6 September 2002

Local firm grew & grew

Situated in a fenland

farming area, it was natural

that Nicholsons should

cater for local crop

requirements as they

expanded their machinery

business, but their

customer list was soon

national and is now

increasingly international.

Mike Williams reports

WHEN the Nicholson brothers started their farm machinery business in Norfolk 26 years ago, they specialised in machinery repairs and alterations for local farms. Machines they worked on reflected the importance of crops such as potatoes, carrots and onions on local farms, and these offered opportunities for Nicholson Machinery to expand into manufacturing.

The company, based at Southery, Downham Market, is still owned and managed by the Nicholson family, consisting of two of the original founders, David and Malcolm plus Rachael, Daniel and Shaun from the next generation. They still repair equipment for local farmers, either at Southery or on site using two mobile workshops, but this is now a small part of a business which has 28 employees and three principle activities.

Machinery refurbishment is one of the activities, based on equipment and expertise from their repair work on local farms. Refurbishment contributes about 30% of turnover, and the customer list is now national rather than local.

"Refurbishment is an important part of the business, and we specialise in handling and packhouse equipment, mainly for potatoes and other root crops," explains Shaun Nicholson. "It started as a way of increasing the value of used machinery from part exchange deals, but demand has grown much faster than the supply of trade-ins, and a lot of the used equipment we need is bought in, mainly from farm sales.

"Farmers are facing lower profit margins, and buying refurbished equipment can mean big cost savings. Some of our customers want a full refurbishment job and others just want us to put the equipment in good working order. We provide whatever level of refurbishment the customer asks for, and prices can range from about £100 for a small elevator to £20,000 or more for a fully refurbished grader," he says.

Packhouse gear

Another major section of the Nicholson business is planning and installing equipment for packhouses. This is also expanding, developing from a local service to a national operation. Project costs vary from about £30,000 for a relatively small installation to £300,000 or more for a full grading line.

Installations may include machinery made by Nicholsons, but much of the equipment is sourced from other specialist manufacturers and particularly from Lincs based Tong Engineering and from Nicholsons near neighbours, Herbert Engineering.

Installation and refurbishment services are sometimes linked, as equipment replaced by the new packing or grading line may be suitable to go through the workshops for a new lease of life. Earlier this year a customer in Devon specified all refurbished equipment when he ordered a new grading line.

Designing and building equipment is the third main part of the Nicholson business. Although most are geared to local farming requirements, Nicholson machines have opened new export possibilities for the company.

"We dont build machines in large numbers, and we dont have a production line, and that gives us a lot of flexibility," says Mr Nicholson. "Most machinery manufacturers offer a range of sizes, but a lot of the machines we supply are built to special order and the customer has a lot of choice of specification and capacity."

The machines includes a list of mainly arable linked equipment such as the portable Sample Washer holding 10kg of potatoes or other root crops, a chemical trailer for towing behind a self-propelled sprayer, and the Multi Ridger for making and reforming ridges and beds.

The Nicholson Twister is a one-tonne box handler with several innovative design features and there are crop protection pads to reduce damage when potatoes are loaded into an empty trailer.

A recent development is an update for their root crop cleaner loader. The original machine was based on cleaner loaders for sugar beet but was designed for carrots. The latest version also handles parsnips and turnips, removing dirt from the newly harvested crop in the field instead of in the packhouse.

Nicholsons three top-selling machines include one non-agricultural product – the Paddock Cleaner for collecting horse droppings to reduce the risk of disease spread. In a highly competitive market the Paddock Cleaner is a success story in the UK, including two at the Royal stud at Sandringham, plus a growing export market to countries as far afield as Japan.

The other two machines on the Nicholson best-sellers list are both designed for onion growers and packers. The latest version of the Hi-Flow topper is said to reduce noise and dust levels while topping onions at up to 25t/hour, with 18 rows of soft paddles conveying the onions across a bed where special spinning blades trim the tops to improve the appearance of the onions.

The Top Tailer takes presentation a stage further, trimming both the tops and the root hairs of onions to be sold loose or in see-through packs on supermarket shelves. The result is said to be a better appearance plus the attraction of having no roots for customers to trim.

Between them the two Nicholson onion trimming machines dominate their specialist niche of the UK market, according to Shaun Nicholson, and most potential customers have bought either one machine or both. Future sales expansion must come from overseas markets, and the Top Tailer is already attracting new customers.

Hungarian interest

Recent successes include orders from Hungary and Spain, and Shaun is optimistic about sales in the US and Canada where importers have recently been appointed.

"We dont have a lot of experience of selling overseas," says Mr Nicholson. "But the Paddock Cleaner is already an export success and we believe there is a lot of potential for the Top Tailer in some overseas markets. I think exports will be increasingly important, and the Top Tailer seems to be a good machine to open up new markets for us." &#42

Left: Up to 25t/hour throughput is claimed for the Nicholson Hi-Flow onion topper.

Right: One of the latest developments from the Nicholson camp is this root crop cleaner loader.