How a Hull entrepreneur is growing an international food group from seed

Steve Humphrey doesn’t really know where he got his business brains from, but guesses that watching telly as a child might have had something to do with it. Specifically, it was Minder, the comedy drama about an East End dodgy dealer, that fired his imagination.
Steve Humphrey, CEO of Hessle-based Tuber Group. PHOTO: Darren Casey/DCimaging.Steve Humphrey, CEO of Hessle-based Tuber Group. PHOTO: Darren Casey/DCimaging.
Steve Humphrey, CEO of Hessle-based Tuber Group. PHOTO: Darren Casey/DCimaging.

“Seeing Arthur Daley up to his entrepreneurial tricks as I was growing up was, I think, the only thing that could have rubbed off on me as a young boy,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

Over 30 years later, he presides over a growing business that Arthur could only dream of, connecting an international network of suppliers and with offices on three continents. But he started out modestly.

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“My brother worked in a peanut factory, and I used to buy them in bulk from the factory, weigh out smaller amounts in the evening, and take them in my boot bag to sell at school the next day. I’ve always been entrepreneurial,” he says.

It was an early effort, he says, to change the course of his life for the better.

“We struggled as a family growing up. My mother brought me up on her own. I’m actually from a household with very little work, but I wanted the reverse of that for myself.

“As soon as I was able to, I wanted to make money. Even from day one I always had a dream of working for myself.”

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Yet he left school at 16 with no qualifications and was soon at work packing beefburgers at Ross Youngs factory. Over the next 10 years he would work his way up to production manager, and eventually move on to work at other produce suppliers, but his time on the shop floor has stayed with him, and informs the way he works now.

“People who work in factories are absolutely fantastic people,” he says. “You see all different characters, you see all different walks of life. You see people who are just happy just to be on a production line – they don’t want the pressures of anything else. And you’ve got the other walks of life: the young person who really wants to make a career of it, and they’re starting from the bottom – which is essentially how it worked out for me.”

After over 20 years in the business, Humphrey finally made his dream of self-employment come true in 2017, setting up Tuber Produce with, he says, “a phone, a laptop and a few hundred quid”. But it wasn’t all plain sailing.

“I suppose I was a little bit naive, really. I thought that because I’d traded with some customers very closely over the years while I’d been employed with others, they would automatically behave the same when I was self-employed, but it wasn’t the case at all. Suddenly, it was all about pounds and ‘How secure is our money by trading with you?’. I think that was the biggest surprise really.”

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He dealt with that problem by paying suppliers more quickly than they were used to, thanks to Lloyds Bank’s invoice discounting service, and now has similar arrangements with Bibby Financial Services and Close Brothers.

As a result, the family business – his wife Rebecca is also a director and 50 per cent owner – has grown rapidly, and in November surprised many in the industry by acquiring Saxon Foods, a Scunthorpe-based convenience foods manufacturer. In a complex deal struck with the help of Hull law firm James Legal, the acquisition saw Humphrey’s firm, now called Tuber Group, expand by 70 employees, and more are being recruited.

“We are actively looking to boost the existing Saxon workforce by about 15 per cent,” he says.

“We have roles to fill in the factory, and we’re also looking for food commodity traders – people who enjoy buying and selling and building relationships with clients.”

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Tuber, which started out as a potato trader, now ships citrus fruits from Egypt to Australia, America and the UK, onions from China, and even strawberries from the UK to New York. But now, Humphrey’s big ambition is to return to his roots, as it were, and concentrate on developing new potato products.

“Potato tots, which are like coated rustic-shaped potato pieces, are very, very big in America. In fact, they’re jumping on the heels of French fries. Because we’ve got an office in America and we do a lot of trade there, we’re best placed to try these different things and introduce them over here into the UK market.”

It won’t be easy, though. Brexit is biting, Covid has wreaked havoc, and shipping costs have gone through the roof. Humphrey was paying $3,000 for a refrigerated container from China to Felixstowe 18 months ago; now he’s paying between $12,000 and $14,000. The costs, he warns, will be borne by the consumer.

“Ultimately, the food on our plates is becoming, and will become, more expensive,” he says. “I would like to think that within the next 12 months, deflation will have taken place in global costs. But it takes a longer period to claw back that inflation for the consumer. In a nutshell, cheap food is a thing of the past.”

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Nevertheless, he is pushing ahead with expansion plans, and wants to double turnover over the next three years,.

“I want to put British products back on the map. We do our bit globally and import into the UK, but I would like us in the next 12 months to be a heavy player in exporting British added-value frozen products, especially to the Middle Eastern market.

“Anyone who wants to get involved in a very fast-growing group of companies, who has the right attitude and vision, should come and talk to us.”

CV: Steve Humphrey

Born and bred in Hull, Steve Humphrey left school in 1991 at the age of 16 without any qualifications.

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After a series of short-term jobs he went to work packing beefburgers at Ross Youngs.

He stayed there for 10 years, working his way up to production manager at the factory, which was by then owned by Northern Foods.

He left in 2004 to become general manager at M&F Ltd, a large-volume potato-processing plant.

After five years, he became account manager at potato supplier Branston Ltd, staying for another five years.

Following shorter stints at two other fresh produce suppliers, he founded Tuber in 2017.

In 2021, the company bought Saxon Foods and became Tuber Group.

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