Jeffrey Davies: when sixes become nines
Jeffrey Davies is a well-known figure at Smithfield Market, but there was once a time when he thought it held no future for him, as Fred A’Court discovers
Jeffrey Davies has been walking the avenues of London’s famous Smithfield Market for well over 40 years, meeting and greeting everyone who crosses his path. Once met, he is not a man who is easily forgotten for there are two distinct sides to him, both in terms of his business and his personality. In business he is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – trader on Smithfield Market today, as well as a successful meat processor who has just relocated to new premises in Kent.
In personality he is the typical meat salesman, able to quote the price of almost any of the produce on sale at Smithfield or talk shop with customers on a trade exhibition stand in continental Europe. He is also a deep thinker, with something of the philosopher about him, and a great storyteller.
It is these latter aspects of his personality that makes him so different and, perhaps, so memorable, from many people in the industry. We meet to discuss his life in the trade in the week that he celebrates 46 years of trading at Smithfield, the place he calls ‘home.’ In such circumstances and at such an auspicious moment most people would probably just reminisce about their time in the trade. Indeed he does, but the deeper, philosophical side of his personality soon emerges. The people who have influenced him are many, he says, and could be stretched out across a washing line, each bringing something new in terms of experiences gained and lessons learned.
“I will not be the same person after today, after meeting you, and you will not be the same after meeting me, for good or bad,” he says. It is typical of the type of comments he makes and not the usual words of wisdom one usually hears from the traders at Smithfield.
Jeff Davies was born into the trade in London. His father, Eric, had a butcher’s shop in Islington and he was first taken along to an abattoir in Reading at the age of seven. Even so, he was never encouraged to go into retail butchery, instead leaving school at 16 to work for Zwaneneberg on the Market.
“I was prepared to tell Arnold Zwaneneberg all about my GCSEs, but he just wanted to know if I could get up in the morning. The discipline of the Market meant being here on time and being sure to speak to every person that walked past. We were never allowed to let a person walk past without speaking to them. Every day, for weeks, I tried to stop the market superintendent, Mr Hornsby.”
One of the big personalities from the trade who influenced him early on was George Adams. “He was never afraid to introduce me to whoever he was with. Those lessons were so precious. He told me early on, ‘Our job is to turn sixes into nines.’”
Although Smithfield has changed radically in the last 50 years he insists it is still a dynamic market with plenty of characters. “Smithfield hasn’t changed any more or any less than any other organisation, it has adapted and continues to adapt. As long as our hearts are in the business, Smithfield will survive.”
Davies worked for several traders on the market from 1962 till 1970, including Peter Martinelli. “Whatever people think, he is probably one of the best salesmen we have ever seen.”
For someone so devoted to Smithfield, it is easy to imagine that he has spent his whole life there, but not so. In 1970, at the age of 26 and with a wife and family to support, he made the break from Smithfield Market. “My concern was that there was no future in Smithfield for me,” he says. So he joined Canterbury Frozen Meat and found himself on his way to New Zealand. “I’d been away a week and the boss rang me to say the company had been taken over by Borthwicks.”
After a spell Down Under, he returned to Smithfield, where he had three job offers in a day, opting for CR Barron. But it was in 1977, after spells for a few other companies, that he decided to form his own firm, Jeffrey Davies and Davies. His father put up £7,000 and underwrote an overdraft facility at the bank to launch the business. Today, it employs 150 and has a turnover of £67m.
Speaking about the development of the business, Davies talks mainly about people and the stories he tells go a long way to understanding why he has so much faith. The company’s commercial director, John Wall, has been with him from the start, “John said: ‘I’m coming with you.’ I said ‘I haven’t got a budget to pay you.’ He said ‘Well, don’t pay me then.’ People wouldn’t know him, but I owe him immeasurably.”
The company’s rise was fast, if not meteoric. Within about a year it had bought J F Edwards and Son. “I had said I could see no future for myself at Smithfield Market and there I was back on the Market with J F Edwards.”
Within three years, the company had expanded into meat processing in Sevenoaks, Kent, and later, into the poultry sector through the purchase of Sumeray and Rodgers at Smithfield.
Asked why he made the expansion into the different world of meat processing he somewhat enigmatically quotes former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan “Events, dear boy, events.” One suspects it was a mixture of being the right thing to do at the time and opportunity, another chance to turn sixes into nines.
Three episodes early on in the life of the meat processing side of the business seem to have further cemented his faith in humankind. Bad debts just 18 months into the new venture led to a meeting with his bank manager. After a chat, the manager said: “You get on with the business and I’ll take care of this for you.” As Davies points out, this probably wouldn’t happen today.
It was a similar story with his accountant. “He held up an envelope and said: ‘These are your fees for a year, but you can’t afford to pay them,’ and he put the envelope in the drawer.
“A farmer friend of mine sent me a cheque for £25,000 and said: ‘Use it if you have to.’ I put it in a drawer and looked at it every morning for weeks on end. I never did use it.
“It’s when people like that have so much faith in you.”
The importance of faith
Faith is clearly important to him and translates into the way he does business, and he does not mind admitting it. “I was always brought up to believe in exercising faith,” he says. “Everybody deserves respect whatever his or her faith, colour or creed. For the most part, it gets reciprocated although I can cite lots of occasions when it wasn’t. But goodwill usually generates goodwill.”
The Smithfield business is now split evenly in terms of turnover, with the newly-sited processing business in Gillingham, Kent. It recently moved there from Sevenoaks. The industrial estate, where the old factory was, will soon be erased to make way for 500 homes. The move into the former RHM regional headquarters has given the company the opportunity to plan and expand for the future. The two-acre, self-contained site, includes a processing factory and 1,500-pallet cold store.
“I don’t want to be remembered as someone who made a lot of money,” he says. “I want to be remembered as someone who was never less than fair, always honest, someone who made a positive difference.”
His chance to do that in a wider sense, away from his immediate business, is likely to come almost exactly in 12 months’ time, when he stands for election to be Master of the Worshipful Company of Butchers. “Few of us really give much thought to the immensity of the value of the Company to the industry,” he says. “It is central to it.”
Citing honesty, trust, integrity and, above all else, effort as his core values he will, if elected to the centuries-old role, make a good ambassador for the trade.