2 April 1999

NEW MAN BREAKS

WITH THE PAST

Backing a winner is close to

the heart of Trevor Hebdon.

But his new job as managing

director of Borderway Mart,

Britains biggest auction

market, is likely to present

him with more than a few

hurdles. Jeremy Hunt met him

BORDERWAY Mart, Carlisle has an enviable reputation among its competitors. It sits invitingly by the side of the M6 motorway, drawing stock from the deepest corners of south west England to the far reaches of northern Scotland and the Isles.

It is hailed as the sale-ring Mecca for pedigree livestock and acknowledged as the biggest and most successful market among commercial farmers, who drive hundreds of thousands of head of livestock through its gates each year. It has also become a model of auctioneering expertise on a grand scale with a turnover of £140m a year.

It is not unusual to see a breeder from the heart of Cornwall make the trip up to Carlisle with a pedigree bull and end up selling the animal to a neighbour who has made a 1000-mile round trip for the privilege – such is the irresistible attraction of doing business at Borderway Mart.

The BSE crisis took its toll on Carlisles prime cattle trade, as it did on all Britains livestock markets. But there is no doubt that Borderway Marts wide-ranging services – including pedigree sales and quota trading as well as its non-agricultural departments covering residential property, furniture and vehicles sales, insurance and car finance – helped to soften the blow.

Rumblings

But towards the end of last year there were rumblings of discontent. A board room bust-up saw senior auctioneer and managing director David Tomlinson resign. It plunged the company into turmoil and what the gossipmongers didnt know, they made up. Attempts to cover up the battles raging behind the scenes left the company vulnerable and heralded a period of instability that this paragon of virtue in British farming circles was unused to and totally unprepared for.

But now peace has been restored. David Tomlinson has returned in a consultancy capacity and the new man at the helm is 44-year-old Trevor Hebdon. This Yorkshire farmers son comes to his post after a successful career in banking. He has a deep love of national hunt racing. The fact he has been working among Cumbrias farmers for several years is clearly a big advantage. He is well aware of the influential role "the mart" – as it is affectionately known – plays in the daily lives of the countys farmers. It is little short of an institution.

But unlike his predecessors, who have steered this company to greatness for over 100 years, Mr Hebdon is not an auctioneer. It is that break with tradition that signifies a new era for auction marts as they seek to carve a more vibrant role as middle-men in the increasingly cut-throat world of the meat trade.

Mr Hebdon leaves behind 26 years as a banker, latterly as Barclays area director for north Cumbria. With national hunt racing photos already in place on the wall of his office, hes quickly making himself at home at Borderway Mart.

Meet him for the first time and it is clear that his disarming personality will serve him well in his quest to re-stabilise this colossus of British auction marts. His broad smile, and obvious good sense of humour, will doubtless be used to advantage as he establishes new working practices with staff and forges stronger links with farmer clients.

But this is a man with an impressive pedigree when it comes to juggling with finances. Unlike those who have gone before him, he will not have to leave an important meeting to take up his position on the rostrum and sell 500 fat cattle and he wont have a white coat hanging on the back of the office door or a gavel on his desk. Mr Hebdon is one of a new breed in the world of livestock markets. He has a clear remit – profitability.

"I am totally committed to the livestock side of the business but I believe I have the width and depth of vision to deal with the diverse aspects of the companys operations."

He is visibly annoyed at the suggestion that he has been appointed more as a financial wizard rather than a managing director. He has a vision for the future that is underpinned by a healthy profit for the company, but one that he believes will only be achieved by tackling a host of issues head on.

New practices

He has some "new business practices" in the pipeline. He wants the company to achieve a better dialogue with farmer customers. "We need to start talking to people and ensure that we are providing exactly the services they require."

To ensure that businesses like Borderway Mart survive in the rapidly changing world of meat procurement, Mr Hebdon has some changes in store. "I regard auctioneers as having a much wider role to play. In banking we would see them as customer services managers and there is no reason why they cannot fulfil that dual role here."

Mr Hebdon is not going to sit back and expect Borderway Mart to survive on past glories and family traditions. "A lot of established businesses just expect business to come to them. The market place is changing and becoming very aggressive. There are some big players out there sharpening their pencils. We have to make sure we have the sharpest pencil of all."

But he refuses to accept that his new job will keep him desk bound. He may not be taking the bids but certainly plans to become a familiar face enjoying a good bit of Cumbrian "crack" in the hub of the market. Restoring staff morale and establishing team leaders within the companys 200 employees has been a priority.

Mr Hebdon is clearly sweeping through the company with a managerial style that may be more akin to a high street retailer rather than a livestock market. Establishing a solid foundation and developing a new business structure is how he believes auction marts can most effectively cope with the changes in livestock marketing.

"Ignoring deadweight selling would be foolish. We provide a service to sell on deadweight for customers who prefer it but we are committed to keeping pace with the highest standards of live selling.

"Issues such as animal welfare, traceability, hygiene and handling will not go away. We have to address these head-on."

Credit control

Touch on the prickly issue of credit control, rumoured to have been one of the issues at the heart of last years problems at Borderway Mart, and Mr Hebdon is forthright in his response.

"The system needs to be tightened up for the benefit of everybody. We are looking at ways of improving our credit control arrangements and asking one or two more questions.

"Most of our primestock buyers will take credit and it can be substantial. We will have several buyers spending £50,000 in stock in a day and it can mount up. A robust monitoring system is in place."

The best January livestock trading figures for four years at Borderway Mart have brought a heartening start to Trevor Hebdons new career. But for this man with a passion for the turf, the race is far from over yet.