Paul Hill speaks to JL Brooks managing director David Longfellow (pictured left)
Talk us through the history of the business
JL Brooks was originally established in 1920 by Ernest Lesley Brooks, who called himself Jack, hence the name JL Brooks. He left the Navy after the Great War and began the business of wholesaling hams from his motorbike and side car in Hunslet to local shops in the Leeds area.
Before the Second World War, JL Brooks moved to warehousing in Farsley and the business continued to grow and trade throughout the war supplying wholesale provisions to grocery shops. After Jack’s death in 1957, his wife and daughter [Madelyn] ran the company until 1959, when Madelyn’s sons joined the family business.
They continued wholesaling to the licensed trade and local shops until 2005, when they decided to retire, and the business was bought by me.
What has happened since you acquired it in 2005?
I’ve looked to expand and grow it, and now employ 32 people with a fleet of 15 vans delivering across parts of the UK. In 2007, we moved to a larger modern warehousing in Calverley, Leeds.
By 2011, we had outgrown the building again, and had to move to Armley, where we chose premises that were four times the size in the hope we wouldn’t run out of space for a while.
However, these 20,000sq ft premises are filling up and we’re now working with commercial property agents to find somewhere new to base ourselves, hopefully in the Leeds area.
We also opened a depot in Hull, which we took on 12 months ago, which makes everything a lot easier when it comes to distribution. It was already a wholesale depot, so it was very easy to merge it into JL Brooks.
What is your customer base?
It’s quite a wide range. We supply to pubs, clubs, golf and sports clubs, sandwich shops, newsagents, garages and gyms, but our biggest customer is the general public using the website.
Our website says: ‘Discover the benefits of shopping wholesale, even if you’re not a business’, which I think sums it up pretty nicely, and this B2C service has done well for us.
How did the company deal with the lockdown period?
We lost a large amount of our customer base overnight, which is when we made the decision to properly focus on the website and delivering to the general public.
It then got up to 1,500-plus orders a week online and went absolutely bonkers. So, what we lost there, we made back up on the other side of it. We already had online ordering and were open to the general public anyway, so it was easy to implement.
It was difficult when we had our drivers on furlough, and it was a struggle when the internet ordering picked up and took a lot of organising. We even had to set up packing desks around the warehouse because we were so busy. It’s all worked out well, however, and our turnover has more than doubled compared with before the pandemic.
What is your long-term vision?
We’re looking for new premises as we’ve outgrown these we bought 10 years ago. But my main priority is to just keep growing the business and moving it forward.
I also want to continue our work with local suppliers in the Leeds area as that’s what sets us apart from the bigger wholesalers, such as Booker and Costco. I also want to continue our work and expanding our own-label range products, which we develop with a couple of other companies.
You recently took over as the chairman of buying group NBC. What are your plans?
First, NBC is really helpful for JL Brooks as it allows us to share contract work with each other from different parts of the UK.
For example, if a customer in the south-west wanted something, we could work one of the NBC members to get that to them, and vice-versa.
I was one of the founding members of NBC when it broke away from Confex, and will take over as chairman for a year in January 2023.
We’re doing really well and recently reported continual growth throughout the business at the AGM, with revenue growing by 25% over the past year.
As chairman, my main aim will be to increase communication between members and get more supplier support.