All the fun of the fare in the Welsh hills
Sunday 06 October 1996
It also comforting to know that these essentials have been brought to the town by a genuine Welsh entrepreneur. You may remember that I launched a hunt for these beasts a few months ago, having decided they were rare, if not extinct. Last week, standing high in the hills of Monmouthshire, I discovered why I had become so worried. You see, John Sullivan, boss of Vin Sullivan Foods, is undoubtedly an entrepreneur. A youthful 50-year- old, he has turned a wet fish shop into a company that turns over pounds 5m and employs 60 people. But in his mind he is still just a lad from Abergavenny - he never takes holidays, drives a modest car and is most bothered about the council's fiendish plans to introduce charges in carparks.
Listening to this engagingly non-materialistic businessman, you could be convinced he has built up one of the biggest specialist food suppliers in the country by mistake. His father Vin was a fishmonger who died in 1964. John was 18. "I went home as a van driver on Saturday and came back in charge on Monday."
He started diversifying into the then-exotic aubergines and peppers; then he started a delicatessen and was discovered by chefs starved of interesting produce. By the early 1970s, sales were pounds 2m and the shop was an institution. But Sullivan had never got to grips with the niceties of business such as cash flow. He grew too fast, went into voluntary liquidation, and survived only because creditors agreed to reschedule their debts. He agreed to bring in a proper accountant to sort out his sums.
Soon one of his best restaurateur clients, Baba Hine, moved to Gloucester. When she told him she couldn't get decent vegetables there, he built up a business in the west of England, and now promises next-day delivery to the whole country.
Sullivan's secret has been to try products others would shun. "We're never afraid, even though nine out of 10 will fail," he says.
The Abergavenny shop is now just the visible terrine atop the basil loaf that is Vin Sullivan's distribution operation. This is based in Blaenavon, which once had 160 pits and is as unlikely a spot to find Mahi Mahi steaks as you could find.
Sullivan seeks out obscure suppliers at trade shows, and keep a close eye on Rungis, a massive market near Paris where everything remotely edible is traded.
Mr Sullivan's exotic food tip: start learning ostrich recipes. The boom in ostrich farms that led to the collapse of investment companies will also lead to massive oversupply. "Ostrich has halved in the past 12 months and I can see it halving again, to pounds 2.50-pounds 3.50 a pound," he says.
HARPER'S Magazine borrowed this list from Car and Driver magazine, so I have no qualms about swiping it for my gentle readers. It was gathered at a Tokyo car show last year, and is simply some of the latest Japanese car names: Mitsubishi Mini Active Urban Sandal; Subaru Gravel Express; Daihatsu Rugger Field Sports Resin Top; Suzuki Every Joy Pop Turbo; Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear Cruising Active; Mazda Proceed Marvie; Subaru Sambar Dias Astonish!!; Nissan Big Thumb Harmonized Truck; Mitsubishi Debonair Exceed.
IT HAS come to my attention that business travellers in the first-class compartments of railway trains are becoming increasingly irritated by hordes of pensioners invading the sepulchral calm and discussing their holidays in Florida at great and loud length.
It is the fashion to blame everything that goes wrong on the railways on privatisation, so I hereby do so. I gather that pensioners can travel for 30 per cent off in both first and third class. I would like to remind them, and railway executives who issue them with the cheap tickets, of the following:
1) First-class is designed for the use of the upper classes, bishops and business people.
2) Business people must travel first-class for the prosperity of the nation. This is the only way they can find the calm (sepulchral) that allows them:
a) to order their high-powered minds so that they can march into meetings with an octopus-like grasp of the agenda, thereafter making far-sighted,profit- enhancing, GNP-bloating decisions.
b) to sleep off their hangovers from the night before.
c) to make those subtle adjustments to the multi-billion pound deals they are about to sign, with beneficial effects on profit, GNP etc.
d) to sleep off heavy lunches.
3) Only business people should be allowed to talk loudly in first-class, this being necessary on the mobile phone when arranging drinks with Jerry, talking fondly to mistress etc. This is accepted by categories a) to d) above, because they too will need to have loud conversations in due course.
4) Business people are paying the full fare, frequently several hundred pounds, to travel first-class. Well, they are not - their shareholders or customers are, but it would be fatal for their credibility if their travel costs did not amount to thousands of pounds a month. Would you trust a market researcher who failed to travel first-class on your behalf?
AND now to our competition to find inappropriate words and expressions. Chris Sladen of Ealing suggests civil servants, "many of whom aren't either" and stable, "as in "Mr Bunhill is in a stable condition, ie clinging to life by a thread".
Gary Byrnes of Dublin comes up with phonetic (shouldn't it be spelt the way it sounds?), apartments (they're all stuck together), abbreviate (far too long) and palindrome (why isn't it spelt the same way backwards?).
But the winner must be Richard Todd-Brookes of Shurdington in Gloucestershire, who points out that "below par" is absurd - because every golfer's aim is to be below par. Good point, and a bottle of fizz.
By the way, if you are wondering what happened to our brand names competition, hang on to your garlic crushers. It is being run by a sub-division of the Bunhill Organisation that is carrying out top-secret manoeuvres in another hemisphere.
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