Gareth and Gill Rossiter have been together since they were in their early twenties. When Gill decided she wanted to join the RAF, a friend told her that she would need to be fit and introduced her to Gareth who, two years after effectively becoming Gill’s personal trainer, asked her to marry him. Gill joined the RAF as an air traffic controller and, roughly a year later, Gareth–then in the Royal Marines Reserve–secured a position as a personnel support officer, and followed her in.
After nearly 30 years of life in the Air Force, the Rossiters were ready for a change. Here they talk about their trajectory from a world of jets and planes to running their own Riverford Organic veg box delivery business in Dorset.
"In 2005, we were living in service married quarters in Bushey Heath, near Watford. Over the five years we lived there, I was based at RAF Bentley Priory, and then RAF Northolt, working in aviation safety regulation. At that time, Gareth was commanding the University of London Air Squadon before working at RAF Uxbridge, managing its closure.
During our time in the RAF, we tried a number of different veg box schemes but none were consistently good. Until we came across Riverford Organic at a food fair and signed up to try it out."
"My dad was a butcher and I’ve always been a meat lover. Gill was the one who wanted to get me into veg, so when she got home to find me with my head stuck inside our first delivery, sniffing deeply, she couldn’t stop laughing. But I was hooked on the fresh, pungent smell–something I’m used to now but had never experienced before. It looked authentic, too. Not the scrubbed, slightly anaemic, uniformly contoured things you find on most supermarket shelves. These had personality, character and, above all, flavour."
Since that day more than ten years ago, apart from when they were posted out to Iraq separately, the Rossiters have maintained a regular weekly Riverford delivery. But aside of discovering the essence of good quality organic food in that last decade, they were learning something else: after almost thirty years of service, they were ready to move on. Their time in the RAF was coming to an end.
"After serving for so many years, the thought of leaving can be daunting. But we knew our time was up and so we began mentally preparing for civilian life. As part of the transitional process, the RAF provides resettlement training, letting you know about the various options available, one of which is starting your own business. But we didn’t seriously consider that option at the time. I actually left the RAF a year before Gill and got a job as a yacht skipper. Then, when Gill came out, she started looking for a job in the aviation industry."
But having been on the move for so many years, serving in different countries and living on numerous UK bases, the Rossiters felt that what they really needed was to stop and set down some roots.
"The way things were going, with Gareth sailing the high seas and me looking for a corporate role as an aviation safety expert, we knew that we would hardly get to see each other, and that wasn’t something either of us wanted. But it didn’t seem as though we had any other option."
Then one day, when Gill was online amending the contents of their weekly veg box, she chanced upon some information about a Riverford franchise opportunity in Dorset.
"It struck me as serendipitous. We’re originally from Devon, and Dorset seemed like an ideal place for us to establish ourselves. But when we applied the territory was on the verge of being sold to somebody else."
Having accepted that this was not, after all, the new path their life was set to take, the Rossiters were surprised when, three weeks later, they got a call to say that the previous sale had fallen through and the Dorset territory was still available.
"Seven weeks after that we found ourselves presenting our business plan to Riverford.
One of the things we liked most about the process is that the Riverford head office team wanted to make sure that we weren’t looking at the opportunity through rose tinted glasses. They encouraged us to seek honest opinions about the business from other franchisees.
Everyone we spoke to gave us a realistic appraisal of the level of hard work and commitment involved, so we knew straightaway what we would be getting into. But that was counterbalanced by the fact that, when we asked those same franchisees: 'if you had your time over again, would you still do it?' every one of them said 'yes'. It reassured us that we were making the right decision."
Since taking over from the previous franchisees and starting their business, the Rossiters have, in their first year, increased its turnover by 17 percent, their drive and determination, combined with a ‘can do’ attitude–fostered, in part, by the discipline of the RAF–having enabled them to turn what was a gently declining business into a highly profitable one.
"It was pleasing to recover the business as quickly as we did. We just applied the work ethic we’ve always believed in, and that seemed to work for us. What we’ve already learnt is that small, simple and logical actions upstream save a lot of hassle downstream."
Clarifying this point, Gill adds:
"We have three vans and a small team of semi-retired drivers, and we say to all of them that if anything that isn’t up to the standard our customers expect–if some food has been accidentally bumped and bruised, for example–to tell us so that we call that customer before they call us. Being pre-emptive builds trust, confidence and loyalty, and that’s the sort of personal touch we, ourselves, would appreciate–it’s our litmus test for everything. When you established that sort of rapport, people realise you care genuinely about them–that you’re not just a faceless business–and they start to buy into who you are and what you represent."
"If Riverford’s strong ethical thread wasn’t there, I don’t think we would be franchisees now. We love Riverford’s principled stance. It’s the reason we remained loyal customers so long, and it was why we were excited about becoming franchisees. Riverford really looks after its farmers and growers, going to obsessive lengths to maximise flavour while striving to minimise operational impact on the environment. Guy Watson, the founder of Riverford, has also been a real inspiration to us. He’s like the Richard Branson of the organic farming world."
In a short space of time, the Rossiters have excelled as franchisees, and having surpassed a recent challenge to bring on 75 new customers–in fact signing up 175– were presented with the Franchisee of The Year Award at Riverford’s annual conference.
"That came as a big surprise to us! There are lots of other deserving franchisees in the network. But we never benchmarked ourselves against their performances–that’s not how Riverford is. We just did what we could with the knowledge and tools we had. Naturally, though, we were delighted to win the award, but our pride extends beyond that; for us our pride stems from being an intrinsic part of a truly ethical and transparent organic food delivery franchise."
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