A History of Hillers
Diversification, adapting to change, entrepreneurship, seizing the moment, not, as you might think an application for Alan Sugar’s Apprentice programme, but rather the necessity faced by most farmers in the UK in the past 50 years.
All over the country farmers, experts in producing the food to feed the nation, have found themselves having to reinvent their business, their skills, even themselves. It’s not enough to understand the land, battle the elements, beat disease and cope with the bureaucracy of farming. Nowadays you have to find your unique sales point, market yourself to an ever more demanding public, and be not just computer literate but have website knowhow.
The story of Hillers is an illustration of that journey. It has experience of the tenacity, flexibility and sometimes sheer bloody-mindedness needed to not only survive themselves, but also provide employment for local people, support for other local businesses and walk the fine line between
21st century efficiency, cheaper food prices and the ‘traditional’ and ‘old fashioned’ values and service expected by today’s discerning consumer.
A H Hiller & Son Ltd. was Arnold Hiller and his son Robert, who started as fruit farmers with orchards and fruit fields leased from Ragley. Although picking and sorting methods changed over the years from the 1920’s when Arnold started out, the basic premise of the business remained the same for four decades, growing the best quality fruit for distribution to markets across the country. Mainly apples, pears and plums, the traditional fruits, but Robert led the way at the forefront of the industry, and was instrumental in introducing new fruits to the UK, including loganberries.
In the 70’s came changes to the way families worked and lived. More time together meant they need something to do and somewhere to go. Pick Your Own became the way to spend a day together with everyone eating themselves silly on ripe strawberries with pounds and pounds of the fruit for making into jam and pies, filling the new freezer. Recognising an opportunity, Hillers opened up the fruit fields, becoming one of the biggest Pick Your Own Farms in the area. It wasn’t unusual for 2,000 cars to be parked in the car park on high summer weekends, with families picking strawberries, raspberries and then peas and all kinds of vegetables.
The Pick Your Own boom continued for a number of years- until the rise of the supermarkets in the eighties. Suddenly fresh fruit and vegetables were being supplied in chilled cabinets, and the one stop weekly shopping experience took over from the individual retailers selling their stock daily. With the increase in their trade supermarkets became more demanding, both in terms of the quality of the produce and the price they were prepared to pay.
Hillers countered the decline in the Pick Your Own market by setting up sophisticated packing and storage facilities to supply the supermarkets with the fruit previously picked by the consumer. This meant they could better comply with their demands, but also enabled them to continue as a viable business.
At the back of the Hillers Farm Shop is a huge area known as the Packhouse, which is now the stockroom for the shop. It was from the back door of the packhouse that the shop began, with local people coming to buy boxes of apples and other produce from the Hillers Farm. Gradually it made sense to convert the old farm building into a shop, and this is the same Farm Shop there today, thirty five years later. The growth in customers for the Farm Shop led to the opening of the Tearooms, and more and more visitors arrived, with the Farm Shop becoming a stop off for visitors to the area as well as local families.
The last twenty years have seen many changes and developments, and the growing success for the business is due to the vision and business acumen of the family. Probably the biggest growth has been in the Farm Shop, as customers become more aware of the food they eat, and are more interested in knowing where it comes from and how it gets onto their plate. Hillers has always sold the freshest and wherever it can local produce. Often the cabbage you buy was picked that same morning, or the potatoes dug and delivered to us that same day. There are probably 10 or a dozen small local growers (by local we mean within a ten mile radius of the site) who depend on Hillers to sell their produce. The difference between supplying Hillers and supplying a supermarket chain – we don’t dictate the price. The growers invoice us the price they need in order to make a living.
Another development in the Farm Shop was the introduction of Ragley Estate Meats. This is illustrative of the long and strong relationship between Ragley and Hillers, where meat produced on Ragley is sold through the Hillers shop. Some of the meat is reared just ‘over the fence’, and the rest comes from local farmers and suppliers.
With all the changes over the years there is one constant that allows the change to happen, the staff who work at Hillers. Many of the staff have been there a long time, and those who leave usually leave to retire! Their commitment to providing friendly service, going the extra mile, and above all believing in Hillers and what it stands for has meant the continuation of a business that could have folded as so many have. We employ over 90 people. Many are part timers fitting work in around families, or just wanting to do something for a few hours each week in their retirement.
Together all these things add up to not just a successful business, but one that invests in the local community, and cares about getting it right for our customers. Over the years we have won many awards such as Best Local Food Retailer in the Midlands by the Rural Retailer Awards, run by the Countryside Alliance and the Daily Telegraph, and also we have been awarded Champion of local Produce by the Warwickshire Food and Drink Awards.
The business is now run by fourth generation sisters, Sally Haines and Emma Taylor and they know that the development and changes won’t stop here and hope to run for another 80 years!
In 1973 Chris Tarrant visited AH Hillers as part of a news item about the new trend of “Pick Your Own” fruit.
You can watch this video at http://www.macearchive.org/archive.html?Title=19985