You have to get up very early in the morning to get anything past Claire Smith. And that's not just because she embarks on a round trip to work every day of 150-plus miles. You see, she's Spar wholesaler CJ Lang's sales and marketing director, and as such she is determined to keep the company at the forefront of Scotland's c-store sector.
While the delivered wholesaler may service 408 outlets, including 77 company-owned stores, Smith has been more interested in quality of retail member rather than quantity since she took up her new role last year. She says: "My goal is to maintain the high standards that we have already set and make sure the Spar brand goes from strength to strength. That has been my priority from the start and it won't change."
That commitment to high store standards that enhance, rather than detract, from the Spar brand has seen the company adopt a "Grow or Go" policy, designed to weed out any independent retailer who doesn't show the required commitment.
"We have a great brand to work with and we have to develop and protect it," says Smith. "Initially, we will go and speak to any retailer we have identified as not being fully committed, to see what has been happening and if they are willing to turn things around. However, if they won't work with us, then we will ask them to leave the group."
Tough love
This fair but firm approach has already seen 13 stores identified as having not reached the required standards and four of them have been asked to leave. Says Smith: "It only takes one store to give the whole group a bad name in the eyes of customers. We are very lucky to have some of the best retailers in the c-store sector working with CJ Lang, and we want to focus on their hard work and spread it across the group, raising our standards as we go. If we can get everyone to the same high standard then everyone benefits."
The goal of high standards continues when it comes to recruiting retailers to the group. Smith is determined to sign up only retailers who are prepared to work with the company to reach their potential, rather than those who "simply want the Spar name above their door".
She says: "If retailers come on board - and we are very selective about who does - we educate them about what joining Spar means and what we expect from them.
"We have an induction process that takes 12 weeks, during which we explain who we are and go into their store and work with them on developing their business."
To help with this process, Smith's team is broken down regionally, so the retailer has a contact from head office through to ground level.
Smith continues: "I have been with CJ Lang for seven years. Most of the people I work with now, I have brought up with me, so there is a support structure there which generates feedback from ground level and allows us to try out new ideas from region to region."
Monthly meetings are held to discuss key opportunities and objectives. Smith says: "We have to be open to new ideas and these meetings allow us to talk over things
from head office down through the management structure to the sales team. They also allow us to share best practice and identify gaps in our offer."
Two of the subjects under debate recently have been the evolution of the group's forecourt estate, which currently stands at 42 after the addition of 10 sites this year, and improving the fresh section in each store.
Smith says: "Fresh is a key point of difference for a modern c-store and it's something we are working hard to embrace so our retailers have a competitive offer."
Melting pot
One of the highlights of Smith's time so far in her role has been the recruitment of 30 former Mace retailers after Aberness closed last year. Smith is confident this figure will grow to 40 eventually, but she knows that among the original 30 there are some of Scotland's best retailers.
She says: "These retailers were incredibly loyal to Aberness and we did not presume they would want to join Spar. We didn't want to force the brand on them but see if it would work for them. This took a lot of man hours and I personally visited a lot of the stores to make sure that the owners realised we didn't want them just so we grew in number, we wanted them for their quality."
The addition of new members has also created what Smith likes to call a "melting pot" environment, where new ideas are taken on board.
She continues: "The Aberness retailers carried different lines that worked for them, so it wasn't a case of getting rid of them but taking on what worked for them - in many cases this was their relationship with local suppliers."
Embracing local needs and issues is going to be a major theme for CJ Lang this year, according to Smith, who is determined that stores are seen as an integral part of their local community.
She says: "The threat of the multiples cannot be ignored, therefore having a point of difference is crucial. We believe that our location and role in the community can give us an advantage over competitors. Whether it's through sponsoring sporting events, working with local suppliers or through staff learning customers' first names, that little bit extra is crucial. We can't allow our retailers or staff to be faceless. Fortunately, we have some great characters throughout the estate who are already the mainstays of their communities - again it's a case of spreading this best practice."
It is not just the early start and long drive to work that confirm Smith's dedication to making sure everything that is mapped out for CJ Lang in the next 12 months goes to plan. She is immensely proud of her retailers and the brand they work with, but is keen none of their work - or that of her team - goes to waste.
She says: "Our retailers are very passionate and we have to match that passion with an offer that does them justice. I enjoy the fact that retailers still ring me up to get advice, to offer an opinion, or to simply chat. It's that relationship that we need to pass on to our customers. I'm confident that we are getting there."

Topics