Last year won't be remembered too fondly by many people, but ask Colin Graves for his view and his response is quick, and entirely positive.

"2009 was an absolutely cracking year," he says. "It was phenomenal. Business was good from the start of January and carried on from there. Year on year we are about 10% up, and we only budgeted for 4%."

Some of the reasons for this growth are well-documented, and Costcutter is far from unique in the industry for enjoying turnover increases as consumers shop more locally and eat at home more frequently.

But it hasn't been a case of sitting back and watching the money roll in the Costcutter team have been architects of their own success.

"Our promotional package has been strong, and retailers' turnover has been growing in a lot of areas," says Graves. "In conjunction with Nisa we went back to basics with bread and milk at discount prices, and strong offers on quality brands."

Retailers' loyalty is also growing, and here the credit crunch is playing a part. "Because of the cash flow situation, retailers haven't been going to the cash and carry as much, and are using our invoicing and credit facility instead," Graves explains. "It amazes me how many independents are doing £20,000 a week, but still getting it all from cash and carry."

The number of retailers buying from Costcutter on a weekly basis is also up, with some former cherry-picking retail members being converted into regular customers. "Two years ago loyalty was about 50%, but now it's up to about 57%," says Graves. "That's really good when you consider that there are some areas, such as news and loose fruit & veg, where retailers have to use another supplier."

Increased commitment to TV advertising has also helped, with six bursts planned for this financial year compared with five last year, pumping in an extra £250,000.

The latest generation of ads, featuring former England cricketer and Strictly Come Dancing winner Darren Gough, give the group's marketing "an extra dimension" says the cricket-fanatic Graves, who has known Gough since his early career as a young hopeful at Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

Happily, investment has been taking place at store level as well as centrally, but here the economic realities have not always been helpful. "There's not a lot of cash around for store development, but about 200 (out of a total of 1,600) members have refreshed their stores in some way in the past year, and there are another 200 in the pipeline," reports Graves. "We have a number of refit options, from a low or nil cost 'MOT' system where we recommend small changes, to a refresh costing £10,000 to £30,000 a time, right up to complete refits.

"Those retailers who were able to get their hands on finance have been fortunate, and the banks are already talking about another year of pulling in the reins. But some retailers have found money to invest from other sources, from family and so on."

The next innings

But while retail members think of the future, what of the future of Costcutter itself? While the group was racking up another record year of sales, Bibby's unsuccessful takeover bid for Nisa-Today's caused some in the industry to question Costcutter's long-term aims. For those not up to speed, Bibby Line Group holds a majority shareholding in Costcutter, which in turn accounts for about 40% of Nisa's volume. So with Nisa not only rejecting Bibby's takeover bid but also awarding its new ambient logistics contract to DHL instead of Bibby Distribution, outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that a leg is falling off the supporting tripod.

Straight to the point

Here again, Graves is direct. Using cricket as an analogy, while some interview subjects face difficult questions with a straight bat, the Costcutter chairman prefers to attack, dispatching the enquiry back over the bowler's head. "Not everybody understands how Bibby is organised," he begins.

"There are five divisions, each one with its own md, and they invest in the management of each of those five divisions. Sir Michael Bibby comes to three Costcutter board meetings a year and that's it. He doesn't tell me what to do, and I don't interfere with the Bibby Distribution business.

"When it comes to the distribution contract, I want the best possible distribution at the best possible price, and it doesn't matter whether it's Bibby or DHL as long as they provide that. We've got five years left on our own contract with Nisa and we aren't looking for new distribution partners, we're just concentrating on what we are doing. If Nisa wants us to stay, they might put a great offer on the table for us, but we'll deal with that if and when it happens."

Going forward, Bibby is there to help expand the business, explains Graves. "Bibby had a vision for the future for this company and wants to continue to invest in it. It's not a venture capitalist situation, it's a family business investing for the long-term, and together we will look at opportunities as they come along, whether it means buying new stores or other wholesalers. I haven't spent the past 23 years building this company up to see it go down the pan, and hopefully it will still be here in 100 years' time."

With Bibby holding 51% of Costcutter, it remains likely that it will at some point in the future offer to buy out the remaining independent shareholders, but Graves is not yet ready to retire to the pavilion. "Right now, I'm enjoying it as much as I did in the first week. The minute I'm no longer enjoying it I will go, but I'm not going anywhere soon."

Instead, Graves is continuing to focus on the group's main priorities enhancing the retail package, staying ahead of the game in technology, expanding store numbers and improving head office standards and the service it provides. Training will be a big focus for 2010, reveals Graves, and so will adding value through technology.

"We have our own scanning system and write our own software. This means we don't have to rely on third parties if a retailer asks us to change something, we can," he adds. But with things going so well, it's difficult to see how anyone would want to change much.