Recruiting and retaining staff of the right calibre has been a vital element in the expansion of Duncan Andrews’ and Adam Henson’s mixed farming business in Gloucestershire.
Having the confidence to delegate and adopting a modern approach to staff development have been key factors in the success of Bemborough Farm.
In the early years of their 15-year business partnership, Duncan Andrews spent the majority of his working hours on a tractor seat and Adam Henson was primarily hands-on with the farm’s livestock.
More recent years have seen both having to let go of much of the day-to-day practical farming work to focus their management and entrepreneurial skills on the business.
Both arable and livestock enterprises are now larger and more complex than ever, and with the rare breed Cotswold Farm Park and other diversified ventures growing, weekly meetings for Mr Andrews and Mr Henson with their team of four managers are the necessary norm. These are complemented by monthly strategic planning sessions.
The journey really began, however, with the partners having to make one of the hardest decisions in business – that of making a loyal worker redundant. As Mr Andrews explains, circumstances at the time left no option other than to reduce the farm’s staff.
“From 1997 to 2002 we went through a period of consolidation in the business, which included reducing borrowings and risk,” he explains. “Part of the strategy was to sell machinery and turn instead to contractors, with one unavoidable consequence being the redundancy of one arable worker.
“It was the hardest decision we’ve taken, but the right one for the longer-term prospects of the business and all other staff working at the time and since.
“The important thing was to be as fair as possible with the individual losing their job and stay focused on the reasons for taking the decision.”
By 2002, once the business had rationalised to create a stable platform for growth, the 650ha farm business was being run with Mr Henson looking after livestock operations (with one full-time stockman and seasonal workers at the farm park) and Mr Andrews pretty much working alone but with help from contractors on the arable side.
A full-time administrator was now also justified across the business. Ten years on, four full-time roles, including those of Mr Andrews and Mr Henson, have increased to 14 in total, with Mr Henson’s media commitments keeping him away for three to four days a week, plus up to 40 seasonal workers across the different areas of the business.
According to Mr Andrews, the most important factor in building and developing an effective team is to recruit the right staff in the first place. The process starts by agreeing and writing down a job description, and then avoiding being rushed into filling a vacancy.
“We’ve learned that it is better to be patient than to take on the wrong person, even if that means bridging the gap in other ways for a period,” he says. “We try not to compromise on our core values, but accept that some key skills and qualifications can be acquired on the job if an individual has the right potential.”
Arable manager Martin Parkinson and livestock manager Mike Caunter (pictured above) provide good examples of effective recruitment using this approach, having been at Bemborough Farm for three and four years respectively.
“Both are enthusiasts with a desire to develop their roles in the business and a willingness to embrace new technology,” adds Mr Andrews. “Our aim has been to invest in them and their enterprises, so that they are motivated and see ways forward for themselves.
“Martin came at a time when we needed greater capabilities in the arable operations. He is not a farmer’s son and did not have BASIS or FACTS qualifications when he came for interview, but he had a proven track record in vegetable and arable crop management and showed the ambition that we knew would be important in an expanding enterprise.
“Mike is from a farming family but had done a business management degree and left the industry for a few years, but he has the all-important strong affinity with livestock that is vital in good stockmen. His passion for livestock, pedigree or commercial, is matched by his appetite for new ideas, such as the adoption of electronic identification and all the management benefits that it brings.”
Mr Parkinson and Mr Caunter are part of the current management team, which includes administrator Paula Duffield and Cotswold Farm Park manager Kate Henderson. All are salaried positions and the structure is geared as much to providing motivation and staff retention as to driving business performance.
“We operate a standard appraisal system for each of our managers, with key performance indicators assessed at six-monthly reviews,” explains Mr Andrews. “This provides an incentive to perform, but more importantly we give each manager a degree of autonomy and budgetary responsibility.
“We are trying to engender a culture that we hope permeates through the management team and down to everyone involved in the business. Again it comes back to recruiting the right people – those that will buy in to the culture and respond appropriately to the incentives provided.”
Stability in the workforce also gives confidence to the farm’s bank. “Evidence that a business is well managed is a very important part of assessing the overall viability of any lending proposal, and good staff management is one of the key indicators,” says Lloyds TSB agriculture policy director Alick Jones.
“Getting this wrong can have an impact on the financial performance of the business, not just in terms of actual cash cost, but in creating potentially damaging distractions for the management team that a high turnover of people will inevitably create.
“The opportunity to delegate as Duncan and Adam are now able to do allows them more time to focus on the strategic direction of their business, and shows that they have appropriate controls in place to manage business risk.”
At Bemborough, initiatives such as staff socials, involving everyone from all parts of the business, have become increasingly important.
“It’s another area where the diversity of the business is paying dividends,” adds Mr Andrews. “If employees can interact and share their experiences, then they are more likely to remain motivated and see opportunities for themselves. We’ve had one great example with Dave Wilson, who joined us a cleaner at the farm park and is now working as a valuable member of the arable team.”
Recent years have seen an external human resources company used to help with recruitment, and this has brought other important benefits.
“Through our involvement with an outside agency we are now as good as we can be with compliant employment contracts and correct procedures for health and safety, disciplinary matters and training,” says Mr Andrews.
“These are important areas for both employers and staff and we are better placed for having used outside help. You cannot do everything yourself and employment is one of those areas where professional help can be essential.”
Using outside help of this type costs about £40 for an employee a year across all staff on both the farm and the farm park. Training workshops for managers on aspects such as interviewing and recruitment has also helped to improve the calibre of staff taken on.
Staff development tips
A formal staff training and induction programme was initially introduced for farm park staff. New recruits undergo a structured (three months for long-term staff) schedule of activities to help them understand the business and skills required to fulfil their role, including health and safety. Part of this process is to identify training requirements.
This is now being brought across to farm staff too, not only for new employees but also to provide a benchmark with all existing employees, showing how one part of the business can gain from lessons learned in another.
Training needs are identified initially through induction and also through on-going appraisals. This is a two-way process, with management identifying staff needs and employees being encouraged to make their own requests for training.
Internal training is provided by managers on areas such as the use of new machinery/technology, completing animal movement records and so on.
External training is given to complete certificates of competence such as chainsaw use and agrochemical handling.
External training and job development for the management team is provided by consultants. Occasional off-site trips, such as visits to other farms, help broaden horizons and encourage new thinking.
Being able to provide performance incentives to staff relies on establishing measurable targets, both for overall business performance and for individuals.
This is still a “work in progress”. Once measurable targets are in place, it is then the intention to introduce an incentive structure, initially for managers.
Individual targets are set as part of each six-monthly performance appraisal, with key performance indicators being identified and measured. Overall business performance reviews help to identify and create these targets.
- Don’t be tempted to rush or compromise on recruitment – getting the right person is key
- Learn to delegate and give responsibility
- Make time for regular staff meetings and reviews
- Difficult decisions need careful consideration, but do not put them off
- Outside help can be valuable
Adam Henson is Lloyds TSB’s farming ambassador, promoting a better understanding of financial and environmental sustainability in farm businesses.