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North food wholesaler becomes employee-owned

By Lorna Thompson

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MORE than 40 staff at a north food wholesaler have been given a stake in the business – including six at its Elgin depot.

Inverness-based Swansons Food Wholesalers – which also has depots in Elgin and Nairn – has joined the growing number of employee-owned businesses in Scotland.

Its managing director, Magnus Swanson, started the business with two staff and a single greengrocer shop in 1991.

The company supplies fresh, locally-grown produce to hotels, restaurants and shops across the Highlands and Moray, and also holds contracts for care homes, schools, nurseries and colleges in the area.

It has been supplying schools in the Moray Council area for 18 years and in the Highland Council area for 10. Its Moray operations run from its depot at Elgin's Pinefield Industrial Estate.

At the beginning of 2020, Magnus received an offer for the business from a larger wholesaler based in the south. While he determined that the offer wasn’t right for Swansons, it prompted him to begin considering his eventual exit from the business.

Magnus said: "When it comes to considering your exit, one of the most obvious options is a trade sale. However, I was concerned that selling to a remote buyer might see one of the branches closed, staff laid off, or clients resigned. We have a loyal and long-serving team at Swansons, and I wanted to ensure their jobs were secure.

"It was at this point that I began to consider employee ownership. I thought that employee ownership could be a good fit with our goals and values and would allow me to gradually step back from the business over a number of years."

Magnus Swanson, founder and managing director at Swansons Food Wholesalers, which has a depot in Elgin.
Magnus Swanson, founder and managing director at Swansons Food Wholesalers, which has a depot in Elgin.

Magnus contacted Co-operative Development Scotland. He was appointed an adviser and carried out a feasibility study, which cemented his decision to sell the business to its employees.

An Employee Ownership Trust was formed and holds 100 per cent of the shares on behalf of the employees.

Magnus added: "The support has been great and the process has been really quick and straightforward, with the entire deal unfolding throughout the pandemic.

"Lockdown had a significant impact on the business, with the closure of schools and the hospitality sector. However, requirements from shops increased and we also revised our operations to deliver hundreds of fresh fruit and vegetable boxes directly to consumers.

"Although the Covid crisis has presented a lot of uncertainty, like many businesses we continue to adapt to the changing circumstances, and we didn’t let it deter us from making the move to employee ownership.

"Now more than ever we need the staff to pull together, and looking ahead, I hope that employee ownership helps them feel valued, encourages them to become more involved with the business, and demonstrates to existing and potential clients that Swansons has an engaged and invested workforce that is rooted in the local area."

Within Scotland, there are now around 120 employee-owned companies, with around 7,500 employee-owners generating a combined turnover of around £950 million.

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