Brian Jones left school in 1963 at the age of 16 to take over his father’s 17-cow dairy herd. Barry Alston speaks to him about the growth of Wales’ leading independent food service.
Ability to read market trends and consumer needs is certainly an attribute which has served Brian Jones well. Today, he heads up family-owned wholesale food-based operation, Castell Howell Foods, with an annual turnover of more than £140 million, 850 employees and 150 vehicles on the road every day.
Brian says: “While, as a family, we no longer farm, our hearts remain within the industry. Instead, we see ourselves as a one-stop shop, bridging the gap between producers and the wide-ranging variety of outlets which form a key part of the food chain.” From its Carmarthenshire headquarters, the business distributes more than 14,000 products to a customer base encompassing Wales, the border counties and south-west England.
Customers include hotels, restaurants, retail shops, hospitals, schools, private and public caterers and many other food-orientated businesses. The fleet of both large and small refrigerated vehicles delivers more than 1,000 pallets a day in what has become very nearly a 24/7 operation, with trucks covering 8.5m miles a year and notching up a £1.5m fuel bill.
But it was somewhat of a learning curve for Brian, who had no idea ‘what lay ahead’ when he left school. He says: “Not being all that academically minded, I left school to help father on the 50-acre family farm, Castell Howell, just outside Carmarthen.
“I was a keen member of what I regard as being the fabulous YFC movement and learned so much and met so many people from that involvement. It was also my first introduction to the wider business world.
“In the 1970s, I was able to purchase the farm next door and went for growth, expanding the dairy herd to 150 cows, alongside processing about 3,000 home-produced and bought-in chickens for the meat market on a weekly basis.
“We were starting to do well, but then in 1984, after investing heavily in developing a well-equipped dairy unit with a new parlour, automatic cluster removal, feed passage, slurry scrapers and a silage tower, along came milk quotas, which had a far-reaching impact on the dairy sector.
“Then, within two weeks, I had a letter saying a regional supermarket was moving its chicken purchasing away from us to a far larger supplier which could cover the whole of Wales.
“I was in a spot of bother, with the bottom swept away from the chicken enterprise and the bank pressing for a return on the dairy investment.
“In desperation, I decided to turn one of the chicken houses into a freezer, bought a second-hand Transit van, sourced some frozen food products I thought I could sell from various manufacturers, printed a price list offering about 20 lines, knocked on a few pub doors and Castell Howell Foods was born.
“Gradually, the business outgrew the farm and, in 1993, we purchased half-an-acre of development land in Carmarthen.”
They later acquired a few adjacent acres to expand the business and accommodate a broader range of fresh and ambient lines which were in demand by our customers. A catering cash and carry unit soon followed as the product range grew.
He says: “In 2006, we expanded further by purchasing a larger site in in the business park at Cross Hands, which today is our main hub supplying direct to most of our customers.
“We have also diversified into processing hams and gammons, as well as making cakes, pies, sandwiches and fillings, ready-made meals and jams in various production units for supplying to customers and selling to other wholesalers.”
Paramount in the company’s philosophy is to concentrate on locally produced food wherever possible and this ranges from beef, lamb, chickens, milk, butter, cheese and anything else which carries a ‘Produced in Wales’ branding. In 2003, in partnership with the Wynnstay group and the Welsh Meat Company, Castel Howell Foods created the Celtic Pride Premium Beef Scheme.
The scheme has since grown to become an iconic brand, recognising consumer demand for consistently high-quality Welsh beef produced to the highest welfare standards. Producer members must adhere to an audited protocol, being rewarded for stockmanship skills, with a guaranteed market and premium prices for livestock which can be marketed as Welsh with full traceability from farm to retail or catering outlets.
The success of the branding was instrumental in the building of a £5m state-of-the-art Castell Howell butchery in 2015, replacing the original smaller unit in Carmarthen. Since then, thousands of finished beef animals have been purchased from Welsh farms, with the past 12 months alone seeing 2,080-head going through Cross Hands.
Likewise, the Celtic Pride Pork Scheme purchases pigs direct from Welsh producers, with an annual throughput of 2,300 pigs. While there could be more than £6.5m worth of frozen and chilled food products on-site at any one time, it is only a fraction of the throughput being handled at Cross Hands.
Some 9.5m eggs a year, the output of milk from 9,330 cows, 6.5m ice cream cornets, 1.8m litres of bottled water, 500,000 beef steaks, 2,500 whole lambs, 52,000kg of lamb cuts, 21,000 whole chickens and 870 tonnes of cheese are the main products produced in Wales.
Along with potatoes, chips, fish products, bread and every other catering need, the listings continue, with many carrying leading brand names. But more technology is playing a key role, with telesales staff taking orders up to midnight for next day delivery, while night shift pickers, equipped with computer-linked headsets, put orders together for morning delivery.
Away from the business, Brian is deeply is involved with a variety of activities and, as a Welshman, is a keen rugby supporter.
As the business has developed, he has also been able to support a wide range of charities, receiving an MBE for his commitment to the food industry, and one honour he values highly was being president of the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society in 2017, when, as the featured county, Carmarthenshire raised more than £550,000.
Brian’s commitment to the agricultural industry has also brought a coveted Fellowship of the Royal Agricultural Societies.
He says: “None of our expansion would have been possible without the invaluable dedication of my wife Helen, daughter Kathryn, who has responsibility for sales and marketing, and son Martyn, who looks after the procurement, transport and distribution side.
“To my mind, business is all about common sense and a bit of luck and I am amazed by the skills and abilities of some of the people I have met over the years.
“So many from all types of professions have been unassuming and modest, yet immensely talented, being both naturally and inherently gifted.
“Castell Howell is so privileged to have so many superb people working within the company, many having given more than 20 years of service, some 25 years and two who have been with us since its inception more than 30 years ago. They are the biggest asset of any business. I respect them and they respect me.
“It is because of employing these good people that we were able to go through difficult times and create an environment where we could invest with confidence and grow the business.
“I feel it is more important than ever we educate and train young people to give them the best professional skills. I believe the UK and devolved governments must invest in progressive businesses so they can employ these youngsters and give them skilled, secure and well-paid opportunities.
“For any business to succeed, if you offer a quality service on a Monday, the same must apply on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and at the weekends. If you cannot offer that, don’t bother.”