Real business story

It's been give with one hand, take with another

You would struggle to find an SME as proactive and committed to its future as Dunsters Farm, but the road out of the pandemic is still far from clear. Follow the company's progress each month as we track its journey and improvement efforts.

Hannah Barlow (right) runs family business Dunsters Farm with brother Tom Mathew (left)

Previously a communications manager, Hannah Barlow became co-director of food wholesalers Dunsters Farm with her brother six years ago, taking over the family-run business from her parents.

Employing 30+ staff and based in Bury, the firm specialises in providing chilled products for a range of customers, including schools, hospitals and hospitality, across the North of England.

Hannah, along with six other UK businesses, will be providing monthly updates as she looks to steer her business through the next year. Follow the six other stories here:

You can navigate to different monthly updates from Hannah using the links at the top of this page, or keep reading to find out how Dunsters Farm has fared so far this year.

How Dunsters Farm started the year

Having been hit hard by the closure of many of their clients, Dunsters Farm had seen its cash reserves heavily depleted by the pandemic.

The reopening of schools in March and the slow reintroduction of hospitality services had boosted the business’ cash flow, but it was still facing challenges in mid-April.

“In terms of our customers trading again, that has started to improve a lot because we’ve had the schools reopen,” said Hannah, “but then we also had the Easter holidays, so it’s kind of give with one hand, take with another.”

She went on to describe how, due to the business’ connection with schools, their trading was often quite cyclical. However, as they hadn’t traded in their full capacity for some time, this cyclical process was highlighting the need to diversify.

“One of the things we were looking at pre-COVID that then got put to one side," added Hannah, "was how we can increase our product range and diversify into different markets so that we’re less cyclical, and that project has really restarted with a bang.”

The diversification project involved expanding their product range from chilled and ambient to include fresh and frozen produce as well, something that the business has never done before.

However, Hannah firmly believed that by expanding their product base, they would soon attract new customers.

“To really make a dent in the hospitality sector, you need to offer a variety, so both fresh and frozen foods, and then all the stuff that we already sell,” she went on. “But you really need that variety to get your foot through the door.”

Moving full steam ahead

The project represents a huge change for the business, as they now need to acquire space for freezers, re-evaluate their processes from picking to packing to dispatching, and also source additional vehicles and drivers.

“It’s one of those things that we’ve not done because we knew there was so much work involved,” Hannah said, “and then, when we were ready to go with the project, coronavirus hit and it got stalled. But now it feels like it’s full steam ahead.”

For a business that has seen its cash reserve significantly reduced by the pandemic, launching a new range of products represents a huge, and risky, investment.

“We would have been in a far better position to do this before the pandemic, but now we feel like the time’s right to do it and we don’t want to wait any longer,” Hannah went on.

“We’re having to balance out the potential risks with the benefits: it opens up so many new doors for us. It gives us the chance to give more to our existing customers and it gives us a shot at growth.”

Although Dunsters Farm had seen good year-on-year growth with the existing stock prior to the pandemic, Hannah believes that it would have been a challenge to keep that trajectory going without diversifying.

“It’s a phenomenal amount of money to invest when we’ve not been making any money, but we also feel like it’s a risk worth taking, so on balance, we’re going to push ahead,” she concluded.

Setting the scene and defining success

The depletion of cash reserves during the pandemic highlighted the need for a more diverse customer base. We asked Hannah to set a one year from now success statement – a situation the business would be in that would represent both recovery and progress towards a more sustainable future for the business.

We then got her to identify the five individual targets that would be most important in making that success statement a reality. See what she set out for Dunsters Farm below.

Time for some targets

Update one: June 2021 – “We brought on a whole new category for our business"

In this short video update, Hannah Barlow, MD of family-owned foodservice business Dunsters Farm, has some important news on her newly-diversified product line and also on Natasha's Law – two key areas of focus in her 2021/22 success statement.

Use Hannah's ideas to expand your own offering

An introduction to developing new products and services

Explore gaps in the market

Update two: July 2021 – “Trying new things during lockdown means we can now move at a faster pace”

For Hannah Barlow, MD of food wholesalers Dunsters Farm, a key priority for the next 12 months is to explore new markets. Having put in some of the legwork in advance, the firm now finds itself in a strong position.

Dunsters Farm is a long-established family firm with a loyal list of customers, but when the pandemic and lockdowns forced the majority of their clients to temporarily shut up shop, the business was forced to explore new revenue streams.

New product lines

One of these was selling direct to the public and experimenting with new product lines – including fresh produce. It was a challenging time that was full of discoveries. "Bananas went brown, we couldn't store avocados very well and we had issues getting milk deliveries in time," said Hannah. "It was very time-consuming to iron everything out, but it was good to have done a lot of that legwork when things were quieter."

The experience gained over the past 16 months now puts the business in a good place as it pushes ahead with one of its key targets for 2021/22: expanding into new markets.

Things moved up a gear – as Hannah explained in last month's update – when the firm recruited a new employee whose background is in fruit and veg.

"He has a lot of contacts within hospitality," she said, "which is an area we would like to move into. We now have the potential to open some new doors."

"With the fresh produce," Hannah added, "we're looking to get more into the restaurant trade, whether that's a hotel restaurant or high-end cafe-type places. There's also some retail outlets that will take fresh, too."

Interestingly, fresh produce gives the company a 'way in' that wasn't there before. "Normally when we approach potential new customers with our chilled and ambient ranges, they are already buying all that from their fresh supplier," said Hannah. "So we were kind of going in the wrong way."

By offering locally-sourced fresh produce, she said, Dunsters Farm can more easily get a foot in the door – and, once in, they can sell in the rest of their product lines as well. "It's like flipping things the other way," Hannah said.

Additional revenue

So far, their attempts to find new customers have gone well. "I thought they might not be so receptive to us out of loyalty to their suppliers, but in the fresh produce area they have struggled to get supply," said Hannah. "Some are just looking for someone who can deliver – which we can."

This optimism has now been translated into a concrete target: Dunsters Farm hope that their new operations can add 10 per cent to their revenues in the coming year. "That would really show that these new lines and new customers are able to contribute to the business," Hannah said.

Locally-sourced fresh produce gives the company a “way in” that wasn't there before

Meet other leaders testing out new product lines

Using new product innovation as a marketing tool to engage customers

Start experimenting

Update three: August 2021 – “We're supporting both our staff and customers to get this legislation right”

With Natasha's Law coming into effect in October, the UK food industry will have to improve how it labels items. Hannah Barlow, MD of wholesale business Dunsters Farm, had her sights on prioritising this when planning her 2021/22 goals. In this short audio clip, she brings us up to speed on this and another of her business targets.

Update four: September 2021 – “It's a little like wading through mud”

Big plans for 2021-22 have been hampered by a raft of external forces, says Hannah Barlow, MD of food wholesalers Dunsters Farm. But she remains focused and is confident of some positive changes soon...

As with Allsee Technologies' Baoli Zhao, some of Hannah's biggest headaches this month have been caused by staffing – it was the thing that kept her up at night when she took a much-needed summer holiday.

With so few delivery drivers around post Brexit, the Dunsters Farm MD said it is proving challenging to advance the business right now. "We have all these plans, but it's slow going because we're really struggling with recruitment," she said. "Trying to keep delivery drivers is especially hard, because they're being poached for bigger salaries."

Shortages across the board

"It's not just the drivers," Hannah added. "It's across the board, from warehouse staff to office workers and apprentices – everything. And then there are issues with supplies, too – a lot of people left their old jobs during Covid, and others left the UK because of Brexit. So now we have lots of jobs that need doing but a smaller talent pool."

As an example, she cites butchers from the EU whose post-Brexit exodus from the UK may explain, at least in part, why she hasn't been able to get sliced cooked meat for two days in a row. "That's a real key line for us," she said, "and we just can't get it. Losing two days of sales is massive."

A more predictable problem

Hannah said she is doing all she can to move the business forward as the world moves out of the pandemic, but she feels stymied by external forces. Another lag, however, has been caused by something that was perhaps a little more predictable...

"One of our targets this year was to expand into new product lines, which we have done, and use these to find new customers," she said. "While the new lines have been a success in terms of us being able to offer more to existing customers, using them to land new clients hasn't quite been so straightforward."

The reason why, said Hannah, is that her business first needs to build up strong demand from existing clients in order to drive down the price of bulk purchases – which would, in turn, make Dunsters Farm attractive to new clients.

"The hospitality sector, which is a key new area for us, perhaps isn't quite as price-sensitive as schools and hospitals," she said, "but we're up against the other players in the market. So we need that volume."

Ready to go, post Covid

All in all, said Hannah, a frustrating month. "Covid happened and things really stalled, and while that was going on we were preparing in the background so we'd be ready to go. But now it kind of feels like we're wading through mud."

"However, we are still moving ahead," she said, "and sales are up. Things are looking positive, and we'll soon be in a stronger position to attack the new markets we want to get into and increase our range even further. It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, only we're missing a couple of pieces."

Update five: October 2021 – “Our first ever webinar surpassed all expectations”

Determined to go above and beyond to help her customers comply with new food-industry legislation "Natasha’s Law", Dunsters Farm MD Hannah Barlow turned to tech to bring experts together to share their knowledge. It was such a hit that more webinars are now planned, and Hannah has some other important news in this video update, too.

Update six: November 2021 – “Business is good – but we're still clawing back 18 months of losses caused by Covid”

So says Hannah Barlow, MD of north-west food wholesalers Dunsters Farm, as she reflects on the first six months of the 2021-22 financial year. We asked Hannah to score the business out of 10 in terms of the progress that has been made on each of her five targets.

1) Diversify the product range

Hannah's score: 7

"We're well on with this and have massively increased the range, but the big change will be when we add frozen foods in the new year – that's when we can consider this goal completed. We joined the Caterforce buying group back in July and that allowed us to add in some of their lines – there's still more to come, and it seems like we're adding new lines every week. Fruit and veg is the most recent new category."

2) Reach new customers in different sectors

Hannah's score: 5

"This hasn't happened quite as quickly as we wanted it to – we did trial getting into hospitality and invested in bringing someone on board to help with that, but it didn't work out. We have managed to bring on universities, which was one of our key aims, plus we just got our first care home contract, which is another big tick. But hospitality still eludes us on the whole."

3) Install new cold store equipment

Hannah's score: 2

"This is also going slower than we thought. Trying to get anyone to build anything in the UK is a challenge at the moment, so in order to build up our frozen range quickly, we're looking at a small acquisition, where we will be able to tap into an existing frozen operation. So I'd give us a 2 out of 10 right now, but it could all speed up very quickly and would become a six or seven almost overnight. We'll definitely get there."

4) Let our vision and values guide us

Hannah's score: 6

"On the senior team side, I'd say we're at an eight out of 10, but for the wider team probably just a five. We're still trying to disseminate our vision and values to everyone – although we've had a lot of new starters so we're trying to add that to the induction stage much more than ever before, and we're also covering it during staff appraisals. The reason I can't give us a higher score is because we're so busy. When you're snowed under, anything that is not that-day critical is put to one side, unfortunately."

5) Be ready for Natasha's Law

Hannah's score: 10

"We had some really good feedback from customers on how we supported them for this major change in food labelling legislation, and it all seems to be going very well. I think that a few months down the line, when they start getting their Environmental Health or Local Authority inspections, we might start seeing queries from our customers if there are any issues with how they've implemented the legislation at their sites, but we're ready for that."

Summing up

"Covid really put the stoppers on everything," said Hannah, who admitted that the pandemic was an extremely frustrating time for the business. "We're still clawing back massive losses from an 18-month period, but we've seen three strong months of trading, which is brilliant," she added. If this continues, Hannah is optimistic that the business will be on track to hit its targets – and probably even exceed some of them.

"It's been an incredibly positive six months on the whole," said Hannah, "but it does still come with a note of caution over the uncertainty about what will happen next, such as price rises within food services."

A bright spot – Dunsters Farm won the People’s Choice award for Family Business of the Year

Update seven: December 2021 – “If you came to our depot today, there would still be no freezer”

Frustratingly, one of Hannah Barlow’s key 2021-22 goals still eludes her – but the MD of food wholesalers Dunsters Farm does have a potential alternative route to the important frozen food market, which she cryptically reveals in this short audio clip…

Update eight: January 2022 – “We're creating a new breakout room in the warehouse”

For Hannah Barlow, MD of wholesale food company Dunsters Farm, having a positive, engaged workforce that is aligned with their vision and values is paramount to the success of the company. Here, Hannah brings us up to speed about several new developments on this front...

"We made the decision recently to renovate an empty unit on our lot. As part of our focus on vision and values, which was one of our key goals for 2021-22, we want to create a nicer workplace for everyone.

"We are creating a proper training room in it which we have never had before, and we're actually going to use our vision and values in the artwork on the walls. We've always been against this before but we've had so many new starters recently and have found it quite challenging to get our vision and values across to them. So we thought this would be one way to do it."

All roads lead back to vision and values

"We're trying to make sure that everything the new starters see at induction and beyond all leads back to our vision and values. As well as the new training room, we are creating a new breakout area in the warehouse, and we are including staff in the decisions about what they want to see in it.

"We need to know what they want, because we might get it wrong – it might not be table football, for example, that they want to play after a long shift, it might be that they just want to sit down and watch some TV. We've just brought on a night shift team as well, and as their needs are likely to be quite different, it's important to ask and include everybody.

"Our mission is to become the number one purpose-driven wholesaler in the north of England. By that we mean it's not just about delivering a service and making money, it's about giving back and doing some good – which we have always tried to do but we never really talk about it.

"Our founder, my grandfather, did a lot of work for charities and actually got an MBE for that. He is no longer with us, sadly, but we want to show that we're continuing that legacy."

Voluntary work that means something

"One way that we are hoping to do that, which again ties in with our vision and values, is to let staff choose a charity of their choice if they want to do paid voluntary work on a day-release basis. Everybody's got different things that matter to them, and we want people to choose for themselves.

"All this is incredibly important. When the workforce is engaged, we really see the benefits of that – the impact it can have on customer service, for example, is phenomenal.

"Our drivers – which account for about a quarter of our workforce – are very much the public-face of our company, and when we have a driver who really wants to be part of what we do it makes such a difference. The feedback we get from clients about them is so much better than when they don't really fit with our vision and values, as has sometimes been the case in the past.

"In fact, the positivity of the new starters we've had recently is rubbing off on the whole team – and that's great. We want a team that is right behind what we're trying to do."

Dunsters Farm in-progress breakout room

A work in progress – creating a new training room and breakout area

Update nine: February 2022 – “We’re now supplying two large regional chains in the bakery sector”

Big news for Hannah Barlow and the Dunsters Farm team this month, with the wholesale foods company’s new lines attracting new customers in multiple sectors.

Update ten: March 2022 – “Our new night shift means we're now much more efficient”

There have been some big changes at North West of England wholesale food company Dunsters Farm over the past few months and, as MD Hannah Barlow explains, these are helping the company to meet some of its key 2021-22 targets.

"Three of our key goals for this year were centred around growth – we wanted new cold store equipment, more product lines and new customers in different sectors, and working towards these made us rethink the way the whole business runs.

We wanted to change the way we schedule our pick shift – who handle the selection of products from our warehouse, based on the orders we've had in – and also the way we plan the actual deliveries. We worked out that by adding a night shift, we could make things more efficient and potentially increase our capacity for deliveries.

The night shift started in January, and I'd be the first to admit that it's not been easy to get it perfect. I think we were slightly naive in thinking that night shift workers would be the same as day shift workers.

While we've found it quite challenging, the benefits to the business outweigh the teething problems. We now have people here throughout the night, and we've been able to solve the issue of our evening pick team working so much overtime, because they would often overrun their 10pm finish time.

We've also moved the picking team's schedule from Monday to Friday to Sunday to Thursday. It means that orders are no longer sitting in vans over the weekend – which was always a risk, in case fridge motors went down.

Loading more dynamically

“What all these changes mean is that we now have more time to plan the routes a lot better, and we can also plan the way that we pick so that we are loading more dynamically rather than having a warehouse full of stuff.

If we can pick more efficiently and get our drivers loaded and out earlier, there is also the opportunity for a van to come back at 2pm, say, and then go out again with a different driver. We're not doing that yet, but it would enable us to use the vehicles more efficiently.

Prior to January, the driving team would come in at 4am and it could take until 6am to get all the loaded vans out. Now, the vans are loaded at 4am, so they've got as much as a two-hour head start on what they had before.

If we added a second shift, it could do an afternoon run – which would mean that we could do a second delivery to places like restaurants and care homes that are open later in the day. That would mean we could then easily add customers like that to our list, because at the moment it can be hard to fit them in.

We've also had some good news on the awards front, which has been very exciting. We're part of something called the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter, and we've just won their Flexible Work Award. This loops back to one of our 2021-22 goals, too. Living our vision and values was high on our agenda, and the award is all about how we're looking after our team with hybrid and flexible working.

Where to go next

Hannah isn't the only leader sharing her journey this year. Six other businesses across the UK are providing monthly updates as they emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and work to achieve their "definition of success" statements.

Follow their progress so far:

  • location: North West (England)
  • business size: 10-49 People
  • business type: Food service

Lessons learnt

One of Hannah's biggest takeaways from the pandemic is that Dunsters Farm needed to expand its product range. It's a good idea to look at your own offering and see whether you're too reliant on one market.

Hiring an employee with a background in fruit and veg gives Dunsters the potential to open new doors.

It's always daunting to make a new investment, so spend some thinking about whether the potential rewards will balance it out.