Wellocks - from a veg van in Nelson to a multi-million pound food company

James, left, visiting one of his northern dairy suppliers

James, left, visiting one of his northern dairy suppliers - Credit: Archant

James Wellock and his team have found all the right ingredients for a Lancashire success story. He spoke to Roger Borrell.

James, who runs the Nelson-based company

James, who runs the Nelson-based company - Credit: Archant

What makes the perfect strawberry? Is it the shape, the size, the taste or something more fundamental like the length of time the plant takes to fruit?

If anyone knows it’s probably James Wellock and if any organisation could supply that perfect strawberry, then it is his company which is based in the Lancashire town of Nelson.

Much of his working life has been spent in the pursuit of perfection, so much so that ‘The Perfect Ingredient’ has become the mission statement for the Wellocks business.

His father, Richard, founded the firm and developed it from a simple food supply outfit into something much bigger. When he retired in 2001, James took the company and made it extraordinary.

James Wellock

James Wellock - Credit: Archant

What started out as one man and a van load of spuds supplying fish and chip shops is now an award-winning business with 400 staff and a turnover in excess of £40 million. Growth has been running at an astonishing 20 per cent a year.

The customer list reads like a Who’s Who of legendary chefs, top class hotels and great eating places. Wellocks fresh food goes to no less than 40 Michelin-starred restaurants and hotels and the chefs working with them include Nigel Haworth, Lisa Allen, Simon Rogan and Michael Wignall.

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The fact that few outside the business know about them is unsurprising when you meet James at their state-of-the-art distribution depot and offices at the Lomeshaye Business Village.

‘We tend to plough our own furrow and let others worry about what we are doing,’ he says. ‘We have a clear idea of what we want to achieve and we focus on that.’ He’s clearly a doer rather than a talker but he can’t hide his obvious passion and pride in the company he runs with his wife, Jo, and children Sally and Ralph.

James Wellock

James Wellock - Credit: Archant

The roots of Wellocks go back to the 1940s with his greengrocer grandfather, Eric. His son, Richard, became a potato merchant working directly with farmers, but a major turning point came when he bought up an ailing business selling veg to shops.

The subsequent investment in delivery wagons meant the business continued to grow. In 1984, when he was 19, James joined. ‘It seems like I’ve been working for the business more or less from being a baby,’ he laughs. ‘I started pre-packing potatoes and continued doing that until college. Then, I decided to work full time.’

Another milestone came while James was buying fruit and veg at the markets in Manchester. ‘It was dark, it was filthy and I often felt I was being ripped off,’ he recalls. ‘I started to question where all the veg came from.’

So, instead of going to the market, he started going directly to the farmers to buy the same goods only fresher. It was a classic case of cutting out the middle man. ‘I visited farms in places like Hesketh Bank, Ormskirk and around Southport,’ he says. ‘It went into wooden crates straight from the farm to the shops.

‘In those days we were still very much Lancashire based so we decided to look across to Yorkshire and started working with 30 top quality greengrocers who relied on Bradford Market for supplies.’ Once again, they cut out the middle men. ‘Ours was better quality and fresher,’ says James.

The next phase was to move into prepared veg – peeled potatoes and baton carrots. ‘We bought out a company that did that and it meant we started going into restaurants and hotels. They wanted that freshness, they wanted the best quality and they wanted it prepared. We could do all of that.’

From there they grew organically so they are now operating nationwide with satellite branches in Aylesbury, Tewkesbury and Motherwell. The workforce has grown from 15 in 2001 to 400 - the majority at the Nelson centre which operates as a hub for the rest of the country.

Food arrives at the sophisticated, temperature controlled warehouse, it is prepared, placed in re-usable crates with barcode tracking systems and goes back out and onto the road on a fleet of smartly liveried lorries driven by staff in equally smart shirts and ties. ‘Our image is vital to the brand,’ says James. ‘We want the people owning five star hotels to be proud that a Wellocks vehicle has arrived at their kitchen door.’

Wellocks later extended into dry goods – basic cupboard items - and started working with a group of struggling northern dairy farmers, collecting milk and associated product on a daily basis.

It means that chefs around Britain no longer need spend their mornings ringing around a long list of suppliers – they can order everything overnight online. And if they want something unusual or exotic, James and the team will pull out the stops to get it. ‘I never say no,’ he says.

That’s not the end of the story. ‘I hate it when we are described as suppliers,’ says James. ‘We are so much more than that.’

For a start, there aren’t many businesses that ‘cull’ their customers. ‘We only want to work with people who have the same ethos. They don’t all have to be the very top Michelin star chefs but they have to be chefs with ambition, chefs who want to work with the best ingredients.

‘When I think about new customers I consider whether I would want to eat in their restaurant or stay in their hotel. If the answer is yes, then we have a deal. We might swap 100 customers for two but they’ll be the right two.’

It takes a lot to become one of Wellocks growers, too. ‘They aren’t necessarily designated as organic but we want to do business with people who are passionate growers who want to look after the soil. In fact, we have some growers who are more organic than organic farms.’

A member of the Wellocks team – and it’s often James – visits all the growers and spends a day talking to them and seeing how they operate. Their food is rigorously tested.

‘If we have a deal, it’s a handshake. That’s how I work. You might be disappointed on rare occasions, but I prefer to operate that way.’

Chefs will swap information so when Wellocks makes a special effort to get produce to a kitchen in a new area, word soon gets around and orders come in. ‘It’s a mushroom effect,’ says James with an appropriate metaphor. ‘But we don’t want to be all things to all men. Our products aren’t the cheapest but they are the best. And if you want to buy bog standard carrots from us, they will be the best bog standards carrots available.’

You realise how serious he is about quality when he describes the discovery one of the world’s best growers of limes in rural Mexico. Now, every Friday crates of Mexican limes are air freighted to the UK and are delivered by Wellocks the following Monday.

‘When we first saw them at a trade show in Germany, I thought they were artificial because they looked so perfect. The zest is wonderfully fragrant and they have so much more juice than those brought by ship, which can be four or five weeks old by the time they get in the shops.’

James is equally enthusiastic talking about the 30-month-old Parmesan cheese they source from a small Italian producer and the vibrant baby salad leaves grown by a family of farmers in France.

Wellocks has somewhere in the region of 8,000 products sourced from more than 300 suppliers and the company operates six days a week on more than 100 UK routes. The crown jewels in their range – products you can’t get from anywhere else - are categorised as ‘The Special Branch’.

This is a reference to the company logo - the silhouette of a man, said to be James, leaning against a tree. Could there be a more appropriate symbol for a business with such strong growth and deep roots in Lancashire?

Winning ways

James’s daughter Sally now makes fresh pasta for Wellocks at Nelson, using machinery, flour and eggs from Italy. It’s as Italian as pasta gets without being made in Italy.

Nelson is also home to a development kitchen so they can now supply many other items such a guacamole, pesto and fruit compotes.

The company is currently renovating a 20,000 square foot building adjacent to its current HQ to serve as a new food preparation centre and a maintenance area for the fleet of 100 refrigerated vans and wagons.

Wellocks has Red Tractor accreditation and its environmental and animal welfare demands on suppliers often exceed the industry standard.

Masterclasses are held by the Wellocks team to demonstrate new products to chefs and the also host field trips in the UK and overseas so chefs can meet growers.

It was recently named Outstanding Business of the Year in the Pendle Business Awards and ranked as one of the fast-growing private companies by Investec/Times.