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Becketts Farm a thriving innovative business

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Becketts’ Farm was on the verge of going out of business 21 years ago but today it is a thriving enterprise and one of the main employers in the village of Wythall on the outskirts of Birmingham.

Managing Director Simon Beckett tells Andrew Coleman from MBN that he has no doubt about the reasons for the change in fortunes for the company.

‘‘We have some fabulous people working here and we allow them to be innovative,’’ says the 56-year-old father of four. ‘‘Innovation is not a department, it’s an allowable behaviour. Most of the ideas come from the staff. The best ideas are always from the bottom up, not the top down.

‘‘My advice to other businesses is to create a culture that has values and you can put those values into the staff and they understand and respect them and work with them. The great thing about a family business is you can expand those core values throughout the whole staff.’’

He adds: ‘‘You’ve also got to evolve – standing still is going backwards. You have to move forward and not be afraid to invest.’’

Becketts’ Farm employs 114 people and last year made £670,000 profit on a £4.5 million turnover. It boasts a farm shop, restaurant, conference centre, bakery, cookery school and commercial lets, as well as 800 acres of land growing arable crops.

It was a different story in 1992 when the farm was one of the country’s major egg producers. Despite a £12 million turnover it made a £2 million loss and was technically insolvent.

‘‘We were selling the eggs to a middle man who sold them onto the supermarkets,’’ Simon explains. ‘‘It was costing us 40p to produce a dozen eggs but we were selling them for 26p. It just didn’t stack up.’’

Becketts’ Farm was begun as a dairy farm by Simon’s grandfather, Albert Edward Beckett, in 1937. His son, Alan, saw how farming was developing while on a scholarship in the States and persuaded his dad to move into intensive chicken farming in the early ‘60s. At its height Becketts had 750,000 chickens but as it became clear that profit margins would not improve Simon showed some of the innovation he now instils in his staff.

‘‘I begged my father to get out of chickens and in 1995 we had the opportunity to get ourselves out of poultry so we took it and concentrated on ‘farming people’, for want of a better term.’’

Like his dad, Simon had gained a farming scholarship in America and while in the States had seen how things had progressed since the ‘60s.

‘‘I saw farm retailing and the retailing of farm fresh foods, the concept of telling a story of where the food came from – to say these pigs were raised on this farm and this is the guy that raised them, to the point of ‘here’s a picture of him’. That told a story to people.’’

With the chicken business sold to egg producers Stonegate – although the birds remained for a time at Becketts on land leased to the buyers – the way was clear to initiate Simon’s vision.

The farm shop and bakery, which had been in existence since 1981, was developed, with meat and other produce locally sourced. A restaurant was built and the chicken sheds that were no longer needed were converted to industrial units. This year the final few sheds were made into eight units at a cost of £750,000. There are now 93 units, with just five vacant.

‘‘The companies leasing the units are from every end of the spectrum, from builders to car fleet managers, from acid cleaners to metal bashers,’’ Simon says.

The conference centre was launched after people using the restaurant inquired if there was somewhere to hold their business meetings.

‘‘We rented out the meeting room we had for our staff and it just developed from there,’’ Simon recalls. ‘‘We now have seven meeting rooms, holding between seven and 60 people, and the centre is used by around 5,000 people each year. It’s fabulous that we’re just one mile from the M42 – location, location, location!’’

The kitchen now used for the cookery school was initially built for a company called Thinking Food, food consultants who wanted to develop menu items for large restaurant chains. The recession put paid to those plans so Becketts’ employees were tasked with coming up with ideas for how to best use the facility.

‘‘The bakery staff wanted to do children’s parties – and we now run around 200 a year,’’ says  Simon. ‘‘We also run adult cookery courses, we hire out the kitchen for menu development and we run ‘Cook and Dine’ and ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’ events for companies’ team building exercises.’’

Warming to the subject of staff initiatives, Simon adds: ‘‘If you allow and encourage people to change, to alter and improve, continually benchmark up, you will get better.

‘‘As an example, the sandwich bar team, which is probably the youngest team we have, are continually developing different things, like grape and brie in a sandwich. They’ll trial it, make a sample batch, get customers to graze on it, try before you buy. If you’re out there and you look for ideas you will find them. And if your place of employment has a culture of getting better and improving, to change and innovate, then that’s going to work.’’

Becketts’ Farm has been recognised with the Wilson Organisation Family Business of the Year award in 2012 and, last month (October), with the title of BBC Good Food Show’s Midland’s Best Farm Shop which has the prize of a sales stand at this year’s Good Food Show at Birmingham NEC.

‘‘The BBC award was voted for by the public and that’s the best feeling,’’ says Simon.

There are two more things that are important about the business to Simon – that farming continues at Becketts and that it’s a family business.

Daughter Holly, aged 33, has been working alongside her dad for four years and a month ago 39-year-old son Adrian joined the business after 15 years in international marketing and advertising positions. It signals further evolution for Becketts.

‘‘I think Adrian sees us more as a brand,’’ says Simon. ‘‘He’ll be looking at how people can identify more with the brand. If we can do that I think it’s a great way forward.’’

It was Holly who suggested another new attraction, one that draws on the agricultural heritage. Simon explains: ‘‘We grow wheat, oil seed rape, peas and protein beans which are used in animal feed. Farming is only 10 per cent of our turnover but my grandfather was a farmer, my father was a farmer and I’m a farmer. I just love farming and I want to get people to understand agriculture. Holly came up with the idea for a ‘Veg-ucation Centre’. We put on an event at Easter where we show chicks hatching but we’ve tried to expand on that. We grow crops in tubs so visitors can touch wheat and oil seed rape and they can see what it looks like. So we’re developing that idea as an interactive experience. You could have a whole wall as a wormery. How fabulous would that be!’’