problems in recruiting young people but is now working with local schools and also runs a graduate training placement programme. The company employs 126 people, 30 per cent of them under 25. “It’s been a big cultural change for us,” says Ms Dunn. “We’ve moved towards a very open style of management and involve staff in the decision-making process in a way we previously didn’t.”
Ms Dunn recalls that when she joined the business it was Mr Rowan who “took me under his wing”. She says: “I was a management trainee under Jim and I have a lot to thank him for. I came into a family business with a great history – dad invented the Strathmore brand and we had a network of depots all over Scotland, including the islands.
“I was adamant that I wanted to join the family business but I wanted to get a degree first,” she says. “I also wanted to stand on my own two feet and work hard.” This included a stint on the turnstiles at Shawfield Stadium in Glasgow, famous for greyhound racing, working as a tea girl at Clyde Football Club and behind the bar of a pub at Eglinton Toll.
It is that work ethic that drives Ms Dunn. The company is involved with youth training agency Developing the Young Workforce which aims to bridge the gap between industry and education. “We need to show young people of all levels of educational attainment that wholesale is a viable destination and plays a vital role in keeping Scotland’s biggest industry – food and drink – on the move,” she said.
Chairwoman of Lanarkshire group Community Links which works with communities to make positive change to the quality of people’s lives, Ms Dunn can’t hide her passion for her business – and people. She also supports a number of charities. There’s no question this is a woman who wants to make a difference.

Six Questions:

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to?

Italy for the food and the language, America because no matter where you go you feel you could be in a camera shot. More recently, I have happy feelings for Portugal where we’ve gone for family holidays.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

Our business, medicine and then in my last year at school, probably due to not really applying myself, stunt work.
What was your biggest break in business?
My dad insisting I work at our new food depot in Stirling.

What was your worst moment in business?
Rebuilding after the fire. It was a continuum of  challenges – from restocking to maintaining customer relationships, keeping up staff morale and picking carpet tiles.

Who do you most admire and why?
Ordinary heroes, too many to name. People who no matter what adversity they face don’t allow their hearts to shrink.


What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? What was the last film you saw?
Last film was Ant-Man And The Wasp. Music – I’d like to say something cultured but in the car we’re singing along to Now That’s What I Call Music! 100. I’ve just finished reading The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne. 


Source : HeraldScotland

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