Arasu Panchalingam has recently taken on responsibility for buying vegetables along Buyer’s Walk for foodservice supplier EA Williams. For the firm’s Managing Director Andrew Sole, Arasu’s progress is another step on the road to stability after a difficult period when recruitment and retention of staff was a concern for everyone in the Market.
“We talk about product and prices a lot of the time, but too often we forget about the people – the individuals without whom we’d be lost,” says Andrew. “I know when we came out of Covid, my number one concern wasn’t the money we’d lost, but who we were going to find to work for us.
“We have an experienced team here now and all of us had our challenges during the pandemic. We didn’t let anyone go, but a couple did leave and we have replaced them and now I really do believe this is the A team.
“We’re not big enough to keep turning staff over, so if anyone comes to us with issues, we’re all ears and want to support them because we see their career long term as being with us.”
Arasu joined EA Williams just before the pandemic hit. A Tamil from northern Sri Lanka, when he arrived in the UK in 2019, he was introduced to the company by fellow Sri Lankan Muthukumar Rajan, who has worked there for 15 years and is now Commercial Manager. Arasu is now one of four Sri Lankans in the team. Having been a driver in his homeland, he has worked in the warehouse for 90% of his time with EA Williams and gradually built towards a managerial role. Over the last three and a half years, he has built a solid knowledge base of both the product mix and the requirements of EA Williams customer network and taken on greater responsibility with time. Since February, he has been a buyer, scouring Buyer’s Walk in the Market each night for good value, high quality vegetables.
“I am still doing the same hours, but I spend a few hours each night now buying the full range of vegetables that our customers have ordered from firms all along Buyer’s Walk,” says Arasu. “I’ve not started at an easy time, as everyone has seen that the prices are high and some products are short, but I know a lot of the people here and we have good relationships. With some products, I will go straight to certain firms, but for the rest I shop around. People know I am new to this role and have been very helpful to me and shared their knowledge to make sure I get exactly what I need.
“I really enjoy it; it’s a quieter time at the moment, but the atmosphere generally is great and it’s good to be more visible, to talk to people more and also meet new people.”
The new role has coincided with Arasu’s wife – who he married in 2022, joining him in the UK, so life looks very positive right now. “The company has been very good to me,” he says. “I consider myself lucky to have such a nice job and they look after us.”
Andrew believes that it’s extremely important that the people who work for the business can see a route to progress. “We’re very proud of him,” he says. “On a practical level, we’ve seen him through his Visa acceptance, but on a personal level, we’ve also seen him get married and it’s been lovely to experience that with him.
“From a career perspective, the main thing for Arasu is that during the pandemic, he had to work very closely with suppliers as things changed so much. We went from having suppliers who knew what were able to supply us with pretty much everything, to them not knowing how they were going to cope or whether they would be able to supply us. Arasu had to put a foot in their camp.
“When you can order aggressively, suppliers are far happier, but we went from regular programmes to having to be careful and being driven by daily pressures of what we needed, at what time, often in small volumes while still ensuring the right price and quality. Of course, that was driven itself by the changing needs of our customers; the last three years have been very difficult for everyone and we’re not out of the woods yet, but hopefully we’re getting closer to where we were and we can start to move forward again.”
EA Williams continues to try to deliver a foodservice solution that fully focuses on quality and value, he adds. “The next step is for us to up the volumes we are buying so that we can take advantage of economies of scale. We want to be buying more full pallets of product rather than boxes in ones and twos and that’s where Arasu can really progress his career with us now,” says Andrew.
“The team here knows the customers backwards and that helps us manage the ups and downs for them. Arasu will continue to work with our customers to improve their use of e-commerce platforms and help them to optimise their ordering processes. If he can consistently buy bigger quantities and keep prices at levels where our customers can hold the prices on their menus, people will be able to eat out more. That’s what we all want in the end.”