Innovation, technology and modernisation are three words that define Dunsters Farm. The third-generation family foodservice business based in Bury, Greater Manchester, is pulling out all the stops in a bid to become more efficient and profitable.
Siblings Hannah Barlow and Tom Mathew joined the business in 2014 as directors, and have since revolutionised the company by spearheading a major cultural shift.
Their grandfather started out in 1954 with a milk-round, through which he began selling yogurt, at that time an unfamiliar product in the UK.
The operation evolved into Dunsters Farm, which became a limited company in 1963. Dunsters is now a £10m wholesale business that specialises in chilled and ambient goods, selling to approximately 800 customers across Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Yorkshire, North Wales, Cheshire and Cumbria.
However, it is still recognised for its own-brand Dunsters Yogurt. Barlow says: “Our grandad’s business soon became built on supplying corner shops. These shops had a really loyal customer base, so people still remember Dunsters Yogurt from their childhood. In fact, people email us all the time, asking about new flavours!”
The business’ main customer base is now schools, where challenges come on price. Mathew says: “The biggest challenge at the moment across all industries is high
prices, but it’s exaggerated in the school sector because they are under so much pressure.”
The past six to 12 months have seen inflation sky-rocket, but Mathew says that Dunsters – the most recent wholesaler to join the Confex buying group – tries to absorb as many of the costs as possible to help its customers. To help schools manage, Dunsters also offers promotional deals at specific times so that they can work within their budgets as best they can.
One of the major macro trends in the market is healthy eating, but this can come with a hefty price premium, too.
“We are keen on growing this category despite the price premium, because something
like ‘gluten-free vegetarian gravy granules’ is attractive to customers wanting to branch out and keep up with trends,” Mathew adds.
To combat both inflation and price increases, Dunsters has invested heavily in technology.
“Fuel is a major cost for a predominantly delivered business like ours, so we have to protect ourselves and save money elsewhere. Tech has made us more efficient, so we can afford to keep our prices lower,” Barlow explains.
Giving warehouse staff voice-recognition headsets was Dunsters’ biggest ever tech investment, but Barlow and Mathew insist it was the best decision they ever made.
“We had to make sure when acquiring new tech that, firstly, it improved customer service, and that, secondly, it was cost efficient for the business,” Barlow says. “There was a lot of technology that we initially rejected because it didn’t pay us back quickly enough.
“We had very little technology in the business when we started, but in the end we went for warehouse management software and enterprise resource planning systems. We also set up to route and track our vehicles, and this now allows our customers to track exactly where their goods are.”
The effects of these changes brought on a major cultural shift in the business – one that was unsurprisingly met with hesitancy. Anticipating staff would be wary of the changes, Barlow and Mathew made sure to listen and communicate, while providing adequate training to help individuals adjust to the new system.
Mathew says: “We expected people would have an opinion about it, having worked in the same routine for many years. In a small team, we don’t want to create tension between staff and, more importantly, we don’t want to create drama with people who have known our parents for years.”
Barlow adds that one of the biggest issues is that people feel de-skilled when new technology comes in, as they may feel like they have to train all over again for the position they’ve already worked in for years.
“It’s scary and we appreciate that. But we had to trust in the system. Now, having used it for a whole year, it’s paid off immensely – picking went from 95% to 99% accuracy,” she says.
The change in culture also saw Barlow and Mathew shifting staff around to new roles to better suit their skillsets. A risky move? Maybe. But it was aimed at helping staff feel excited about what they were doing – and it has paid off.
“Before we joined, we sat down with our parents and said there would be change. We stressed that they had to be open to our ideas,” Mathew explains.
“Our dad comes from an older generation, so he wanted to know why the old system was bad before changes were made. Nevertheless, both their opinions still count, as our father is still the MD and our mother is also a director.”
Barlow and Mathew started their careers in two very different professional backgrounds – the former in PR and marketing, the latter in law. “Our parents never pushed us to join, but one day our dad asked us separately if we wanted to – we both said yes, on the basis that the other person also agreed,” Barlow explains.
She notes that the skills she and Mathew obtained before entering wholesale have proved valuable in this channel, and adds that she and Mathew’s differing attributes and experiences complement one another.
Having implemented a big change already, next up for Barlow and Mathew is expanding the product range by investing in non-foods such as disposables to cater for current customers’ needs, and to attract new customers.
Mathew adds: “We want to grow sustainably. We recently brought on new people with significant experience – people who used to work for Booker and Bidfood, for example. I guess it was a risk for them moving to a smaller business, but they’re people who are ambitious and who want to play a part in something that is going somewhere.”
Barlow concludes: “We may be ambitious, but we are still realistic. In our minds, we know where we want Dunsters to be.”