John Holland was in his 20s when, as a newly-appointed joint boss of JR Holland & Son fruit and veg wholesaler, a regular customer told him: “You’re the father of lots of children now!”.
Yet he only came to fully understand what that entailed when his father died a few years later in 1991. In taking over the business as sole owner he swiftly came to realise that to succeed his best commodity and asset was his staff – not the perishables he dealt in.
Since then, the family business has grown from a £3m turnover firm employing 10 people into a two-firm food empire – JR Holland Produce LLP and its complementary specialist firm JR Holland Foodservices – pulling in around £30m between them and employing 165 happy people, many of whom have been with him from the very start.
It’s 11am when we meet, a reasonable hour in the first half of my day – yet the working day is effectively over for John, who started work in the Team Valley produce arm of the company at 5.30am, meeting his sales team, talking produce and enjoying some lively banter with customers in the bustling market atmosphere.
He’ll be in his office until gone 5pm too.
It’s not a sense of obligation that draws him in at such an early hour. Anyone who meets the 53-year-old soon comes to see that this is his true passion, and he’s a firm believer of leading by example.
Besides, 5.30am is practically a lie-in to the 2.30am alarm calls he had back in his teens when he was starting out, learning the trade from his dad.
Recent years have delivered what he describes as a health wake-up call, and having twice battled meningitis and also overcoming Bell’s Palsy he’s more inclined to give himself a 5am lie-in these days.
“My boys are there at about 2.30am, we have a 6am opening and we’re well and truly over for the day by 11am,” he said.
“If I expect my staff to do it, I have to do it. If you are asking a man to come in at 3am you should make sure you are there too, so you can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him.”
John’s pride and enthusiasm is evident, yet it could all have been so different. After all, he had to get the business back after he was written out of his father’s will.
It was always a given that John, a dad to two teenage children who now lives in Gosforth, Newcastle, would follow his father into the wholesale fruit & veg industry, and that it would always be in his blood.
His dad all but retired in 1977, selling the produce firm he ran at Gateshead market to West Cumberland Farmers, but he was desperate to return to the industry in 1983.
After studying business at Manchester University and spells as a salesman in London and Glasgow, John came back to the North East that year to join his dad in business at the age of 22, setting up the JR Holland & Son wholesaler, working out of Gateshead to supply the region’s restaurants, local markets and shops.
“I leaned everything I know from my father. He was very wise, very astute, self-made and self-taught and he had a wonderful ability to apply common sense to every situation, and to have respect for every party. . . in this business you don’t just keep the customer happy but also the suppliers, to make sure you get the best produce,” he said.
The pair worked well together despite having what John describes as an “incredibly fractious” relationship but in 1990 they fell out over John’s personal choices, and he was disinherited.
They continued to work together even though John had been written out of the will, but in November 1990, before they had a chance to fully make amends, his father died suddenly after a short battle with cancer.
Five months later he raised the money to buy out his dad’s widow, thanks to a good team at Muckle LLP who acted on a loophole in the original company agreement which allowed for the remaining partner to buy the business in the event of either partner’s death.
He recalled: “It was dreadful. His widow was a reluctant seller but she didn’t come from a fruit business background and the original agreement allowed for the remaining partner to buy the remaining assets.
“That was also the good old days when you could go to the bank manager.
“I went into the Royal Bank of Scotland, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and asked if he could lend me half a million pounds . . .and he called the next day to say ‘yes’! I don’t think it would happen now.
“After that I embarked on an aggressive growth plan, buying out the competition as they floundered.
“And in 1994 we set up the second business, JR Holland Foodservices, after buying Joseph Lowe & Sons, a catering supply company who we had been supplying a lot of produce.
“At the time I saw it as a set of wheels but it’s a very different beast. It was in the same building here at Team Valley but we’ve expanded it since first buying it.
“I also bought Specialist Foods Supplies based in Ripon because they had a contract we wanted, and I also had JR Holland Flowers from 1997.”
The rapid expansion saw the 2000 buy back of his dad’s original business sold in 1977, H2H Produce Ltd, which merged with JR Holland and Son to form JR Holland Produce LLP, and a foray down to Leeds results in H2H Leeds, a new location for the acquired Ripon business. Business was booming, the firm’s reach saw activity across the North East, into Scotland and further afield, and sales peaked in 2008 at around £46m.
But John wasn’t content that the varied businesses were spread over such a wide area.
Deciding the firm were being “busy fools” the flower business was sold, H2H Leeds was sold to the managing team in a successful MBO, and the focus was placed firmly on the Team Valley.
Centring efforts on JR Holland LLP has paid off and this year sales have reached a record £20m, while JR Foodservices topped just over £9m.
While the wholesale business broke the £20m barrier, John says further growth is difficult.
This is in part down to competition from supermarkets, which he believes have decimated the fruit & veg trade in Gateshead. When the business was founded in 1983 there were 28 companies trading in Gateshead market yet today just three remain. The JR Foodservices firm, however, can expand.
It currently supplies restaurants, canteens, cafeterias, coffee shops, hotels, all 12 local education authorities, universities, hospitals and schools with prepared meals, bakery goods and dairy products, having formed partnerships with smaller suppliers right across the North East – including Embleton Farm and Henry Hirst – in a bid to ensure they supply locally sourced sustainable products that don’t travel far, maintaining John’s desire for the firm to have as low a carbon footprint as possible.
“Hopefully that turnover figure will increase. I’m very, very positive about the business going forward,” he said.
“The wholesale business is my passion, my life and where I start every day working because I can’t get it out of my blood because I love the excitement, the exchanges and the people ... but organic growth is very difficult.
“I think it’s difficult to grow but to stand still you have to grow - keep changing and being exciting and vibrant.
“At the age of 53 I’ve still got the desire to grow the business and the people in the business give me the confidence to do that.
“But I think we will see more organic growth in foodservices. There are more customers out there we can serve and we are diversifying our product range so we can offer our existing customers more.
“There’s also room for acquisitions, consolidation of the industry by being bigger, and there is also the opportunity for us to push further south, further west and go back into Scotland.”
After learning of John’s health scares it becomes apparent that the firm’s growth is, to a great extent, a result of the businessman relinquishing many of the duties his father would have tackled alone, by having confidence in his staff to help build the business. A determined worker in the office, John works hard at relaxing too. As well as a regular face in the gym, John’s guilty pleasure is game-shooting and he’s also been something of a climber in his day, even scaling the tallest peaks in the seven continents of the world three years ago.
He says his leadership style varies greatly to his dad’s, part of which I comes as a result of the health scares that spurred this healthier lifestyle.
“I’m healthier and I’m definitely not as autocratic. I encourage people to show initiative and have people who have flourished .
“If I didn’t have key people who I can trust, allowing me to sit back and think about how to underpin the future of the business, I would not have had the time to grow the business.
“I’m very proud of what they’ve achieved under me, because of their hard work and our enterprise.
“The success of both businesses is dependent on people. At the start you go into it with a great deal of bravado and gusto... ‘it’s all about me, I’m earning for me! But not long after my father died, I realised that everyone who works for you depends on you, to help feed their families. I think that’s something dad was always trying to tell me. Now, I’m very proud of what we have all achieved.’’