Ronny Liu has never lacked entrepreneurial ambition. But many in his position would have given up at the first hurdle of trying to enter the food industry, had they received similar knockbacks.
Liu is responsible for two wholesale businesses in the UK – the £18m fruit and vegetable wholesaler Sunnyfield Veg, which operates on a site at London’s New Spitalfields Market, and the £25m foodservice wholesale firm, Cook’s Delights, which has bases in Swindon and London.
The Hong Kong-born businessman says: “Sunnyfield Veg started in 1995, shortly after I moved to the UK. It was a very difficult time – a Chinese man coming into a very traditional, successful market. At that time, no Chinese business was doing fruit and veg. I can remember I went out to the farms in the countryside here, but because we were Chinese and also because we were new, they would not supply us.
“Trust and commitment is a big thing in a long-running veg-growing cycle – and the same policy was applied by other growers in Europe and in China, too. So you need a partnership for the benefit of both parties, and it was hard to get that initially.”
Despite this, Liu eventually managed to get his business off the ground, before hitting upon the niche that was the springboard to success.
He says: “At the time, the market was very boring for Chinese people here: oranges, apples, green peppers. We knew that they wanted products like pak choi – which is big now in the UK, but it was not then.
“As well as that, they wanted different types of pear, different types of mango. The varieties of these products are well known now, but at the time, they were huge for us and offered a real point of difference. They helped us grow our business and got us to where we are today.”
There are around 18,000 Chinese restaurants and takeaways across the UK. A number of these are customers of Sunnyfield Veg, which got Liu thinking.
“What about everything else these businesses need?” he says. “And that’s how Cook’s Delights came to be. Whatever the restaurant needs, we can provide it. We are a one-stop-shop.”
As well as Chinese eateries, Cook’s Delights supplies Thai restaurants, among others, and chains including Ping Pong and Cha Cha Moon. But Liu has not rested on his laurels. He says: “Wholesale has become very narrow. We always have to find new ways to look after the profit margin, so we diversified into haulage, shipping, logistics, and online shopping. You have to maximise your capacity with your foodservice business, or else it is difficult as the competition is fiercer and the profit margin lower.”
Delivery forms the crux of Cook’s Delights’ operations, and the business commands a fleet of 100 vehicles.
Liu’s overriding ambition is to turn Cook’s Delights into a £100m business. Pivotal to this aim is the construction of a purpose-built new warehouse in Enfield, which is on course to open next month.
Liu says: “Our business is saturated at the New Spitalfields Market site. To help us give better service to customers and to move to the next level, we need to have a better environment with our own facilities.
“This new HQ will future-proof the business, which is why we are building it ourselves rather than moving to an existing warehouse, so that the site matches our growth plans.
“I am very excited – Brexit is not the best timing, but the move will raise our game. Take quality control. At the moment, it can be cold and damp at the London site. The new site in Enfield will have temperature control. The move is good for our customers in this regard, but also for our employees – it will be better for them as a place to work.”
While also housing a logistics service and a pallet haulage service, the site in Enfield will provide storage options for Liu’s customers.
Liu adds: “While the target is to get to £100m, we have to take it step by step and focus on the milestone targets before then, like £50m, £80m and so on. We have already employed people in preparation for the move and projected growth. Our transport managers have gone up from one to three; we now have two financial controllers, and two telesales teams, up from one. We also have sales reps on the road, which we did not used to have, so we are equipped to grow.”
As well as continuing to build on his logistics operation, Liu is eager to increase Cook’s Delights’ product range from 1,800 items to up to 6,000 lines.
That thirst for growth is something Liu is continually seeking to quench. He is also eyeing up a minicab venture that would take customers to and from the restaurants he serves. It is by having this suite of services, and an unyielding willingness to diversify and evolve, that has brought Liu his success.
He is not hell-bent on having his children follow him into his businesses, though. “I would rather they go out and learn the reality of the world, rather than coming straight into my business as a CEO or whatever,” Liu says. “They need to know how hard this world is – the basic realities for normal people.
“But having said that, my mind is always on the next generation. They are the ones who will be running this business one day. Training them is very important. So I make sure we have a good amount of young people in the business.”