The Secrets Of Squirrels

Kevin Whitlock visits a distinctively British Success Story

Last October, David Yolland, MD of specialist wholesaler Squirrels UK Ltd, was presented with the 2016 Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade, by The Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire, Helen Nellis.

As David is fond of saying, that’s not at all bad for a wholesaler that started off as an East London market stall 47 years ago.

Luton-based Squirrels, a member of the Sugro UK buying group and part of the fast-growing Kitwave group of wholesalers, has been in business for more than 30 years. The company was founded by Ron Yolland, David’s father (David joined the company in 1980 and his brother, Michael in 1986), in 1970 at Walthamstow Market. It then expanded into retail stores.

Squirrels also developed into the wholesale market, distributing confectionery and impulse products to market traders and the discount retail sector – a speciality it has continued with to this day.

In 1990 the company started importing a range of exclusive products under its own brand, Thurston’s Fine Foods, including confectionery, biscuits, jams, pickles, olives and sauces, imported from eight countries. Thurston’s established itself as a quality brand in the discount sector; and in 2006 Squirrels became sole UK distributor for a range of sugar-free biscuits, produced in Spain, under the Gullon brand – now among its fastest-growing lines.

In 2007, Squirrels started an export business which, under sales director Nathan Glover, has grown impressively, especially over the last three yeasts – the period evaluated for The Queen’s Award.

Over this period sales volumes have increased threefold and the company now delivers to 10 countries on four continents. This, says David, helped win the Award.

“Many people contributed to this success: our wonderful staff, loyal customers and the support of suppliers,” he says. “Only 243 companies were acknowledged in 2016 with a Queen’s Award – which makes it very special that we are one.”

Being based in Luton (until 2015 the company had been based in Romford, Essex, but growth combined with the Yollands’ ambition necessitated a move to bigger [60,000sq ft], more modern and better-connected premises), a stones’ throw from the airport, has helped sales no end. “It has excellent links with London and the rest of the country and is, of course, situated near an important airport,” he says.

But, he adds, other factors are at play. “The slump in sterling since the 2016 EU referendum has certainly helped our export business,” he says. “But there’s also the high regard in which Britain, and British goods and brands, are held abroad, especially in the Far East, Middle East and Africa.”

As a specialist in impulse and confectionery lines, Squirrels is well-placed to tap into worldwide affection for British confectionery.

Squirrels now exports to Australia, North America, Europe, the Middle East and China.

 Although the company has benefitted from the uncertainty following the EU referendum, not everything’s rosy. “Like many wholesalers, we rely on EU labour, and the future of these workers is uncertain – will they want to continue to work in the UK? Will they want to?

“The UK wholesale market is tough with rising costs like the National Living Wage, rates and fuel. But our customer base is mostly in the discount retail sector, which is still a growth market and will further benefit from the continuing food and drink inflation in the UK.

“Winning the Queen’s Award will put us on the map and help us tap into new markets worldwide” he concludes. “We’ve plans to grow export sales by 50% per year over the next five years.” WN