It takes a while to realise that you are at the headquarters of one of the best-known meat companies in the UK, a multi-faceted firm involved in several areas of the meat business including wholesaling, lamb processing, and international trading. With a multi-million pound turnover, the Randall Parker Food Group is one of the big boys of the industry. Yet turn up at its HQ in the tiny village of Cold Higham in Northamptonshire and there is no sign of a factory, a fleet of lorries or any of the other usual signs of a big meat company.
A close look at the address reveals why. For the HQ is called The Old Rectory, an imposing Victorian stone mansion that overlooks acres of fields. Beautiful countryside and silence are everywhere. There is none of the noise or anonymity of the usual trading estate setting here.
Richard Field comes bounding down the great oak staircase from his first floor office to greet me. His crisp, business-like but genial manner and equally crisp white, short-sleeved shirt, open at the neck, quickly dismiss any image of him playing the country squire although, with a prominent beard, he could easily be mistaken for a Navy commander.
In fact he does command, as chief executive, a group that includes Weddel Swift depots, a sister international trading arm based in Liverpool and plants in Andover and Wales.
Field is third-generation meat trade. His grandfather, who lived to within a few months of being 100 years old – so much for meat not being healthy – was a trader with Birmingham wholesaler Swift and Armour, and his father, John Field, was with Baxters Butchers. Heritage, both family and meat trade, is obviously important to the Randall Parker chief executive; photographs of his forebears take pride of place in his otherwise plainly furnished office. Hanging alongside the photographs is a 1968 edition of Meat Trades Journal featuring him on the front cover as a member of the youngest team to swim the English Channel.
With a distinguished family background in the meat trade, it is perhaps surprising that a career in the industry did not automatically beckon. Field left school with eight O-Levels, knowing that university did not appeal, and unsure what to do with his life. His subsequent career and the fact that his brother is now a university professor indicates that, had he embarked on higher education, he would have coped well. In fact it was a careers advisor, rather than his father, who told him that there was actually a college that taught butchery. So he went to Smithfield College, where he emerged in 1975 as the top student.
So how does he feel about the government’s drive to send more youngsters to university and is it right for the meat trade? He cites his present company’s dilemma with the policy. “People with degrees can easily slot into Randall Parker Foods in areas like marketing or microbiology. The problem is finding potential managers for our Weddel Swift depots. There are no degrees that teach the skills for a role that requires a down-to-earth, practical, hands-on person, capable of being salesman one minute, personnel manager the next, and then perhaps health & safety officer. Where do we get those people? There needs to be more emphasis on vocational training.”
It is not as if Weddel Swift depot staff are at the tuppenny-ha’penny end of the group’s business; the distribution arm with its 15 depots scattered around the country accounts for nearly half of a £260m group turnover. “It’s been very difficult attracting young, talented people to work in small depots on trading estates,” he says. The strategy, followed for more reasons than simply to attract staff that want to stay, has been to move into bigger depots that are more pleasant places to work. A sparkling new Exeter depot opens in October, following on from the recently opened Bridgend depot in south Wales.
UPS AND DOWNS
Although Field has worked for just a handful of companies since leaving Smithfield College, his business life has had its ups and downs, and has turned full circle more than once. Increasing supermarket business with his present company and helping the 1980s foodservice firm Meadow Farm Produce after its initial flotation and its subsequent purchase for £62m by Hillsdown Holdings were just two of the many highs. Seeing three-quarters of Midland Meat Packers’ turnover virtually disappear overnight, with the onset of the BSE crisis in 1996, was one of the lows. But the lowest point was undoubtedly the sad ending to his first spell at Randall Parker, when he was managing director. He was one of the main players that helped to design a 150,000ft2 multi-species meat processing plant on a greenfield site in Buckinghamshire in 1991. He got it built and open by 1992 and trading profitably the second year, only to see it burn to the ground a few months later.
“I was distraught,” he says, with a certain amount of understatement. “In fact it made me ill. We decided not to rebuild the plant, because there was over-capacity in the sector and our business was quickly taken up elsewhere.” It took him six months to complete the insurance claim and then he moved on, as chief executive to Midland Meat Packers, part of the Baker Group – just in time for the BSE crisis to hit.
There was a sort of silver lining about the BSE incident, but only after Field must have thought for a few seconds that he was fated. “The good that came out of it was that it gave me the chance to get Midland Meat Packers far more focused on retail packing, at a time when the process was fast becoming key to doing business with supermarkets.”
He speaks highly of the Baker family, but after five years at the helm, he returned in 2000 to a Randall Parker that had risen from the ashes of the 1994 fire, albeit in a somewhat different business direction. “It was inevitable, really, that I’d come back to Ron,” he says. Ron, of course, is Ron Randall, widely credited as one of the most entrepreneurial men in the British meat industry. Their relationship evolved through Meadow Farm Produce where Field was general manager as the company grew organically and by acquisition to give it muscle prior to flotation and then as a main board director at the Sims Food Group, which hoovered up some 15 companies in the space of just four years, a period that saw its market capitalisation rocket.
In fact, apart from the five-year interregnum with the Bakers, Randall seems to have been an ever-present influence on Field, who freely admits that Randall has been the – usually - successful entrepreneurial force behind the companies he has worked for. He is happy managing companies, seeing his strengths as communication, marketing and organisation.
At 52, he has no thoughts of retirement but is looking forward to further developments at Randall Parker. The group has played its part in the dramatic increase in the multiples’ share of the market and the subsequent polarisation of the abattoir sector into fewer hands and bigger plants.
However, through Weddel Swift, it also has a foot in the independent butchers’ camp too. “The recent popularity of locally and regionally produced meat has allowed some butchers’ shops to grasp opportunities, as they are perfectly placed to market these products without the inflexibility and the extra expense of central distribution,” he says. “This is an area Weddel Swift is actively developing with its network of depots.”
As a former rugby player, he is a keen fan. He likes to spend time with his wife of 29 years, Joyce, and their two daughters. His passion for real ale has also opened up a burgeoning new business ‘hobby’ – one that he is keen to emphasise is just a sideline that will not take him away from the day job. He is in the throes of starting a microbrewery, called the Silverstone Brewing Company. The famous motor racing track is not far from where he lives. Ales called ‘Pit Stop’ and ‘Chequered Flag’ are literally in the pipeline. Microbreweries are booming, while their bigger, better-known cousins are struggling against the current economic climate and the pub smoking ban. Although just a sideline, it could have a bright, not to mention fast future. With the new brewery barely off the start line it has already signed up two Houses of Parliament bars.
It looks like Richard Field is about to become an even more popular bloke than he already seems.