Bright ideas for starting a countryside career

Identifying – and exploiting – a niche can prove a great route into a countryside career.

We talk to two young entrepreneurs who have done just that.

Name Tom Williams

Location Hitchin, Hertfordshire

Date started October 2007

Summarise your business

Maydencroft Limited is a multifaceted business consisting of four divisions: consultancy, contracting, ecology and farming.

Where did you get the idea from?

We had been conservation grazing for councils in Hertfordshire with our herd of Longhorn cattle and through this it became apparent there was demand for fencing, hedge-planting and care, treeworks and many other rural contracting works.

I realised there were a lot of “one-man-band” operators offering disparate services and that large construction firms frequently weren’t interested in (or specialist at) this type of work.

I decided there was scope to start a company, which could take on large-scale contracts by providing a highly professional service covering a wide range of requirements.

Tom Williams

How did you get started? Did it take much investment?

I wrote a business plan in the first half of 2007 and approached the bank in August with it, offering to put £10,000 of savings earned from previous employment and asked for an overdraft facility.

My parents offered six months’ free rent for the use of farm premises. I wanted to be the sole founder/owner primarily to keep the decision-making process fast.

How did you find and grow your customer base?

I knew some customers already, and I became a member of the local CLA committee and the South East Grazing Forum – I’m a real believer in getting out there and being in touch with as many people and businesses as possible.

Most of our work comes to us through a chain of recommendations.

The strength of our reputation is vital to us gaining new work and I really try to ensure that we do whatever it takes to make the client happy, as well as being really honest and straightforward with them.

Why does it suit you?

I never had specific ambitions to run my own company, but now that I do, it is the best decision I ever made. Managing and working with the people I employ is the most rewarding part of the business.

I’m particularly enjoying overseeing the progression of our apprentices and am very proud of the apprenticeship program as I feel strongly about the importance of skilled rural employment.What skills do you need for the job?

People, people, people. You can’t run a business if you don’t get on with people, whether it be customers, the public, your suppliers or your staff. You also need sound financial sense. Cashflow forecasting and profit and loss accounts are managed so tightly and they have been from the start. This is the life blood to all business.

Delegation is also really important. Offering members of staff responsibility helps them to realise their ambitions and makes people feel integral to the company.

It also allows me to keep a healthy work-life balance and a clear head so I can think strategically about the business rather than getting overwhelmed by the day-to-day operations.

What has been your biggest challenge so far? How did you overcome it?

To begin with our turnover was very much generated from Local Authority work. Not long after we started, the credit crunch hit which was a great incentive to broaden our clientele as council budgets were slashed.

I actively sought more work through commercial organisations, utility companies, conservation bodies and private estates. This continues today and we now have an even 20% of turnover from each sector.

Where do you see the business in five years’ time?

We are currently in our sixth trading year and employ 40 full-time permanent staff which makes us one of the largest, if not the largest rural employer in Hertfordshire. If I can double this to 80 in the next five years, I would be over the moon.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I love the countryside, that’s why I do what I do. Training my young cocker spaniel, Truffle, is my escape after work. Otherwise I’m happy with a gun or a rod in my hand or playing or watching any form of cricket. I talk a better game than I play!

Who inspires your business?

Many people have a mentor. I feel as though I’ve got 40! I love and respect our team, they have great ideas and bring so many skills to the firm.

Visit Maydencroft online

Charlie Cole

Name Charlie Cole

Location Ballycastle, Northern Ireland

Date started September 2010

Summarise your business

I’m 24 and along with my two brothers – Sandy, 22, and Freddie, 18 – am trying to make a living off a 48ha farm, so we always knew we’d need to find some serious niches. After much research, we started rearing buck kid goats from dairy farms as an alternative meat product. Alongside this we have set up a seaweed harvesting business. We are now also diversifying into free-range veal and venison products.

Where did you get the idea from?

Over recent years seaweed has been growing in popularity and is synonymous with our local town where dulse (a type of red seaweed) has always been popular at the annual old Lammas Fair. Our uncle met a friend at a party who was producing seaweed products, but could not find reliable suppliers – he passed the information on and we haven’t looked back.

How did you get started? Did it take much investment?

We started off by visiting a harvester on the islands of Aran off Galway. It pretty much involved a week of picking seaweed and much valuable knowledge was gained. We went home and set up a solar thermal pre-dryer in a polytunnel and then designed an all-weather finishing room. We reckon we had a £5,000 set-up cost, but it required some practical on-farm thinking to keep it down – the drying room, for example, is an old mobile home made food safe!

How did you find and grow your customer base?

We were very lucky to have been on the BBC’s Farm Fixer with Nick Hewer, which gave us huge amounts of publicity and set us on our way.

Why does it suit you?

The harvest days are four days every two weeks, which fits easily around the main goat business.

What skills do you need for the job?

The harvest can be gruelling and you need to come up with a good marketing and sales strategy that can ensure added value.

What’s been your biggest challenge so far? How did you overcome it?

The way the business is so weather dependent. You can’t change it – you just have to persevere.

Where do you see the business in five years’ time?

We’re currently working on our own packaging designs for our product range and a new purpose-built drying facility.

What do you do when you’re not working?

Let’s just say we’re no strangers to our local pub, Tessie’s!

Who inspires you and your business?

Nick Hewer – he’s certainly not just Alan Sugar’s right-hand man these days.

Visit Broughgammon online

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