Rural business consultant – Rural Development Associates
James Miles-Hobbs helps farmers make money. That’s the essence of his Devizes business, Rural Development Associates, which he set up seven years ago to provide financial planning advice for farmers and landowners.
Today, the business has nearly trebled to include standard farm consultancy on single farm payments, cross compliance, contract farming agreements, rent tenders, tenancies and environmental schemes as well as diversification appraisals and grant applications. And, in the past few years, energy management and renewable energy projects have grown to occupy three-quarters of his business.
“I am delighted to play a part in the transition of traditional farmers to rural businessmen, who are making the most of their resources,” he says.
James’ specialism is land business strategy, planning and accounts management. He gained a degree in agricultural economics at Reading and a diploma in advanced farm management at the Royal Agricultural College. His success has come from making the most of his farming clients resources and drawing upon a wide circle of up to 12 experts on grant funding, anaerobic digestion, waste management and wind or solar power [to name but a few] to create a “project team”.
“I have the farming and business knowledge to judge whether a potential project will fly, but I employ specialists on a part-time basis that are best suited to help deliver them,” he says.
James is the project manager. His expertise is in extracting and understanding his clients’ objectives. That skill is founded on practical hands-on farming with his family’s own arable, pig and beef unit as well as during his time with consultant Andersons and then Savills where he farmed a 2,000-acre arable estate in Cambridgeshire. This farming knowledge and experience enables him to be an effective “bridge between the non-agricultural specialists and his clients”.
That is evident when you meet Lady Michael who owns the 1,000-acre Eddington Estate just outside Hungerford. James has provided farm business consultancy for the estate since 1995 – including an in-depth knowledge of the estate’s accounts, arranging and managing a contract farming agreement and any new business appraisals.
“James plays an important role on the estate explaining farming regulations, providing succinct business appraisal summaries, and he always sees fair play between the contractors and the estate,” says Lady Michael.
But the unexpected always turns up in any client relationship and when the judges met James he had just been involved in discussing why a White Park bull on the estate had “gone off its feet” and what should be done about it.
“I always expect the unexpected,” he says. James had to ascertain whether or not the feet were like this before the bull arrived. And if they were, whose contractual problem it was – the livestock agent who purchased on behalf of the farm or the selling farm. Then, what the herd society rules were over private sales. Third, practical suggestions for taking matters to a resolution with the agent and/or the vendor. And finally, what policies to instigate for future purchases.
James continually assesses fee expectations and delivery to ensure his clients have value for money: “I have a programme of monitoring and review with all my clients to ensure expectations are being met or whether changes in consequent fee arrangements are needed.”
He operates three fee options, either based on time, a fixed flat fee paid in instalments or a one-off fee for a particular job. And on some issues he provides free consultancy, particularly on renewable energy developments, to maintain customer loyalty and build new business.
James undertakes up to a dozen speaking engagements a year, sits on British Institute of Agricultural Consultant’s business management division and is the CLA’s renewable energy advocate for the South West, as well as being on the CLA’s National Policy Committee, National Council and Rural Economy Committee.
“These take up a lot of my time, but it’s worth it because of the intelligence and insight that you can gain, which ultimately helps shape my advice to clients.”
Diversification has been a core part of James’ own consultancy in the past few years, so it’s appropriate that he has his own.
In Rural Heat, a new company that he and three partners have set up in Marlborough, he is practising what he preaches. Rural Heat will take short-rotation coppice from farmers, process it and burn it in biomass boilers installed in local schools and hospitals.
• Provides business advice in four key areas – farming, diversification, grants, renewable energy
• 25-50 clients from Brighton to Bristol, Hereford and Oxford
“James’ ability to connect with his clients and match their emotional and economic needs to the resource and investment available for their business is impressive. And the business model for his own consultancy simply shows that he practices what he preaches.” Roger Mercer, independent judge
What the judges liked
• Understands his clients and their objectives
• Nearly trebled his business in seven years
• Strong industry influence and commitment