Five Star Fish - from founding father John Fenty to future in jeopardy

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 29 Mar 2018

Following the jobs hammer blow at Grimsby's Five Star Fish, Humberbusiness.com editor David Laister looks at the history of the site, and what the future may hold. 

Five Star Fish can be traced back to 1979, with John Fenty launching a humble transport operation from premises on Grimsby Fish Docks.

The company had predominantly traded as a service provider to larger local fish companies and quickly developed cutting-edge skills in fish handling and production, later branching out into producing its own fish products.

To take on the larger concept, the business began selling its own fish products, and a new limited company, Five Star Fish, was formed in 1985.

Mr Fenty brought in Roy Mathews as managing director in 1988 “a modern day architect of the fishing industry” to head up the sales and commercial activities, thus freeing himself to concentrate his efforts on developing the production and technical functions, notably freezing.

The company has always operated in the catering/food service market, specialising in coated and uncoated whitefish products.

Sales grew rapidly resulting in Brian Duncalf being recruited in 1989 as sales manager. By 1990 sales had risen in three years from £1 million to nearly £7 million.

Between 1990 and 1994 smaller levels of growth were achieved as a result of major changes that took place in the food service market. Small wholesalers were absorbed into bigger groups, traditional wet fish outlets disappeared, the pub groups and other national accounts became major buyers.

To meet new sales challenges in the market, a national accounts specialist Bill Ridgway was appointed as sales and marketing director in May 1994.

Also in 1994 a new 2,000 pallet cold store was built at the Great Grimsby Business Park, to store and distribute the company’s products. This was the first phase of a planned development; the second phase was to build a first class production facility and a further cold store extension.

Early phases of Five Star Fish, top middle, on Great Grimsby Business Park, with the original Seachill phase also seen at the bottom of the picture. 

During 1995 and 1996 many new national accounts came on stream. Manufacture of the products continued at the fish dock premises but capacity limitations were holding the company back. Therefore the decision was taken to construct the second phase and build a new production facility and the additional cold store extension. All of the company’s production was transferred to the Athenian Way facility by November 1996.

Growth continued with a greater emphasis being placed on product development of both existing and new products.

In May of 1999 Five Star appointed Andrew Smith as financial director and in August of that year, acquired Havelock Seafood’s Limited. Danny Burton, its managing director, joined Five Star Fish as production director. Production and the staff from the Havelock Seafood’s factory, based on the fish docks, were transferred to the Five Star site. The sales had increased to in excess of £15-million by the end of 1999.

Chairman John Fenty, managing director Roy Mathews, sales director Bill Ridgway and production director Danny Burton pictured in 1999.

There followed a period of consolidation within the business by which time Five Star had prepared for continued organic growth, and acquisition of another local company, Tom Darwood Ltd, which was acquired in April 2002. The production and the staff again were transferred to the Five Star site.

Turnover in 2004 surpassed £25 million, and in April Real Good Food Company acquired the business. Mr Mathews stepped down in 2005, leaving a team of 220, with Burton taking over, with Mr Fenty stepping away in early 2006.

Just 18 month later and, with sales grown by £11 million, it changed hands again, with “long-time admirer” British Seafood Ltd swooping.

A £7 million investment and expansion kicked in, with Mr Burton leading the facility, but within two years, a recession was severely kicking in and the company – exposed to the foodservice sector and a dramatic cut in ‘eating out,’ – was under pressure, albeit still profitable as a standalone site. 

Ranjit Poparan, who acquired Five Star under 2 Sisters Food Group from the administrators, called in after British Seafood Ltd bottomed out.

However, on a national level British Seafood was also heavily embroiled in a long legal fight against levy payments which it eventually lost, and soon the administrators were in the Athenian Way site.

Boparan Group the bought in, and more than 330 jobs were saved in April 2010, with Ranjit Boparan himself describing it as a “brilliant, innovative company with a terrific team of people who have skillfully guided the business to its present heights”. He added: “We’re going to do everything we can to help them continue to build and expand upon that success.”

Mr Burton left in the following March, reinventing his original company in a neighbouring facility.

Danny Burton welcomes Fran Silk from Boparan Group to Grimsby in April 2010.

A year later, in March 2012, Morrisons, a big customer of Five Star, made public its decision to take seafood processing ‘in house’, opening a first and then second plant on Europarc.

It was thought to be on the ropes then, but the M&S work looked like a major stride forward as it reinvented itself for high-end retail production.

Now and next...

Now, stepping away from the archives, and playing a role akin to a Grimsby reaper is not one I take kindly to. But hovering on the fringes of devastating news, waiting for the answers to come in carefully worded announcements, assembling bits of information into an unsightly but complete jigsaw puzzle, is part of the calling.

When a first sniff came over the weekend, I’d quickly looked at 2 Sisters’ financials and saw poultry consolidation as the big theme. Had a closure elsewhere been misinterpreted? Sadly not, and the extent of the issue became apparent from further calls to key contacts as management tried to thrash out a future path at Five Star from Monday.

A staggering 390 jobs, even if mitigated with roles on Europarc, in Scunthorpe, or for those who may well move with the contracts served, losses will still be a hammer blow to this community.

It could also mean one less outlet for growth should the nation finally switch on to the two-a-week seafood portion consumption target, it could be a folding of a legacy of a proud businessman, who although he made his money from it and clearly exited at the right time, cares passionately about the town and the Town. You’d hope with so much recent investment, if the proposal becomes the answer - and how rarely does it not - that someone would come along soon.

We’ve been fortunate of late, the black cloak of big job losses has not been required. Even as the jaws of recession opened, Grimsby had a new industry born as the first offshore wind turbines emerged from out of the sea bed. Kerry Group, Courtaulds’ final incarnation as Fibres Worldwide and Tioxide have all gone on my watch, but seafood is our staple, it is our everyday, easier seen and understood, and occasionally smelt. New start-ups have stopped, there has been consolidation, but nothing of this scale. Such is the strength of the cluster here – the legacy from the fishing industry that ruled the world, it remains a source of pride and part of our identity – and it shouldn’t be a surprise that the work is to stay here.

With more than 70 per cent of the UK-consumed seafood handled in the town, it would have been odd for the work contracted to Five Star to go beyond the borough’s boundary. All parties are tight-lipped, obviously there’s a consultation to go through, commercial sensitivity and no doubt hurdles to cross, but there’s also the stark possibility of becoming the KFC/DHL of seafood retail, and Marks & Spencer won’t be having empty chillers on the high street.

I’m assured Grimsby’s biggest private employer, Young’s Seafood, is stepping up. It is a fiercely competitive world, so knowledge of what goes on behind the food-safe walls of these many factories is hard to come by, but I’d say there are a fair few operators who could have, or build, the capacity. But this is a contract where scale must matter. When margins are so tight, volume is everything, as is buying power and supply chain.

Seachill lost the contract, has cut its cloth accordingly and appears to be on a different route now. Young’s, with the Dock Tower proudly on its packaging, has always had a strong own-label business behind the number one brand. Recent additions such as Gastro, now a £60 million brand that has gone from conception to commercialisation, underlines the quality too.

Let’s just hope there is a big enough labour requirement to offset the biggest casualty since arch rival Birds Eye vacated the town, leaving a 600-job crater back in 2005.

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