14 September 2001

CLEANINGUPINBOATS

A knowledge of boats, a business brain and a farmers

practical know-how. Thats the combination which

launched Nigel Farrows diversification. Now the venture

is set to go global. Tim Relf reports

I FIND it very hard when people call me an inventor," says Nigel Farrow. "I am – but Im not."

He earned the title after designing a machine for cleaning boat hulls which offers an alternative to the traditional manual method. Some have even gone as far as saying that this mobile, low pressure, jet cleaning system has redefined modern-day pleasure craft care.

The kit – which uses water and sand in a simple yet revolutionary way – featured on Tomorrows World earlier this year.

Nigel, a fifth-generation Norfolk farmer, thought it was a friend winding him up when someone from the show called. But his TV appearance did wonders for business. "Our phones didnt stop ringing for four-and-a-half weeks afterwards. It was like winning the lottery."

While originally intended for marine work, its sensitive and chemical-free nature has also seen it used in construction and property renovation. Its even been used cleaning HMS Victory.

Though Nigels a little unsettled by the term "inventor", he could have a variety of titles, having had a variety of careers. Hes been a footballer, worked as a stockbroker, established this business and, of course, run the farm. "Ive had four lives already and Im only 41."

Such a diverse background has, he says, been invaluable in helping establish the Farrow System. "To become a businessman today you have to understand and control aggression and pressure," he says. And he reckons he had a crash-course in control when, age 14, he first ran out for Norwich City Football Club in front of 15,000 people – his father among them. "I froze."

After his sporting career ended, he went to London where he learnt about companies – and how quickly they could grow. But the lure of the farm proved just too strong. "I was making masses – but walked out on the City and came back because I love this way of life."

Not, however, before hed got some sailing under his belt – and it was in the winter, spending long hours in boatyards cleaning hulls, that the seed of his idea was first sown. While steel-hulled boats can be cleaned by a variety of means, smaller pleasure-craft – some of which are made of GRP – necessitate hand-cleaning.

"Im not frightened of hard work – but I am into opportunities. I thought: If only someone could clean them effectively. That lay dormant in the back of my mind for 15 years."

Then, five years ago, with farming "dying on its feet" the idea came together. "I looked at the farm accounts and we were spending money that I had

earned in the City and that had to stop. We had either to give up farming or do something else to support the farm."

So, having tried other farm-based diversifications, he developed the Farrow System. At first, people were sceptical about what it could do. Some were even fearful about using a machine for the task. One, Nigel remembers, said: "Youre not touching my boat."

But Nigel knew boats, knew the finish he wanted and had "a hand for nuts and bolts". He also understood from operating sprayers on the farm the mechanics of pressure.

And he was soon convinced he was on to something big. One time he drove from East Anglia to Preston, worked for three hours with the kit, then drove all the way back. "I earned a months farming wages.

"When I started, I would work harder than normal on the farm to find one day off to do a job with this."

The business soon grew and five years on, as he seeks patents both at home and abroad, more than 70 people are now taking a wage out of the Farrow System. In the companys meetings room – a converted barn on the farm – theres a map divided up into franchise territories. "I want to brand not just the UK but the world."

Its been hard work. "Dont ever believe its easy, its not. All I do is business. My social life has gone. But I have got a race to be number one and to stay number one."

But Nigel takes great pride in what hes achieved and relishes the challenges ahead. "It was a dream. It still is."

But despite the growth of the company, the 120ha (300- acre) farm at Browston, Great Yarmouth, remains close to his heart. "Farming will always be as close to me as my company will."

His advise to other farmers considering diversifying is to first look "in-house" to see what assets can be used. Try to reinvest money by selling assets rather than borrowing too much. Ask yourself: "Can any land be sold?"

Spend some time travelling round seeing examples of what you are proposing to do, he advises. Do your research, dont assume anything and take advice. Farmers, says Nigel, traditionally hated the bank manager and the accountant. "But they can save you a fortune and they can save your neck."

As for what else you need to establish a successful diversification? "A good bit of luck, a good family and good health."