Training and the importance of mentoring within its programme will form a key strand of the Scottish Wholesale Association's focus over the next year, it was revealed at the trade body's annual conference at Crieff at the weekend (June 14-16).

A groundbreaking mentoring scheme, launched at the 2012 conference, saw its first four 'mentees' officially join the programme earlier this year with all of them - Fiona MacFarlane from Forteith Foodservice, Stuart Harrison from JW Filshill, Paul Dickson from Booker and Waqas Khawaja from United Wholesale (Scotland) - attending the conference.

George Benson, who has stepped down as SWA president after three years guiding the Association, said: "Last year, the SWA Council recognised the need to motivate and develop our emerging talent within our member organisations, working in the key areas of buying, sales development and management. From that, our Mentoring Trust was born.

"The Trust will provide unique development opportunities for employees of SWA member organisations who have a drive for ambition within the industry, with the programme structured to fit in around business needs; mentoring is happening 'on the job' so our mentees are realising their own capability and potential - as well as having the support of an expert to encourage growth."

Participants were selected through an application process that was endorsed by their line managers with individuals then matched to appropriate mentors. "Since then, they have all have had one-to-one sessions, with structured goals and objectives set. Unlimited telephone support has allowed for on-the-spot issues or concerns to be dealt with," said Benson.

Risk, he added, was an early issue to emerge from the scheme: "One of the key learnings that came out of the mentees' training day we held was their total aversion to risk. This is completely understandable considering their job profiles. But what would happen in their day-to-day routine if they started to take a bit of risk?

"It is something we frequently initiate personally in all aspects of our lives, in order that we may develop and make changes for ourselves. We take risks with the intention of achieving positive gains, because we see a stronger potential for opportunity rather than for failure. So imagine the possible positive gains for the business?

"It is a specific intention of our Mentoring Programme to encourage our mentees to learn the benefits of risk-taking with the full support of their mentors and, crucially, their line managers. I believe it should be the role of all senior managers to understand and clearly articulate the rationale for positive risk-taking, to instil the necessary confidence in staff to take carefully considered risks in pursuit of beneficial outcomes for the business.

"If we have the right people with the right attitude and the right skills to create a truly world-class industry we will be ahead of the game."

Mentoring, he suggested, can help improve the skill sets of the industry's emerging talent so they are prepared to cope with tough economic conditions and leverage trust as a competitive advantage with their key suppliers.

"Wholesaling is not a high-tech, sexy industry," Benson continued. "Some might say it's not even cutting-edge but as a business we need to be 'on trend' - and by mentoring and training our emerging talent we might just be able to hold on to them long-term, and create the trust with our suppliers that will give us a competitive advantage."

Three places are currently available on the programme and wholesalers are invited to encourage suitable employees to apply. Similarly, the SWA is keen to hear from prospective mentors.

"I felt it was important to leave some sort of legacy to the SWA after my three years as president and I certainly hope I have achieved that with the introduction of our Mentoring Trust," Benson concluded. "People are the lifeblood of our industry which means that training - and improving skills across the board - remains of vital importance to the future of wholesaling in Scotland.

"Crucially, the return on the SWA's investment in the Mentoring Trust will be evident to our members as they see their emerging talent develop and grow."