Few things are more reassuring for a farmer than having a skilled, passionate and reliable farm contractor on the doorstep. The three finalists in this year’s Farmers Weekly Contractor of the Year award might be running very different businesses, but each is going the extra mile to ensure their customers receive a first-class service. James Andrews talks to one of the finalists.
Jack and Bay Watson
Church Farm, Studley, Warwickshire
For a couple of young guys starting up a farm contracting business, it’s easy to get sucked in by the glossy machinery brochures and attractive finance packages on offer.
Before you know it you can end up with too many toys and not enough work. But twins Jack and Bay Watson have discipline and financial maturity that would be the envy of contractors twice their age.
After their dad passed away in 2006, Jack and Bay, aged just 17 at the time, decided they would continue running the small contacting business he had set up near Studley, Warwickshire.
- Established a base of more than 100 core customers in six years
- Running two Claas Quadrant 3200 balers and three Case Puma tractors
- Teamed up with local training school to offer safety courses
Starting with one Case IH 956 tractor and an ageing baler and wrapper, it was tough to get going, says Bay. “We had to just sit tight and weather the storm. That kit was the making of us, but it was nearly the end of us.”
In just six years they have built up an impressive, secure and profitable business that has the potential to keep growing. They are running a fleet of modern equipment, operating from an impressive yard and have more than 100 loyal customers.
Baling is a key part of the business and the duo are running two Claas Quadrant 3200 balers behind their Case Puma tractors. Most of the work is for broad-acre arable customers, but they also produce specialist haylage for the equestrian market. “We trade quite a bit of hay and straw, which is really good for our cashflow.”
Other services include muckspreading with a pair of rear-discharge spreaders, ploughing, fertiliser application, bale-wrapping and grass management.
The brothers have a keen eye on costs and won’t run a piece of equipment if it doesn’t stack up. “Every January we sit down and work out how much each of our services is making,” says Jack.
This exercise takes account of depreciation, labour, repairs and maintenance, fuel and sundries such as baler string. “For example, we used to do a lot of round baling, but we just couldn’t get the figures to stack up,” he says.
“We decided to stop running it and managed to get our customers to switch to square, with very little complaint.”
Tractors are generally bought on hire purchase agreements and they don’t invest in maintenance packages or extended warranties. “We’ve looked at the figures and it’s cheaper in the long run if we do our own maintenance and repairs.”
The judges liked
- Impressive business model and tight handle on costs
- Ambitious, but realistic, plans for the future
- Provide a reliable and quality service to customers
Smaller items such as rakes and mowers are usually bought outright, as the brothers don’t want to risk having too many finance agreements in place.
Jack and Bay are the only full-time employees in the business, but they have a band of reliable self-employed drivers that work for them. Their sister Hannah and mum Valerie also help out from time to time.
This means they can tailor their workforce and keep a close eye on costs, says Jack. “Logistics are also really important for the bottom line and we work hard to keep running around to a minimum.”
In the short term the pair hope to grow the business by gradually adding more services to their portfolio and taking on more customers. The next phase is to work in partnership with another local contractor who has a foraging outfit, says Jack. “This will pool our resources and open up more business opportunities.”
Jack and Bay also realise the importance of proper training and have teamed up with the local agricultural training group to run courses in their yard. It also generates income at quiet times of the year as they hire out their JCB telehandler to the course organisers, says Bay.
Longer term, the pair hope to branch into contract farming. “We’ve already been approached to contract farm a small amount of land,” says Jack, “but we’re not geared up for it yet and the amount of land doesn’t warrant the investment.”
However, as the business grows and they have more equipment the brothers hope they will be able to start to taking on these agreements.
A word from our sponsors
“This prestigious award showcases the dedication and professionalism of the finalists. Each has increased customer satisfaction while managing ever-increasing costs; they’ve invested in their business, and have purchased industry-leading technology to help them deliver.”
Steve Smith, JCB
Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details of how to book tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash.