Northampton-based Brunos celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Sandra Pearce talks to owners Jeremy and Jackie Hunt about their journey as wholesaler, retailer and garden centre owners
Once upon a time, the pet retailer saw distinct seasonal trends. “It used to be fish food out when wild bird was put away; one in, one out,” said Jackie Hunt, co-owner of Whilton Locks Garden Village in Northamptonshire. “Now wild bird sells all year round.” Yet that seasonality was nothing compared to the garden trade, which plummets in winter (naturally!). Garden centres, say Jeremy and Jackie, need theatre more than any other sector to bring consumers in – pet shops are more self-sustaining as they have ‘in-built’ theatre thanks to livestock. Garden centres need to be a destination site.
“We needed a plan,” stated Jackie. It was time for a cup of coffee and a think, and so two years ago, they decided on an artificial ice-rink for the Christmas season. Last year, they plunged for a real ice-rink and a Santa’s grotto. Even though on paper they made a loss on the hire of the rink, the restaurant was heaving, and Christmas tree and decoration sales went through the roof. And that made it worthwhile. “I always tell my staff, ‘I get people here, you get money out of their pockets,” said Jackie.
This year, they are thinking even bigger, and in addition to the ice-rink, Santa’s grotto and elves, there is a Frozen theme as Disney princess Snow Queen Elsa makes an appearance. Yes, the Frozen fever has not abated, and the A5 could potentially be grid-locked as little and not-so-little girls come to see Elsa belt out ‘Let it Go’! It’s all about getting families to visit for a few hours, they said.
You need this theatre all year, they said. After all, Aldi sells bedding plants for £2, and grocery’s seasonal shelves brim with weed killer, fertiliser, compost and gardening tools come Spring and Summer. So at Whilton Locks Garden Village, events include Easter treasure hunts; baby sheep, lambs, chicks and ducklings in Spring; Trick or Treat hunts at Halloween; a Scary Cuddle Day with spider and snakes; and a Summer Cuddle Day. Not forgetting the organised visits from local residential homes – staff are on hand to help push wheelchair users around. “Without all this, we are just another place to buy plants,” she said.
Initially, the Hunts had occupied the pet store provision within another garden centre, but were ‘removed’ 18 months into the contract when the centre was earmarked for development by the owner. The couple made a vow never to be held over a barrel again, and decided they wanted more control of their future. Shortly after, a chance conversation at Jackie’s hairdresser led them to purchase a dilapidated site in Northampton, which was well and truly against the advice of their solicitor! But Jackie knew deep down this was the right decision – even though staring you in the face were abandoned horse boxes and ancient caravans (the site had been an animal sanctuary of sorts).
The garden centre took shape over the next two years, opening on Mother’s Day in 2004. While the Hunts focussed on the large pet shop, Bruno’s Pets, they leased the rest of the centre to concessions and a garden chain to handle the garden centre side of things. All went well until about a year and a half ago, when the garden chain ran into difficulties and pulled out, leaving them with the whole centre in their hands.
It was a scary, remembers Jeremy, as they were taking punts on alien territory. But they had a great team as all the centre staff kept their jobs. They had taken over its Canalside Restaurant six months earlier, and Jackie went and worked in each department, finding out what made it tick. “We went back to basics,” said Jackie, “because whether it’s a geranium or sausage roll or a bag of pet food, the same principles apply.”
The couple were overjoyed when their eldest of three daughters brought home Dave one day to meet them, who turned out to be a garden centre manager. Their son-in-law now manages this for them. “The sun was smiling on us the day our daughter brought a horticulturalist home!”
Keep your options open
Though the garden centre is clearly a passion for both, this is a relative new enterprise and their story goes back to July 1985, when as 19 year olds, the two were looking for their own business. Both came from family butcher backgrounds, but with the shift of meat into supermarkets, producing frozen pet food and running a pet store seemed a logical alternative.
They took over a ‘seriously run-down shop’ in Kingsthorpe, Northampton, and were soon producing three tonnes of frozen tripe and raw pet food each week, over and above running the shop. Jeremy recalls how artics used to arrive, filled with chicken carcasses, which took them two days to mince.
They got married the next year, having bought their first home at auction as a derelict cottage (there is clearly a penchant for the unloved!). Over the next five years, they opened another four ‘classic, traditional’ pet shops, ‘where everything was weighed out, wicker baskets hung from ceilings, and customers treated us like vets’.
Their raw-food wholesale business grew nicely, with them supplying independent pet shops across the county. The two were also parrot breeders – today they have ‘only’ 25 as pets – and in response to retailer requests, they started selling toys and feed as well. (As an aside, they are still selling toys and feed to some customers who bought parrots from them over 20 years ago!) However, it was only a matter of time before tripe ended up in tins and frozen fell out of favour. They knew they did not want to go the kibble-wholesale route as their heart was not in selling pallets of dog food. Jeremy explained: “As our hobby was parrots, cages seemed the obvious choice. So we started working with the Italians to design cages and bird stands that we then imported and delivered around the UK.”
Brunos Parrot Wholesale was born. More than two decades later and this wholesale business is still going strong, and has given the Hunts an incredible overview of the whole industry. Explained Jackie: “When we go to trade shows, we can look at products on display and say, ‘Yes, so-and-so did something like this 25 years ago!”
With about 2,000 products across bird and small animal, as well as a select range of dog and cat, they rely on carriers and couriers to send orders across the UK and abroad. Their speciality remains housing for parrots, birds and small animals. Jeremy said: “To move forward, our wholesale division needs to continue to provide excellent quality, at keen prices, with someone on the end of a phone who knows how to house a Kakariki or can remember what base fits a Calla cage, without the customer having to give endless code numbers.”
The Hunts today own just two pet shops, having closed three when their figures kept going ‘in the wrong direction’. Yet despite having their fingers in so many pies, the pet shop has a special place for them. “When you have a pup in and you smell it and coo over it, and when that pup grows to adult food, and then finally on to seven years, happy days!” said Jackie. “Our favourite place is behind the pet-shop counter. The customers are so nice, you learn something every day, and it’s just a thoroughly nice trade.
“Customers love it when you remember their pet’s name, and they prefer you to ask after their dog rather than them. The day I do not like doing it will be the day we hand it to our kids.”
Premium products such as Royal Canin, James Wellbeloved and EzyDog harnesses sell well, they say, surpassing sales of lower-priced ranges. It’s what their customers want. Frozen is also picking up nicely, and they sell 100-150kg of raw food weekly. “It’s all about customer service, good value for money and happy staff making it a nice experience,” said Jeremy. “If our staff do not have a smile on their face, I want to know why.”
This is not just a family business, it’s an extended family business, and the children of some of their first employees are now taking up positions. There is a sense of ownership among their team, they said. For example, when their pet shop manager found himself without a roof over his head, he ended up living with the Hunts for about six months. But that’s what you do for family, they said. “I do not think paying peoples’ wages is enough today,” said Jackie. “People want a bit more; they want to be understood and listened to. We spend a lot of time talking to them, and even if we disagree, we still listen to them.”
At busy times of the year, like Christmas, it’s all hands on deck and after a hectic day when the last customer has gone, the staff sit down and share a meal. After all, it can easily have gone past 9pm, and who on earth wants to get home at that time and start preparing the evening meal, said Jackie. Family members get roped in; you’ll see them in the car park directing cars; Jeremy’s dad loves selling Christmas trees (he’s also fond of taking in crabs he’s caught for the restaurant); and Jackie’s dad helps out in the restaurant.
With just over 40 staff (there are no temporary staff), their knowledge is second to none. Whether customers want information about a geranium, chiminea or Syrian hamster, they will get expert advice – after all, a good business is only as good as its staff, says Jackie philosophically. Their eldest two daughters have joined the business, while the youngest is off to University. All three have been part of the business since they were in nappies. When their youngest passed her driving test in Summer, two days later she was behind the wheel of the van making deliveries. Added Jeremy: “The pet trade is a great place to bring up a family, nobody seemed to bat an eyelid seeing the girls cleaning out ferrets, sexing hamsters or doing their homework under the counter.”
Looking at the different businesses they have today, Jackie smiles when she remembers how at the very beginning, their ‘biggest worry was the mark-up on rabbit food’. “If we had put all our eggs in one basket, we would not be here today. You need to be massive in one thing or reasonably sized in several. A true business entrepreneur never turns down an opportunity. Sometimes you do them too quick, and you’re not going to win them all. But that’s life.”
Reproduced from www.petbusinessworld.co.uk January, 2016