Hunt’s Food Group: The beating heart of the business
In order to achieve its goals, Hunt’s Food Group firmly places its people at the centre of every decision, and it’s an approach that is clearly paying off
Photography: Roy Kilcullen
Founded in 1912, Hunt’s Food Group is a business that is going from strength to strength with each year that passes, with increased sales, acquisitions and, now, globally recognised accreditation for its social and environmental performance.
From humble beginnings as a dairy farm, bottling and selling milk in Dorset, the business has grown and grown, now employing more than 600 people across a number of sites in the south-west, including its head office in Sherborne. This number rises to more than 650 during the peak of summer as it services popular holiday destinations along the south and south-west coasts.
Managing Director Thomas Hunt is the fifth generation of the family to be running the business, and with that heritage comes a legacy.
“As a business, we want to do well,” he says. “We want to grow, of course, but we also want to be able to do more of the right thing, and business success enables this. We are hugely invested in our team, community and the environment. And we want the business to still be here in another five generations – that’s our ultimate goal.”
It is this attitude that saw the wholesaler accredited with B Corp status in May 2023 – one of the largest foodservice companies in the UK to achieve this. To become a Certified B Corporation, businesses must demonstrate their ongoing commitment to positively impact colleagues, customers, communities and the planet.
“Yes, it’s important to deliver the right wages, holiday allowance and working hours, but we want to do much more than that. We ask, why do people want to work here? We want people to care. We want them to know our purpose. We’re always asking how we can keep improving and moving forward,” Thomas stresses.
Hunt’s continually reinvests in the business and has a very clear three-year plan for how it does this, and how it supports the environment and charitable good causes too.
“Staff retention is our most important KPI,” says Thomas. “It makes sense as a business, of course, as you’re retaining that essential experience, skill and knowledge, but most importantly, it creates a great work environment where staff know and trust each other, and bring out the best in each other.”
So how does Hunt’s achieve this? In a number of ways, not least as the largest employer in the UK to become a Living Hours Employer.
The Living Hours accreditation is open to all Living Wage employers and guarantees employees a minimum of 16 hours work per week (unless the worker requests fewer), a notice period of four weeks for shift patterns and a contract that reflects the hours usually worked.
“This approach is absolutely integral to our business,” states Thomas. “Our team give us so much, and it’s only right that we give back as much as we can. Improving work conditions and the experience for everyone has to be a priority, and at Hunt’s, we’re determined to always do the right thing by our team.”
Thomas can speak from experience as from age 14 to 21, he worked in every part of the business before joining full-time. Everyone in a leadership position within the business has worked their way up as Hunt’s likes to promote from within to ensure it retains both knowledge and skills.
“This way, we know there’s a genuine understanding right across the business of how it works,” he says. “This in-depth knowledge means greater connection, better support and understanding, and as a result, our team feel supported and heard, and are happier.
And, of course, there are enormous benefits to a happy, engaged, motivated workforce, not least our ability to look after our customers.
They really value dealing with the same people who understand their business and will do their best for them.”
The team at Hunt’s definitely practice what they preach. The leadership team visit every site every three months. They know everyone’s names, and all achievements are celebrated. Regular Communication Days enable all employees to connect with the leadership team so everyone is aware of the bigger picture, and staff are invited to feed back through surveys what improvements they would like to see.
“Our staff know we listen and take action. Last year, one of the warehouse teams said they didn’t have access to a hot meal when they worked at night, so now everyone has one hot meal per shift. We’ve made all kinds of improvements to our facilities, and we provide fresh fruit in the offices.”
A big decision about working hours came from a request for a better work/life balance for the team, which Hunt’s put into action. As a result, the team no longer work at weekends, with deliveries Monday to Friday. A decision that could have cost the business but the team worked with customers to adapt, and the only outcome has been improved staff retention and happier team members.
Thomas has also introduced a company advisory group, comprising employees from across all departments, to act as a panel to award money to good causes. There are also plenty of benefits to celebrate, including a team lottery (Hunt’s provides £1,000 each month), birthdays off, discounted hotel stays, five-a-side football tournaments, and the annual HuntsFest, a huge team party held on the original Hunt’s farm.
“Our aim has always been to create a desirable culture here,” reflects Thomas. “I am incredibly fortunate in that I have incredibly credible directors who run operations, which means I can focus on creating a culture that performs well and really looks after its people.”
The customer mix at Hunt’s is diverse – a deliberate decision to ensure the wholesaler’s resilience.
“It’s a great mix,” says Thomas. “We have foodservice, which is pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, care homes, schools and hospitals. Then we have a retail side that services convenience stores, forecourts, delis, online retail such as Ocado, and recipe box schemes such as Hello Fresh. We also have Natural, which supplies health and wholefood shops, and now a Wellbeing offer, which is vitamins, minerals and supplements.”
The latter has come about since Hunt’s purchase of The Health Store last September, which saw the wholesaler move into the Midlands with a new depot in Nottingham.
“We will always be predominantly a foodservice wholesaler, buthaving these additional offers just adds more strings to our bow. Natural and wellbeing are always going to be smaller, but we see them growing considerably as products that once were just for specialist health food stores are migrating to more mainstream outlets.“Oat milk is a great example. Once it was a very niche product, only available in health food shops, but now it’s an everyday ingredient in cafes, coffee shops, delis. Same with lentil crisps and protein bars. So many health products are becoming more mainstream, and we’re ideally placed to be able to service that rise in demand.”
As one of the original wholesalers invested in supporting the environment, Hunt’s is mindful of how it achieves its sustainability goals.
“Our aim is to become carbon net zero by 2035,” says Thomas. “We could be carbon neutral tomorrow by spending money on carbon credits, but we don’t believe in that. Instead, we have installed solar panels on all our buildings and soon, 40% of our electricity will be self-generated. We’re exploring what else we can do.
“All our company cars are hybrid or electric, and we’ve trialled electric vans and lorries, but they’re not suitable yet. Electric innovation is improving all the time and we will wait and buy when it’s right. However, there is still plenty we are doing to reduce emissions, including measuring our driver behaviours and optimised route planning. We’re using more efficient refrigeration and Euro 6 engines, we have planted eight acres of trees on a farm we own in Somerset, and we’ve dramatically reduced food waste by giving to food banks, so we are making real progress.”
HUNT’S FOOD GROUP IN NUMBERS
- 1912 business began
- 600 members of staff, increasing to 650 in the summer
- 5 generations of Hunt family members
- 7 members of staff who have achieved 40 years’ employment
- 68 members of staff have achieved 25 years’ employment
- 4 key values
- 51 years: longest-serving member of staff