Ken Clow, CEO, paints an exciting future for Donald Russell, coming out of a trying period for the butchery industry

Other than the geographical beauty of its highlands and lochs, Scotland is famous for taking great pride in its internationally revered food and drink offerings: whisky, seafood, and meat, to name a few. Donald Russell has been operating as a butcher and supplier of fine foods since 1974, born from a venture between a local farmer and a butcher in Aberdeenshire, who shared a dream to bring traditional Scotch produce to the export market. In the mid-1990s, the company moved towards a mail order service, which has naturally developed into an online and mobile enterprise, with two-thirds of trade being made up of B2C sales and the other third coming from supplying the hospitality industries in the UK and elsewhere.

Royal approval

The company has held a Royal Warrant for over 30 years, on account of providing exemplary meat products to HM The Queen during her reign, supplies a number of Michelin Star restaurants and has received numerous Great Taste awards for a variety of its products. There’s a couple of key factors, besides its locale, that have helped propel Donald Russell to its present-day pedestal of butchery and fine cuisine, as Ken Clow, Chief Executive Officer, details further: “Our quality focus is really important to us, and we rely on a number of avenues to maintain it. Firstly, there’s our people. We are really lucky to have some fantastic members among our team, of just over 200, who we consider to be the guardians of the quality of our butchery.

“Our longest standing employee is a guy called Bill, who joined the business in 1988. He’s part of our goods-in department, and for good reason. Bill has a gift, with which he is able to select when meat has matured to a point of absolute perfection, through touch, sight, and smell, to be passed onto our butchers to be cut and prepared for our customers. Bill is not alone; we are meticulous about our people and ensuring that they are passionate folk and fully trained to the best of their capabilities. We have a rigorous sign-off and review process for every single new product, and make sure that the utmost quality of our food is the focus of everyone, from the people who take the orders to those who pack them. It’s a team effort.

“Secondly, we rely on our sourcing,” Ken adds. “We have many long, well-established relationships within our supply chain, some of whom we have been working with for 15 years. However, we are always eager to meet and support new innovative suppliers as well, who can come in and step up both our quality and range of offerings. Around 18 months ago we teamed up with a new pie supplier by the name of The Original Baker, who produced, among a large selection of pies, one of our sell-out vegetarian options for the festive period, a delicious sweet potato galette. We’ve also used the likes of Scotland Food and Drink to find other producers, such as Robertsons who provide us with our scampi and our fish fingers.”

Quality and service

Over the last few months Donald Russell has introduced a new range of Scotch beef and pork, in celebration of its core heritage: butchery. These new lines include traditional cuts such as sirloin steaks, along with new innovative items like its pork T-bones. In the build up to Christmas, and allowing for the current cost of living crisis, the business also released a five-bone, Himalayan-salt, dry aged rib of beef for £150. “We sold out of the first buy of the five-bone rib so quickly that we had to produce a second batch in time for Christmas. It shows that even in the current squeeze that everybody is feeling from the economy, people are more focused on quality than ever before, trading up to high ticket, premium items, meaning we need to ensure these represent good value for money.

“Unfortunately, this year has been incredibly tough. What with the extreme inflation across labor, raw materials, packaging, energy, fuel, and transport, some of our bills have more than quadrupled with little notice. We hope that we’re through the worst of it now; the short-term relief from the government has been crucial, but we’re keen to see how it continues to unfold in 2023. The business will post a loss this

year, but we’re unfazed, and our customers can rest-assured that we will continue to focus on providing the excellent service we’re known for – it’s all part of our company values.

“Integrity is a key component to how we operate, and we are constantly striving to ensure that everyone in our team, and even our customer-base, is aware of what it means to Donald Russell,” Ken continues. “In our ongoing cultural turnaround, we are working to empower our people to make their own decisions, as that’s what really motivates them, and induces pride within a workplace, and ultimately greater retention. We spend a lot of time listening to our colleagues through one-to-ones, forums and listening groups, to understand what they see to be good and bad about the business. Through this, we have constructed a framework for everyone to follow, which details their responsibilities and the part they specifically play in bringing the company culture to life.”

Strong supplier relationships

Throughout 2022, Donald Russell has consolidated its four locations back down to its pre-covid level of three, by integrating its contact center back into the butchery – but that’s just the beginning. Next year the company is set to upgrade its production and warehouse management systems in line with its strategy to be a simpler and more digitized organization, as well as renovating its website. In terms of tangible changes, the business is going to be rolling out a new form of environmentally friendly packaging, as Ken concludes.

“At present, our products are sent out to customers in poly-boxes that are not curbside recyclable, which means we’re posing them with a problem. This is our priority in the new year, as it’s the right thing for not only our customers, but the planet too. We are also going to be looking into greater premiumization, to give our loyal client base the perfect reason to part with their hard-earned money, which means we’re looking at some exciting work, going forwards, within our supply chain.

“Darren Blackhurst was one of the greatest commercial minds that I ever worked for, and he had a phrase that went: ‘Without your suppliers, any retailer is dead.’ This still rings true to this day, no matter what size enterprise you’re managing. We rely on our supply relationships enormously, as having the right suppliers is the greatest tool in turning a business from loss to profit. They are the experts who guide us to success, and to whom we owe a lot, as after all, quality always wins, and they’re the ones who provide us with it.”