Greggs’ boss says global growth is ‘impossible’ – telegraph
On first spotting him at the company’s London Fleet Street branch, Whiteside is locked in deep conversation with a man clutching a box of donuts. It turns out to be one of Greggs’ largest shareholders, who has nipped in to grab some sweet treats to take back to the office.
In truth, he could call out just about any of Britain’s high streets. With 1,667 branches dotted across the country, Greggs serves Stotties in Newcastle, Tottenham slices in North London, and Scotch
pies in Glasgow.
Having outstripped Starbucks long ago as the dominant high street force, it seems to be on an unstoppable ascent under the guidance of food veteran Whiteside, who replaced anti-pasty tax crusader Ken McMeikan as Greggs’ chief executive two years ago.
Greggs boss Roger Whiteside
Whiteside’s first experience of working in retail was helping his father sell whelks and cockles around pubs and clubs. His first real step on the career ladder came at Marks & Spencer in 1979, where he climbed his way to the position of personal assistant to boss Rick Greenbury during the retailer’s glory years and was pivotal in the introduction of its Simply Food business.
After 20 years at M&S he left in 2000 for a stint at Ocado, before leading off-licence Threshers and then troubled pub operator Punch Taverns.
When he first arrived at Greggs, sales had been in steady decline for 18 months amid an over-reliance on a dwindling takeaway market. Its famous steak bakes were losing share to upmarket sandwich chains and supermarket convenience stores.
Whiteside knew he had to face up to this battle but was convinced if Greggs was properly repositioned, it was a battle that could be won.
Greggs are competing with high street coffee chains.
“Food-on-the-go is a £6bn business and it keeps growing. People have more disposable income and less time. Eating on the go is a convenient way of running a busy life,” he explains.
Whiteside’s overhaul has helped turn Greggs into the nation’s second – biggest seller of sandwiches behind Tesco, which has twice the number of UK stores.
The bakery chain’s only underrepresented areas are in “the extreme West” and central London, where sky-high rents mean that it has just 12 stores in zones one and two compared to Pret-a-Manger’s 126.
Whiteside’s assault on the food-to-go market has seen it go full pelt into the breakfast market, adding wraps, sandwiches, salads, fruit pots and porridge alongside its shelves of iced buns.
Breakfast is now the busiest time for its stores with increasing numbers of customers snatching a £2 breakfast deal before work. Whiteside has been working hard on tempting people to visit Greggs more than once a week with a greater variety of food that is a little more forgiving on the waistline.
“Our improved healthy food offer means people are coming in more regularly as they realise they don’t just come in to treat themselves but they can come to us on any normal day.”
But surely, even if Gregg sells salads it’s never going to be a destination for yoga bunnies?
Greggs sells a coffee and a bacon bap for £2 Photo: Greggs Whiteside laughs. “We’re never going to sell sausage rolls or pasties claiming to be healthy but what we will sell are alternatives to that. If you want a hot and savoury item now there’s a Mexican 5 bean flatbread which is less than 300 calories.”
A sausage roll, by comparison, is 349 calories, while the most calorific thing on a Greggs’ standard menu is a hot southern fried chicken baguette at 622. Even the salt and fat in the top-secret recipe of its ever-popular sausage roll has been reduced, but by tiny amounts so as not to alter its taste.
“People shouldn’t be eating anything in excess and that includes sausage rolls and donuts. We all recognise that Western societies have a problem with weight. That’s to do with our mix of diet and exercise. What they need to do is know what to eat, so what we’re going to do is provide more information about what is in our food.”
He is not a fan of prohibition or a sugar tax: “There’s no guarantee people will make healthy choices instead.” He argues the industry should just be “more transparent”.
His efforts to improve the food menu with healthier choices is also part of his plan to attract more female customers, who, once they have left student life, tend to shun Greggs.
Improving the stores to include seats and toilets is also helping to attract the passing crowd. With almost zero advertising, apart from a witty Twitter feed, Greggs relies on luring passing trade with the smell of freshly baked bread and a more appealing environment.
Boris Johnson got the last Steak Bake. Boris Johnson really wants to keep the last Steak Bake pic. twitter. com/9kwZIduMuv — Greggs (@GreggsOfficial)
October 15, 2015
“We are definitely now attracting people who were rejecting us because they didn’t fancy how we looked before,” Whiteside says. “There were some questions that if we made the stores too nice it would scare off our loyalists, and the answer is no – they love it. In some of the most challenging parts of the UK we’ve become the nicest place in the whole parade.”
Whiteside says that he will only think about advertising once the whole of the Greggs’ estate has been revamped – a process that will take it well into 2016, with 200 stores spruced up a year. “If I stick my head above the line and spend money on saying ‘come to my store’ and then they go to one of the horrible old ones it’s not going to impress them. You’ve got to tidy your house before you invite people round.”
A Greggs store in Newcastle Photo: Greggs
But with most of the UK’s high streets conquered, there’s little fresh territory left. Whiteside wants to claim further space on industrial and retail parks, hospitals and colleges, and train stations, to take its store count to 2,000.
Earlier this year Greggs opened its first store in Northern Ireland, under a franchise arrangement with petrol group Applebys, a region Whiteside calls “interesting”, because it has large cities and a demand for pasties. However, south of the border, in the Republic, is more difficult because of currency differences, regulations and an established convenience store market. But at least there is demand for pasties and sausage rolls.
Elsewhere, that isn’t the case, which rules out further international expansion. “A big part of our business is still sausage rolls and pasties, and there is nowhere else in the world that eats sausage rolls. Where else in the world do you go and see it? In Germany they eat loads of pretzels and here you can’t give them away.”
Greggs has been trying to get a spot in airports, which would help the legend of flaky pastry travel overseas, but has so far been shunned from airside sites, apart from at Newcastle and Manchester airports for Britons returning from their holiday.
“The people who control the aiports don’t want us because we’re too inexpensive. They feel like they’ve captured passengers who are ready to spend and they want to get the most that they can.”
Roger Whiteside has pushed Greggs into the food-to-go market Photo: Paul Grover
Is Whiteside himself planning to jet off any time soon? “I’ve been very open and said that this is my last executive appointment, but I’m in no rush. I love it. I’m 57. There will come a time that they will want to refresh leadership, and that would be the right thing and I would welcome it”.
But surely 57 is a bit young to think of heading off for the golf course?
“People who grow their businesses from nothing are forces of nature and their work is their life. I’m sure Bernie Ecclestone will go on until he drops and so will Stefano Pessina, and Richard Branson. But I’m a general manager really. I do get bored very quickly, life’s short and I like to fill it. I’m mad on skiing and motor racing Morgan Sports Cars.
So how fast does he go?
“As fast as I can; as fast as grip will allow,” he says, parting his face into a wide grin.
CV: Roger Whiteside
• Age: 57
• Education: 1979 BA Economics 1st Class University of Leeds
• Family: Married, two children
• Career: Started at Marks & Spencer, where he stayed for 20 years before leaving to start an online grocery business. He went on to spend four years helping to guide Ocado in its early days He then led off-licence chain Threshers from 2004 to 2007 before leaving to become managing director of Punch Taverns’ leased pub business. He left Punch in 2013 after being promoted from a non-executive position to chief executive of Greggs.