There cannot be many wholesale bosses who spend their spare time milking cows, but Richard Hunt – MD of Hunt’s Foodservice – is one of them.
Hunt, who still proudly considers himself to be a dairy farmer, has overseen significant growth at the business during his time at the helm, but has worked to not lose touch with his farming roots by tending to his herd where possible.
The family’s roots are in farming – Hunt’s brother still farms today, working on the farm that has been in the family for more than 100 years – but the wholesale business began life as a horse and cart operation delivering milk in Sherborne, Dorset.
In the 1950s, that small dairy round led by Hunt’s uncle, Michael, grew into Hunt’s Dairies, an operation that included an ice cream delivery service, which went on to become one of the biggest businesses of its kind in the southwest.
This was something of a natural progression for Hunt’s, which was making ice cream and selling it in delis in Sherborne, even in the 1930s.
In the 1970s, Hunt’s uncle – whose wife, Sybil, 98, is still chairman of the business – decided that frozen food was the way forward. He sold the dairy in 1976, leading to the business becoming Hunt’s Frozen Foods.
In 2004, Hunt was asked to join the business’ board of directors. Within a year, he had taken over as managing director at Hunt’s, which was a founder-member of the Caterforce buying group nearly 30 years ago.
He says: “About 10 years ago, we had a £15m turnover. We now have a £75m turnover. From being an old-fashioned and fairly stagnant sleepy business, we are now a very dynamic, forward-thinking, high-tech and modern business.”
Hunt partially attributes the growth of the foodservice wholesaler to having a very good sales team. “As we have gone into different sectors, it has been our sales team, both field sales and telesales, which has grown our customer base into the different areas we have gone into.”
In addition, Hunt points to significant acquisitions made along the way, including wholefoods and health foods wholesaler Queenswood Natural Foods, which is based in Bridgwater, Somerset.
The Hunt’s customer base is predominantly made up of pubs, coffee shops, and ice cream retailers, serving every beach from Brighton in Sussex to Land’s End in Cornwall, all the way through to the Gower in South Wales.
Hunt adds: “When I first took over, I felt we needed a change in direction and attitude, so we bought a business called Sunnyside. That radically changed our business and we are now a member of Ice Cream World, which helps us in that category. The other business we bought was a small firm called Handley Cross, which got us into chilled, and another business called Dobles in Cornwall. We now have a business there called Hunt’s of Cornwall.”
Along with its headquarters in Sherborne, Hunt’s has several satellie sites working to support the wholesale operation. The business also owns a cold-storage warehouse for companies looking to store third-party products, and two hotels, one in Dorset and the other in Cornwall.
Employing a total of 450 people and serving 6,000 customers using 100 HGVs, 20 vans and seven ‘arctics’, Hunt’s is forecasting to grow its annual turnover to nearer £90m, aided by “more of the same”.
Underpinning Hunt’s ability to grow sustainably is a significant investment in technology. This includes Voiteq headsets, vehicle-tracking telematics tech, Kronos HR and timekeeping software, and the invoicing solution DocTech.
Hunt notes: “We have a very young and dynamic operations team, who have come from top universities. I am from the age when we did not use a computer at school, but the people we get in are naturals when it comes to not only using this equipment, but making sure it serves a purpose for our customers, too. This investment in people makes us stand out.”
While Hunt admits that staff retention in cold stores is tough, many members of the team have been with the team for over 40 years. In fact, the 63-year-old Sherborne store manager has been with the business since he was 15.
One employee who could be with the business for years to come is Hunt’s son, Thomas, who joined the wholesaler aged 21 and now serves as operations director. He has been part of four years of transformative change for Hunt’s, during which time turnover has doubled.
While wholesale sometimes can feel like a race to the bottom on price, Hunt’s is not a business that operates in this way, aided by the fact that it has the buying capacity to challenge the national foodservice wholesalers.
Hunt says: “There are a lot of independent suppliers who do not particularly want to sell to the national wholesalers, and they prefer to sell to the regional independent wholesaler who treats them correctly. So our range is our USP, topped off by the quality of our service.”
He adds: “I am never too concerned with what the big boys do, but it is important that we stand out and have a unique offering.
“With Palmer & Harvey going down, there are very few businesses out there which supply a wide range of goods, including frozen, into the likes of farm shops and independent shops. There are so many opportunities out there – it is all about not getting distracted and grabbing hold of them. We are very confident about the future, though.”
The Hunt’s app is providing further grounds for optimism, and online ordering in general has grown from accounting for 1.5% of sales to 10% in the past two years. Hunt says: “It is an area we are looking to carry on growing. It is a great way for our customers to look at our offers, and place their orders quickly and efficiently. In addition, it minimises mistakes.”
On the products side, Hunt tips the trend for health and wellness items to continue to blossom, along with vegan goods. Hunt’s has come a long way from its horse-and-cart days, and the MD believes the business is well placed to meet the demand in emerging trends, particularly with its acquisition of Queenswood.
60 seconds with Richard Hunt
What is the best piece of business advice you can offer?
It is fairly simple – listen.
What is your philosophy with regards to work?
You have to get a work-life balance, even though it is never easy.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career and why?
My family has had the biggest influence on my career. My father – who was a farmer and not involved in Hunt’s – was keen to help me start in business. I started doing his accounts as a teenager on an old-fashioned ledger. Being surrounded by business-talk from a young age was fantastic insight and really helped my development.
What do you get up to in your spare time?
I love playing golf and tennis. I have played tennis on a Monday night for the past 25 years and my golf handicap is 11 at the moment, although it used to be a bit better. One of my other hobbies is that I am still a dairy farmer with two dairy herds, which I tend to on high-days and holidays at the moment, but I continue to thoroughly enjoy it.