Setting off in an old, battered milk truck with just 100 customers in 2018, Simon Mellin thought he had a solid business plan. He would help people rediscover the joy of a fresh pint on their doorstep. Plus, in an age of fast consumerism, an industry that had faded into the distant past was ripe for reinvention. ‘We wanted to get across to the new generation that delivering milk to your doorstep wouldn’t be done in the old-fashioned way,’ says the 33-year-old son of a butcher, Lancashire born and bred.
Simon teamed up with three local friends, Paul White, Tom Shaw and Becky Hilton, and together they paid £3,000 for a small milk delivery firm that ran out of the village in north England where they lived. The owner had no qualms in selling the business to them – after all, it made almost no money. ‘And almost instantly,’ says Simon, ‘we settled on a name: The Modern Milkman’. Modern, because there would be no plastic packaging and no cash-over-the-doorstep; all orders and payments would be made via the sleek new website or app.
In the early days, business was simple. ‘It was just us four taking it in turns to deliver the milk at 3am,’ Simon says. He always knew he would be able to ramp up demand, but nothing prepared them for what was to come. When the UK government issued its first self-isolation order on March 15th, The Modern Milkman started receiving calls from over 1,000 new customers a day.
Over the first few days, the founders were forced to carry out deliveries themselves, using their homes as loading docks. ‘Growth was ridiculous,’ Simon reflects. ‘It was very surreal,’ adds Paul. ‘Once, in the middle of the night, Simon turned up at mine in his van wearing his pyjamas.’
Almost overnight, it seemed, everyone wanted milk delivered in glass bottles to their front doors again. The Modern Milkman soon found itself making the rounds to 20,000 households across Leeds, Manchester and east Lancashire. More than 40 drivers staggered deliveries across 80 rounds, with most of them completed between midnight and 9am, although vegetables and meat are delivered around the clock – something not normally on the menu in ‘peacetime’, as Simon puts it. All of the veg comes from a supplier in Skipton, Yorkshire, that used to sell to the local pubs before they closed down. ‘Our rise in demand has helped them through what would have been a very difficult period,’ Simon explains.
Around 10 new temporary employees are being recruited every day. To do this, Paul has been putting up ads online as well as his private Instagram page. He receives up to 200 applications a day and conducts interviews remotely. Working ‘almost non-stop’, he says, he keeps each interview to no more than 20 minutes and stresses the importance of conducting them via video ‘so you can still look the person in the eyes’.
The company has also filmed a training video explaining how to use the dedicated app. This is followed by an induction call to iron out any concerns before hires go to the depot for a brief from the manager and to study delivery routes. In some cases, candidates have gone from interview to on-the-road within 24 hours.
But what happens once the global outbreak has passed? Will clients return to their old ways and will the company have to massively descale? ‘We’ve planned for this contingency,’ says Simon. ‘We’ve not had to borrow any money as it’s a cash positive business. There’s no bad debt.’
Up-front subscription payments generate the cash flow to pay for the extra suppliers and vans – the latter are leased short-term, not bought, from a local firm. There’s also the company’s marketing budget, formerly used for door-to-door advertising (now impossible due to isolation) that has been diverted towards new stock and employees. Once things normalise, Simon expects that many of the company’s new suppliers will return to their former clients.
As for their new customers, however, Simon is confident that many of them will stay. ‘We’ve had hundreds of letters and emails saying how much people appreciate what we’ve done for them in this time of need. And that will create loyalty like nothing else.’
Illustration: R. Fresson
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