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Industry Profile: Mr Johnson’s
17th December 2013

By Sandra Pearce

Mr Johnson’s Advanced Rabbit Food won the Small Animal product at PATS Sandown Park in 2012

Keen to learn more about small animals food brand Mr Johnson’s and its parent company, Henry Bell, Sandra Pearce pays a visit to its Grantham premises

As far as market towns go, Grantham is pretty much what you’d expect. Just off the A1 in Lincolnshire, it has a population of around 35,000, and its on-line visitor website describes it as being worth ‘a short visit’. You have to dig a bit deeper to discover that Grantham is home to a number of firsts: it’s the birthplace of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher; it produced the first running diesel engine way back in 1892; the UK’s first tractor in 1896; and the UK’s first female police officers in 1914. Grantham has quietly gone on to make its mark in history.

It is therefore perhaps fitting that Grantham is also home to family-run business Henry Bell & Co, established in 1825, whose products today comprise micronised and kibbled cereals such as wheat, barley, maize, peas, beans, soya; and a wide variety of wildbird, small animal and aviary foods. The company is an importer and user of seeds including black sunflower, sunflower hearts, nyger, striped sunflower and millets, which is also supplied to other manufactures in bulk or bags. A large portion of its business is manufacturing for own-label clients selling small animal and wildbird foods into pet chains, wholesalers, supermarkets and other manufacturers.

Total turnover at Henry Bell last year was £23 million, and it processes 65,000 tonnes of products. Growth is in double digits and shows no signs of slowing, yet the company does not make a song and dance about its achievements and generally prefers to adopt a low-key approach to publicity. Then again, as company MD Tom Lee says, that’s the nature of the own-label industry, where the ability for discretion is a given. Growth comes from increasing orders from existing clients and new clients are pretty much the result of word of mouth. “We have a very good customer base that work and develop with us,” he says.

However, the family business also has its own brand, Mr Johnson’s, and for this it has had to step out from its comfort zone and embrace the world of publicity and marketing, for how are you going to grow a retail brand if retailers are not aware of its existence? So Mr Johnson’s has a dedicated sales team who are on the road visiting retailers and wholesalers, and it also exhibits at various pet trade shows.

The brand was initially owned by S & E Johnson then Grain Harvesters, and during that time Henry Bell became the manufacturer of their Mr Johnson’s range. In 2009 Grain Harvesters decided to sell Mr Johnson’s. “We were already doing everything for the brand apart from selling it,” said Tom. “When they wanted out, it was a natural progression and made logical sense for us to buy it.”

Therefore Henry Bell came to have its own brand, which today comprises muesli mixes and mono-component foods for rabbits, guinea pigs, hamster and gerbils, rat and mice, chinchilla and degus and ferrets together with poultry feeds and horse treats.

Recognising there were inconsistencies in the Mr Johnson’s range it was revamped and reformulated last year. Pack sizes were standardised with new packaging adhering to the latest labelling regulations, at which time the decision was made to use only English on the packs as the products were for UK sale only. “We needed to ensure we were offering a concise range of feed that was not confusing and simple for all to understand,” he explained.

While the rabbit and guinea pig mixes already had the unique selling point of containing steamed flaked peas, a processing method that increases palatability and digestibility, the company wanted something else to add that extra point of difference so following an exclusivity agreement with Paddocks Farm, Verm-X was included in all their small animal recipes.

Rabbit food coming off line at the company’s Grantham factory

The pre-packs are proving very popular among retailers and consumers although the volume of sales is still in the bulk bags. There is a place for both muesli mixes and mono component offerings, said Tom, and at the moment, both are continuing their upward climb in terms of volume growth.

Investment in quad-bag packaging has paid off as the bags stand better on-shelf and are more visually appealing. Such investment in the brand and company will continue. “Our aim is to meet the needs of our customers and to continue working in partnership with them, working on new ideas and product development.”

Packing has been made easier with the installation of two new robots to stack bags on to pallets

The company has over the last 12 months invested half a million pounds into its packing line including two new palletising robots to improve quality and efficiency. Henry Bell has been at this site in Grantham since 1972 and is housed in a variety of buildings and warehouses on approximately five acres – the production area alone, which comprises raw material storage, processing and packing lines, is housed in 5,000sq m, and there is an additional 3,000sq ft dedicated to warehousing and storage with around 3,000 pallet spaces.

Early days
There’s no doubt the company has come a long way from its early days, starting out as agricultural merchants and supplying seed, fertiliser and chemicals to local farmers and trading their cereals and pulses. The Lee family, headed up by Rothwell, bought the company in 1927, and Tom is the fourth-generation at the helm.

In the early 1980s, Henry Bell bought its first microniser to make a flaked dog food. Two more micronisers quickly followed, and using their expertise gained within the cereals and pulses trade the company soon found itself one of the major suppliers of flaked cereals and pulses to the animal and pet food industry.

Getting ready to be shipped out

In 1991, the company bought the Supervite petfood brand, which marked the company’s move into mixing and packing of small animal foods. Six years later, two more computerised micronizers were installed to keep up with the demand for flakes, and a year later in 1998, the family business installed a computerised mixing plant. A second line complete with palletiser was installed in 2003, securing the company’s future in the small animal and wild bird food markets. Wild bird food mixes range from everyday blends to luxury mixes and specialist blends, including species-specific foods for robins, blackbirds etc.  Aviary bird food includes mixes for budgies, canaries, finches, parrots, cockatiels and parakeets; each mix has been blended and mixed to meet customer’s requirements.

“Some customers will have a special recipe that their nutritionist has formulated,” he explained. “With other clients, we work with them to create a recipe that will achieve what they want from their food, all backed up by internal and external support and advice.” This includes an in-house lab that checks quality control of all raw materials and finished products. A large number of its 250-300 clients do their own collection but Henry Bell also offer a pick, pack and despatch service for their clients working with them on product forecasts and dispatching according to schedules and demands.

While sales are predominantly to UK customers, the company does export to Finland, Denmark and Holland and as far away as New Zealand, with a recent enquiry from South Africa. Export figures hover around the 4% mark of total turnover, and that is expected to rise to 5-7% this financial year. “We are not actively looking at exporting,” said Tom, “but we are attracting new business in this area by reputation although our priority and focus is the UK.”

Warehouse has space for 3,000 pallets

The biggest challenge Henry Bell faces, as with so many manufacturers, is the volatility of raw material prices. While they forward purchase as much as possible, the spot market has been absolutely dreadful. Though they prefer to purchase their cereal products locally with the depth and range of raw materials they use, they have to buy from around the world.

Employing 64 people, Tom says the family values are extended to every member of staff. “We have a lot of very good long-term staff, who are loyal, do a very good job for us and go the extra mile.” Social events like bowling and the annual Christmas do enhance and cement those relationships.

Tom himself started working alongside others on the packing line, some who are still with the company now, 25 years on. With three children, two boys and a girl, the next generation of Lees is not far away from joining the business, he says.

One long-serving staff member started working for the company as a 16-year-old. Now in her 40th year, if she continues until retirement at 66, she will have worked for four generations of the Lee family – having already worked for Tom, his father and grandfather.

And isn’t this what family businesses are all about?