Starting life as a milk round in 1963 by Les Ratcliffe in the family’s home town of Bury, Dunsters Farm has evolved into a multi-million pound business with a growth rate of 20% over the past three years.
Yet, despite a huge amount of change at the foodservice wholesaler, it is still run by the same family and based in the same town in a purpose-built depot 57 years later.
Following Ratcliffe’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Jeremy taking the reins four decades ago, the business shifted its focus into the education sector and soon became a leading provider for schools across the north of England. Then came the next developmental stage for the company, with Ratcliffe’s grandchildren, Hannah Barlow and Tom Mathew, joining the business in 2014.
They oversaw a period in which Dunsters had its eye set firmly on the digital age, as it embraced new technology and processes to improve the operations and overall customer experience.
Now delivering to around 800 customers in a multitude of sectors throughout the north of England, managing director Barlow explains that the previous two years have been focused on growth and development of the product range.
“This is to enable us to compete in new sectors and to provide our customers with greater variety,” she says.“We have used technology to enhance our service and have been joined by a number of key staffing appointments to strengthen our team in both sales and operations. Some key tender and contract wins have enabled us to achieve continued growth and we have been working hard on plans for future developments for the business.”
Unsurprisingly, the lockdown at the end of March turned the business on its head, according to director Mathew. “Continuity plans covered a lot of eventualities, but a worldwide pandemic that saw 95% of our customer base temporarily close overnight was not one of them,” he explains.
While Dunsters continued to serve its education customers that remained partially open, and its NHS contracts, the wholesaler decided to pivot the business to offer home delivery and click & collect services to residents of Greater Manchester. This involved the listing of nearly 500 new products for its new B2C offering.
“Initially, we saw a spike in sales of pasta, rice and other bulk store cupboard lines. However, as lockdown has progressed, we have introduced a wider range of luxury food items, working with local family-run producers to offer cakes, pies, chutneys, coffees and more,” he says.
“We have also operated on a skeleton staff team since lockdown to ensure we can keep everyone safe, and secure the future of the business. Our biggest challenge is continuing to expand and diversify to meet our ambitious growth targets. But recovering and rebuilding from the impact of Covid-19 is currently our focus.”
A key facet that stands out at the business is its ethical and sustainability work. Currently conducting a review of its procurement policy to ensure it is working with like-minded companies, Dunsters is a new breed of wholesaler that doesn’t just run the business from a solely financial standpoint.
“Over the past few years, we have really focused on creating a sustainable, environmentally responsible business,” explains Barlow. “In 2019, we were delighted to be named Confex Green Wholesaler of the Year, as evidence of our commitment to energy saving, waste management, efficient transportation and social awareness.“
Furthermore, we have introduced environment and sustainability as an agenda item on all meetings. We have also created a quarterly Thinking Forward committee with representatives from all areas of the business, with the remit of looking at ways of further improving our commitment to the environment. We have already made great improvements to our environmental footprint, introducing LED lighting and electric vehicles, as well as new recycling and waste management initiatives.”
Dunsters also ensures that the business has a strong gender and age balance within its workforce, with the equal gender split of its senior team evidence of this. “Our team ranges from 20-64 years old and we have seen successful long-term appointments from the apprenticeship schemes,” explains Mathew.
“We are focused on creating a strong team that provides equal opportunities for both men and women from all backgrounds, and the opportunity for staff to reach their potential within the business is not defined by their gender.”
Once the coronavirus pandemic is over, the company has ambitious internal targets to grow the business significantly within the next few years.
“The business has changed many times, but as with many family businesses, our values remain the same,” concludes Barlow. With a determination to never stand still and constantly rethink its operations, Dunsters is on a clear path of evolution.