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Kitwave Group: Interview with chief executive Ben Maxted

The wholesale industry plays an essential role in the food supply chain, connecting producers and manufacturers with retail and service establishments across the globe. In the UK, it’s a multi-billion-pound industry, and leading the way is Kitwave Group.

The North Shields-based firm has seen exponential growth over the past decade, with a commitment to service and quality matched by a number of takeovers.

And it is now embarking on a new era under chief executive Ben Maxted, who recently took over from founder Paul Young.

Here, Ben speaks to Kate Hewison about the company’s success, how the industry has evolved and how he plans to add to Kitwave’s already successful growth strategy.

Ben Maxted has been part of Kitwave Group for 11 years, taking over as chief executive in March.

He replaced Paul Young, who founded the company in 1987.

But while the face may have changed, the focus hasn’t, with Ben adopting an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach, with Kitwave’s successful acquisition model set to remain a key component under his leadership.

He says: “Paul’s ethos was very much to grow the business, but at the right pace, and that won’t change.

“We don’t need to aggressively and strategically change our direction.

“Paul was very articulate and very good at finding the right deals and the right fit.

“When it comes to mergers and acquisitions, it’s about doing things when we want to, and that are the right fit for the business.”

The firm last year made £602.2 million in revenue, up from £503.1 million in 2022, and recently announced the acquisition of Total Foodservice Solutions, a leading independent food wholesaler in the North of England.

It was the company’s 14th such deal since Ben joined in 2011.

He says: “We are building a reputation as a good home for businesses.

“We buy second, third and fourth-generation businesses, and then harness the management teams and people within those businesses because they are fundamental to what makes them a success.

“We’re not buying businesses to take cost out of them.

“We’re buying businesses to grow with, and to grow Kitwave.

“Paul mentored us to make sure we take the benefits out of those businesses.

“Culturally, we’re running them as they always have been and are slightly enhancing them, rather than changing them.”

Ben joined Kitwave Group in 2011 as financial director for Automatic Retailing from PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he was corporate finance manager.

He then moved to become managing director of Eden Farm in 2014, before switching to Kitwave Group chief operating officer in 2021.

And while his growth strategy remains the same, he is keen to harness more technological offerings as the digital world continues to develop.

Kitwave has a strategy for accelerated infrastructure and technological advancement in terms of voice picking warehouses, utilising more routing software and artificial intelligence (AI) across areas such as processing high transactional invoicing.

Ben says: “AI is already quite a big part of everyone’s lives and what we’re doing.

“From our perspective, where we’ve looked at robotic process automation, AI is already outdoing that by working with some of our integration layers to be as efficient and as technologically advanced as we can be.

“In the warehouse, we have a lot of repetitive processes, and the use of robotics and voice are all things we are actively looking at, and investing in, to make the warehouses as efficient and as easy for the people that are in them as can be.

“I think the pace of change will only increase as it becomes more mainstream – and we will look to embrace that.”

Kitwave moved from a private to a public company in 2021, which allowed it to further its prosperous mergers and acquisitions strategy.

It also followed a plan to target foodservice businesses, particularly those in line with Kitwave’s USP of understanding delivered wholesale and service.

Ben says: “We see it as a deeply fragmented marketplace.

“There are a lot of smaller, family-owned regional food service wholesalers that look after the independent food service trade within that geographical location of a 50-to-60-mile radius from the depot.

“And they service it really well.”

The group has 32 depots across the UK, which allow it to service customers more efficiently.

However, with a fleet of 550 vehicles, Kitwave also aims to minimise its environmental footprint by integrating sustainable practices into operations.

Ben says: “By driving down delivery, decreasing the distance between drops and increasing drop density, this helps with efficiency and operating margin, and therefore drives down carbon.

“Five of our depots now have full photovoltaic electricity generation.

“Our installed pH EV is 10.7 per cent of our electricity usage, and our last install was a half-a-million-pound investment, so we will look to continue that.

“We have earmarked two more of our larger distribution centres in York, and a new one in Newton Abbott, for further PV.

“We will continue to look to grow that sustainable energy consumption up to 20 per cent, as we look to do those two investments.”

As all people in business know, growth is only one component (albeit, a substantial one) of what it takes to achieve success.

Another is building meaningful client and partner relationships, something which Ben has gained plenty of experience of during his tenure at Kitwave Group.

He says: “We work very closely with our brands; it’s very much a relationship-based approach.

“We’ve got all these major brands, and we need to be that route-to-market partner for them to service the quite hard to reach independent sector.

“It’s a tripartite relationship whereby we service the customers, we deal with the customers and we differentiate ourselves on service.

“They’ll call us and we’ll deliver.”

And for Ben, who is from Morpeth, the opportunity to lead Kitwave Group as a national business from his home region is extremely exciting, and one he hopes more firms will follow.

He adds: “There is a fantastic industry set and a great, probably unrecognised level, of business interests in size and scale in the North East.

“We can only speak very fondly of the fact we’re a North East business.

“Hopefully, there will be many more that follow our footsteps and look to grow national businesses of scale from a North East headquarters.”

April 18, 2024

  • Business & Economy
  • Feature

Created by Kate Hewison