SH Pratt Group are experts in the food produce and distribution industry. With a turnover in excess of £175m they ripen 30 million bananas every week, which is one third of all bananas sold and consumed in the UK.
In addition the organisation’s Halo multi-temperature fresh produce handling facility at DP World London Gateway in Essex has officially pledged to save over 1.5 million kilos of CO2 during the course of its 2019 operations.
SH Pratt CEO, Robert Wells, views the banana ripening business as a family affair. Having come into the organisation as a young man and eventually taking over from his father, his daughter Ophelia and son Robert also both work at the company’s headquarters in Luton.
“I was working for my dad here at weekends and in the school holidays before I could even drive,” Robert explains. “Then I started at the business full-time aged 22. I finished my last term at polytechnic, came to work here in the summer holidays and just carried on.
“I have regrets that I didn’t get experience working somewhere else, but I remember my father came home from lunch one day and asked ‘did I want to run the business in the future?” I was always passionate about it and immediately said ‘yes.’
“At 58 I have a slightly different perspective. For the first 10-15 years you’re learning how to run a company and this process could have perhaps been sped up if I’d experienced other environments beforehand. Having learnt this lesson, my daughter has previously explored other options and my son has benefited from three or four placements before joining us.
“I’m now a hands-off CEO, which is the way it should be. I have the freedom to review our strategy and direction but I remain accessible and approachable so any of our people can speak freely with me. I constantly stress that colleagues need to tell me the truth because if we’re sharing poor information we’re well and truly lost.
“While the industry has historically been quite static, over the last few years the banana business has really begun to grow. This means our company has also developed significantly, which has brought a whole different aspect to how we do things. Before, we could run things almost by the seat of our pants, but now have to get the most from people and this requires careful planning to make sure we keep the business safe.
"As a privately-owned family operation we’ve grown by the tried and tested route of limited borrowing from banks. It’s my ambition to keep us this way, partly because of our history and my emotional tie to these beginnings, but mostly because it gives us the freedom to act quickly.
“Commercially our customers prefer a business like ours to be light on its feet and able to respond instantaneously to new challenges and demands. This is the secret to our growth. Years ago I was pitching for a piece of work with a retailer and said I’d be ready in six months’ time. It was never going to happen – you have to be fast.
“This attitude has been learnt from retailer demand and industry’s ability to supply. For many years where there were opportunities for retail growth it would take 18 months to put up a new building. Today we’ve got this covered. We have the infrastructure and the site to make quick decisions and can set up new rooms within four months.”
Environmental sustainability is another area where SH Pratt group excels, with production buildings covered in solar panels, logistical routes constantly scrutinised to ensure the minimal amount of journey time, and wastage minimisation where bananas deemed unfit for supermarket consumption are re-purposed as animal feed or biofuel.
“Refrigeration uses a lot of electrical power, even more so in warm weather,” continues Robert, “and these two factors go very much hand-in-hand in the summer when demand for bananas and fresh produce is at its highest.
“For all of our electrical consumption we need around 6,000 amps per phase, and contribute to 10% of this using sustainable power. I would like to go higher but we’re limited by current technology.
“Over the last few years we’ve replaced our refrigeration by going down the ammonia route, which is both efficient and environmentally-friendly. The day we changed to ammonia we saw a 25% drop in our electricity use, which is great news when you consider we have 140 ripening rooms, each with six fans inside.
“Sadly the end consumer is rarely aware of the environmental steps we’ve taken in a market where issues of cost and quality dominate the conversation.
“The overall reason we’re as successful as we are is the diligence we apply to doing the job. Our clients need high quality product delivered to the right place at the right time. The better we are at planning, the lighter our involvement has to be. Looking at the longer term, we have to make decisions based on profitable diversification and our needs as a group.
“Once you’re seen as being successful there’s only a certain amount of time before your competitors join you. We’ll continue with what we do best and my ambition is to make the group as big as it can become, but this is dependent on how we and the market perform.
“As long we remain diligent, flexible, retain the ability to react quickly and maintain the trust of our customers our organisation will prevail.”