By Scott Wright

AFTER two decades in the unforgiving world of football, Stephen Thompson has returned to his first love. And he is determined to make up for lost time.

Since announcing his return to the convenience retail scene in May, Mr Thompson has opened the first three of what he hopes could be up to 30 stores across Scotland.

The stores, based in Greenock, Larbert and Alloa, will be joined this week by a further three, all in Fife, which should take the combined headcount at the fledgling business to around one hundred.

Poignantly, the stores trade under the banner of Eddy’s Food Station, a nod to his late father Eddie Thompson, a giant of the Scottish grocery scene and one-time owner Dundee United Football Club.

Speaking to The Herald last week, Mr Thompson said he is relishing his return to an industry that he first made his name with at Morning, Noon & Night, the chain he co-founded with his father and Fraser Mackay, and built-up to a 50-store group before its £30 million sale to Scotmid in 2004.

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“I spent the first 20 years of my life in retail,” Mr Thompson said. “It is in my blood, it is what I know, it is what I know well. I know how well we did with Morning, Noon & Night and looked at the market and thought: there is an opportunity here to come back and build something.”

Mr Thompson has returned to the industry after spending much of the last 20 years in football, initially with Dundee United, where he assumed the mantle of chairman following his father’s death in 2008, and then in the US. After a rollercoaster spell at United, which included the high of a Scottish Cup triumph and the low of relegation, he sold his stake in the Tayside club in 2018, around 16 years after his father had taken control at Tannadice.

Asked if much has changed in the retail sector during his time away, Mr Thompson highlighted the development of food-to-go, now seemingly ubiquitous in convenience stores, and changes to technology and systems, albeit he has pledged to do things the “old fashioned way” initially at Eddy’s. “We’ll introduce the paperless route in due course,” he said.

He also observed that many of the big manufacturers have changed their names and laments that “companies aren’t really run by CEOs anymore; they are run by finance people” who are more “cautious” in approach.

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There are very few of the senior figures left at the major suppliers he previously dealt with, Mr Thompson added, while the biggest names that used to dominate the sector – families such as Botterills, Sands, and Sokolowski – have long since sold out to bigger players.

“There are not many [stalwarts left],” Mr Thompson said. “You have not got the same number of independent multiples. We all sold out at some point, whether it be us, Jim Botterill, David Sands, or Stan Sokolowski. There are very few independent multiple retailers now.”

Asked whether this meant there was an opportunity for new independent players to emerge, he replied: “It has always been about location at the end of the day, finding the right locations. I am probably looking for bigger stores now than I would have had many years ago. I am kind of looking for a minimum of 2,000 square feet.

“Is it more difficult [to find stores]? It is probably no more difficult than it was years ago. Back in the old days you might have been up against a couple of other retailers buying stores.

“It has always been difficult trying to find the right sites. You just need to work with the right people.”

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While Eddy’s has got off to a flying start, Mr Thompson said it has not all been plain sailing in his efforts to get the new venture off the ground.

He is scathing about what he sees as a lack of support for new businesses in Scotland, saying that his track record in the industry has not counted for much.

Eddy’s has been backed financially by a London-based company, Nash Capital, as well as other equity investors in the City.

“It was a struggle to get the company off the ground,” Mr Thompson said. “Apart from a little bit of support on a local (council) basis when we have taken on new employees that haven’t worked for a few years, the only money that has gone into this business from Scotland has come from me.”

He added: “There is no support up here for [new] businesses. Everyone said the usual thing: come back in six months, come back in nine months. But once you are at that stage, everyone is all over you because your business is established.”

Mr Thompson also expressed disappointment that “nobody took me seriously” within the sector when he embarked on Eddy's, noting that some wholesalers “never saw the opportunity in the business, despite my business background.”

He eventually struck a supply deal with Bestway Wholesale, which he praised for its commitment and strong chilled foods offering, to supply the stores. While Mr Thompson admits he “underestimated” how difficult it would be to build a new retail brand, he said: “That has been disappointing, that has been a challenge, but it kind of just eggs me on to prove everybody wrong.”

Eddy's expects to take its store portfolio up to six this week, when it completes a deal to take on three well-established outlets in Fife. It will increase the company’s headcount to around 100 employees. Further outlets could be added to the Eddy’s estate before the end of the year. Mr Thompson said: “I just think it is something you should be proud of, when you are creating jobs.”

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
America and Australia. The US has so many different experiences, from city life to beaches and all in between. Australia has the same language and the weather dictates your lifestyle. I also love its outdoor life
When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
Footballer  – I was football daft. Then, latterly, a musician because I played in  a band.
What was your biggest break in business? 
When my late father, Fraser Mackay and 
I formed Morning Noon & Night.
What was your  worst moment in business?
The day we sold Morning Noon & Night because we had such a hugely successful business .
Who do you most admire and why?
My late father

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
Book – Flight 149 by Stephen Davis.
Music is my passion and I played in bands for years. The last gig 
I went to was Coldplay.