Simon Beckett cheerfully admits to being a “petrol head”. But he’s a slightly unusual one, because he gets as much of a thrill driving a combine harvester around a field in Worcestershire as he does riding a powerful motorbike up the Ho Chi Minh Trial in Vietnam.
That’s because as well as being a hugely successful entrepreneur, Simon is also a farmer. He may have transformed his grandfather’s modest farm into a multi-million pound business, but at heart he remains a man of the soil.
Simon, who’s just turned 57, is managing director of Beckett’s Farm in Wythall, just south of Birmingham, which today is less like a farm and more like a destination, comprising a farm shop, award-winning family restaurant, conference facilities and a cookery school.
“I love fast cars,” he says. “I’m a real petrol head. I’ve had various sports cars, including Lamborghinis, but my current toy is a Bentley Continental GT. I like cars, motorbikes – I’ve just been on a motorcycling trip along the Ho Chi Minh trail – tractors, combines and diggers.”
He also likes work, and admits that not an hour goes by when he doesn’t think about business. His dedication has paid off, because Beckett’s now turns over £5m a year and makes an annual profit of at least half a million. This year it’s on course to ring up £680,000. But the furrow wasn’t always so fertile. Twenty years ago, the business was technically insolvent after losing £2m in 12 months. Simon realised it was a case of diversify or die.
Today, Beckett’s is an example of agricultural diversity at its best. As well as the main ‘hub’, Heath Farm on the Alcester Road near J3 of the M42, there are several ‘spokes’ to the business: 15 other farms – all within a three-mile radius – that grow arable crops such as wheat, oil seed rape and winter linseed, as well as wild flowers to encourage bees and other wildlife; commercial lettings and venture capitalism.
Simon, who calls a spade a spade and exudes a gruff charm, says that although farming accounts for little more than 5% of turnover, Beckett’s is still a family farming business.
The company has its roots in an upstairs downstairs liaison between a member of the landed gentry and a scullery maid in the late 19th century.
“My great grandfather, Alfred, was illegitimate. His father was landed gentry from near Shrewsbury who had a dalliance with a maid called Florence, who became pregnant. She was sent off to the country to have the baby and moved into a cottage next door to a farm labourer called Samuel Beckett. She ended up marrying him and went on to have five
One was Simon’s grandfather, Albert Edward Beckett, who initially became a merchant seaman. In the First World War, he was a wireless operator for Marconi and in 1917 picked up a distress call in the mid-Atlantic.
“He was paid a salvage fee of £100 and with that brought his sweetheart, Dawn, whom he’d met in Perth, Australia, home to Britain, where they married and started farming in Shropshire,” recounts Simon. “The problem with Shropshire was that it was sparsely populated; there weren’t enough customers for their produce. Two of my grandfather’s brothers had already moved to the West Midlands, so in 1937 he came here and started dairy farming at Manor Farm in Station Road, Wythall, quite close to where the main business is now.”
Albert’s two sons, Alan – Simon’s father – and Ken, followed him into the business, which today is still called A E Beckett & Sons.
“In 1957, my old man got a Nuffield Farming Scholarship and went to America for six months, where he travelled all over the country, doing dairying and man-management. When he came back, he said to Albert: ‘We can’t make enough money in dairying; we need to get into intensive egg production’. So that’s what they did, and grew the business
together until the mid-1960s when Albert retired to Spain.” In 1972, Ken decided he wanted to go into the pub trade, which left Alan running the business on his own. He became so successful that Beckett’s was soon the UK’s fourth largest egg producer.
“My old man was buying a farm a year out of the profits,” says Simon. “In the 1960s, there was a terrible disease that affected poultry, Marek’s disease, and the best way to control it was to quarantine the chickens. That’s why my old man bought lots of little farms – so that he could isolate the hens.”
Simon joined his father in the business in 1980 and eight years later followed in his footsteps by winning a Nuffield Farming Scholarship and spending six months in the US. The Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust was founded by William Morris, who later became Lord Nuffield. Born in 1877, near Worcester, he was the grandson of a farmer and went on to be a leading industrialist and philanthropist. He set up the Nuffield Foundation in 1943 to fund a variety of activities, including agricultural advancement.
“These scholarships are fabulous,” Simon says. “People can choose to go anywhere in the world to learn more about farming, but they must report back to the industry. It’s all about encouraging innovation and change.”
Soon after Simon’s return to the UK, the country plunged into recession. At the same time, supermarkets were becoming increasingly powerful and able to beat down food producers’ prices. As a result, many farmers started to struggle. Although we’d become a prime producer of eggs, we sold them on to a packing company, which dictated the price. In turn, the supermarkets dictated a price to the packers. We started to get left behind.”
Beckett’s had always had a farm shop selling eggs, so in 1981 it opened a bakery on the Heath Farm site. But it wasn’t enough, and the crunch came in 1992 when the company turned over a hefty £12m – but lost £2m.
“We were being forced to sell eggs at 14p per dozen under the cost of production,” Simon grimly recalls. “The cost of production was 40p and we were paid just 26p.”
He realised drastic change was needed. “I knew we needed to get out of chickens as soon as we could. I’d seen in the States that the most successful farmers were those who’d diversified out of base agriculture. So we enhanced the bakery and added a butchery and delicatessen.”
In 1995 – he remembers not only the date, 17 July, but the exact time, 10.46am – Simon sold “every bloody chicken we had” and slashed his workforce from 104 to 27. Cannily, though, he rented cage space to the company that bought the chicken business. The same year, following lengthy wrangling with the planners, Beckett’s obtained permission to build on the Heath Farm site. It added a restaurant, offering “best of British” fare – which customers could buy for themselves in the shop – and the Beckett’s Farm of today began to take off. It now employs 114 staff and in recent years has added the Orange Kitchen Cookery School and conference and meeting rooms. And in 2012, the company won Family Business of the Year in the Midlands Family Business Awards.
“We still farm, but the small butchery counter earns twice as much money as our 1,000 acres of farmland,” says Simon. “We have £10m tied up in the land and only £46,000 tied up in the butchery counter. So why do we farm? Because we love it. I love the feel and smell of the earth and the big machinery. Farming isn’t a job or even a career – it’s almost a vocation, a way of life as well as a legacy. That’s why I’d never sell off the land.”
Simon, who’s divorced and lives with his partner, Nicky, has four grown-up children, two of whom – Holly and Adrian – have now joined him in the business. Holly, the strategic resource manager, arrived in 2009 and Adrian, who’s responsible for marketing, joined last year. Simon’s ‘old man’, Alan, is still going strong at the age of 83 and remains company chairman. Adrian’s involvement in Beckett’s is a double delight for Simon, because he has a three-year-old son on whom his grandfather clearly dotes. In fact, you suspect the little boy is the only thing apart from fast cars that can distract Simon’s attention from work. That work could be dealing with 93 different tenants who rent the ex-chicken sheds or embarking on a new venture capital scheme. “We have a share in the company that owns the biggest bouncy castle operating in the UK, and we once had a modular staging business that hired out a stage on which Madonna strutted her stuff.”
Having diversified so successfully, it’s hardly surprising that Simon has little patience with farmers who complain about the toughness of their lot. “This business is about evolution, and there needs to be innovation too. We came across a great saying once: ‘Innovation is not a department, it’s an allowable behaviour’. These days you have to talk about agribusiness rather than farming. We sit on an asset – the land – and we can choose how to use it. If you’re a base farmer whose land isn’t working, well, you can park a few caravans on it, and there’s an extra several hundred pounds you didn’t have last week.”
But Simon is not only profit-driven; he cares about the environment, the local community and his staff. Value is more important than profit, he says. “I can’t change the world, but I can do something for my little piece of it, whether it’s sponsoring the Scouts or the rugby club. I also want to keep looking after the fabulous people who work for us – some of whom have been here nearly 30 years. They’re part of an extended family. And while we use modern farming methods, environmental issues are always in our mind. Last year we planted eight miles of wild flowers and clovers across our fields.”
So what next for Beckett’s? “I know I want to buy a few more farms – I’m more interested in value than cash. And if I can have as much fun with my kids as I had with my father growing the business, I shall die happy.”