Amid a site move, Martyn Fisher meets the man behind a historic fresh produce wholesaler
It was all change last month for fresh produce wholesalers in Birmingham, as they moved to a new market site in Witton in the north of the city, seven years after a deal was mooted.
Birmingham’s original fruit and vegetable wholesale market opened in 1883. Another site was built to replace it in 1973, and served the city until April this year.
The new £50m Birmingham Wholesale Market (BWM) is run by a 50-50 partnership between the traders – of whom there will eventually be 78 on site – and Birmingham City Council. Previously, the market was run exclusively by the council.
Once it is fully up and running, the site will employ 400 people and support more than 15,000 jobs in the region. Housed in a giant 250m x 70m building, the market’s floor space is around 17,500sq m.
George Perry is the biggest trader on the site. The business began trading in 1870, and is recognised as the oldest fruit and vegetable wholesaler in England. In fact, according to some experts in the channel, it is probably the oldest business of its kind in Europe.
Today, it is run by Mark Tate and his younger brother, Paul. The business was taken over by their father, Alan, and his business partner, Moss Prottey, in the early-1970s.
Mark Tate joined in 1983, the year after he left school. This was not the field he had expected to be working in, having been a YTS player at Aston Villa – the year in which they were the leading team in English football. Injury scuppered that dream, however, leading to Tate following his father into the family business, while playing football semi-professionally on the side until he was 45.
You have to watch every penny – you have to keep your finances neat and tidy if you want to come good in this game
When Tate’s father retired in 2000, the business had a turnover of around £3m. Today, the two brothers preside over an £18.5m fresh produce empire, comprised of the original George Perry business, which boasts a turnover of around £7.5m; GP Salads, which serves caterers and offers more high-end fresh produce items, and has a turnover of about £6.5m; and a chain of greengrocers called Joe Richards, the largest independent fruit and vegetable retailer in the Midlands, which covers the rest. Across the three firms, there are 84 employees and a fleet of eight vehicles, making deliveries three times a week to foodservice businesses and secondary wholesalers in Worcester and Gloucester, among other places.
On any one day, the team serve 2,000 customers across George Perry and GP Salads from BWM. The customer base has diversified in recent years. As well as its usual independent retailer customers, George Perry has a contract with the company which provides fruit and salads to Birmingham schools and prisons.
Tate is wary of dealing with caterers, though. He says: “They can be notoriously slow payers. We argued with one recently who wanted 60 days to pay us. I told them it was 28 days or nothing. Late payments affect your cash flow, and companies like ours have to watch every penny – you have to keep your finances neat and tidy if you want to come good in this game.”
In terms of other customers, the business sells to the general public on a click & collect basis via its website, and recently handled an order for world-famous film and TV production site Pinewood Studios.
As good as online orders have been for the business, Tate is still keenly aware of the advantages of doing business face-to-face. He says: “We have a guy who runs two Spar stores. He was spending £150-200 three times a week on the website. When he came in to pick up his stuff, we spoke to him and started recommending products such as strawberries. He said, ‘Oh, I had not thought of that.’ So, I said to him, ‘Start emailing me your order, I will look at what is on offer and you can see if you like them.’ Now, all of a sudden, he has gone from spending £450 a week to spending £1,200 a week.”
Tate adds: “We do not want to become faceless, so it is vital to balance the traditional side with the pace of change. I think eventually it will all go online. You look at businesses like Mothercare and Toys R Us recently, it is the way society is changing.”
When I meet Tate, just over a week after the new site has been open, trade has been exceptional. The business had already twice broken its daily takings record. The buzz a new site creates helped, along with a period of sunny weather and the start of both Ramadan and the soft-fruit season.
The transfer to the new site has not been cheap, with both brothers putting their houses on the line to make the move work. But Tate believes that Birmingham Wholesale Market has a profitable future, and predicts an era of fewer but more powerful wholesale markets across the UK, with customers not restricted to specific geographical areas. He says: “Belfast had five fresh produce wholesalers. Total Produce – the UK’s biggest fresh produce firm – has now bought them all. But they are not the cheapest.
“We have a guy who gets a cheap return ticket from Belfast, and hops in a taxi from Birmingham Airport to the market. He represents a consortium of about eight-to-10 businesses, and goes around the market picking out the stuff he needs. A lorry which comes here to deliver mushrooms from Ireland then transports his goods back over there on the return journey. We have customers in other parts of the UK who do similar, because we are cheaper than their local markets. We are a price-competitive market. Some suppliers do not like it – they ask why we are selling £2 cheaper than London, Manchester and so on. But the difference is they will only sell one pallet of the stuff, and we can sell 10.”
Tate may have been working on the market for 35 years, but his passion and love of the job remains unwavering.
“Banter and team spirit is everything in this game,” he says. “A bit like Team GB, we call ourselves ‘Team GP’. Yes, industrial language flies around, but that is part and parcel of the life here, and it is what makes it so special. My dad used to say: ‘You could have had your leg cut off two days ago, and found out your dog died yesterday, but you step in that market today and you will be laughing within an hour’. It is true. I love coming to work, I really do. I need to work on getting the work/life balance right, but I am lucky.” l