The Carlisle-based agricultural supplier Carr’s Billington is embarking on a fresh chapter in its history after Billington Group bought out Carr’s last year in a £44.5m deal. Billington lost no time in appointing a new managing director, Richard Quinn, to take the business forward.
Richard Quinn has a track record for improving businesses in a range of agri-food environments.
His last job, prior to joining Carr’s Billington, was as interim commercial transformation director at Kelda Group, the parent company of Yorkshire Water, a company with well documented performance issues.
He said: “I look at it as helping businesses when they have lost their way. I approach it from the standpoint, how does a business navigate to a better place and what does it need to carry on for the future?”
Not that Carr’s Billington needs fixing.
It’s a successful venture with more than 700 employees, an annual turnover of £400m and a brand reputation to die for.
Farmers and rural communities across the north of England, much of Scotland and as far south as Staffordshire and Brecon in Wales turn to Carr’s Billington as a supplier of animal feed, farm machinery, animal health products, seeds, chemicals, fuel and tools.
It operates 32 retail outlets known as Country Stores – some also selling and servicing farm machinery – plus compound feed mills at Carlisle, Lancaster and Stone in Staffordshire, and blending plants at Kirkbride in Cumbria, Lancaster and in Wales.
Richard, 44, has no plans to reinvent the wheel. Any change will be incremental, evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
He said: “It’s a diverse business with lots of different operating activities and it has huge opportunity for our colleagues and customers.
“We’ve only gone into e-commerce in the last 12 months, launching our online business in January.
“There’s a huge amount of expertise within Carr’s Billington that we can utilise to help and support our customers to run their businesses better.
“We are really focused on our customers to make sure we have the right products when they need them, at the right price and of the right quality.”
He grew up in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, displaying an aptitude for languages at school. Indeed, he studied in Paris for a language degree with a view to becoming a translator, then had a complete change of heart and went into retail instead.
He said: “My father died when I was still at school so I spent a lot of time with an uncle who owned a couple of shops. I’d grown up in and around shops and behind a till, so maybe I was always going to end up in retail.”
After stints with Morrisons and Safeway he joined the Co-op where he was encouraged to study for an MBA from Leeds University and later a master’s diploma at the University of Leicester.
Eventually, he was put in charge of the Co-op’s farms business, Farmcare, continuing at the helm after Farmcare was acquired by the Wellcome Trust.
He said: “I’d known the team at Billington Group for a while. Carr’s wanted to focus on their other businesses and Billington wanted to acquire Carr’s stake so the deal made sense for both parties.”
Carr’s Billington had been run as a joint venture since 1998. There are no plans to drop the Carr’s name following the sale.
“It has been known as Carr’s Billington for a long time,” Richard said. “I’ve worked in businesses that have rebranded and people still call you by your old name. Rebranding can be good when you’re doing something different but there’s no need for it in our case.”
He has a hands-on managerial style with a clear ethos of how the business should function.
He said: “My philosophy in life is that you create your own opportunities. It’s about being adaptable and willing to learn. I’m always learning and I usually have a book or three by the bed.
“I spend a lot of time out on the road. We have a big geography and I’m a believer in visiting teams on the front line. If you stay in the office too long, you can lose touch with what’s going on across the business.
“One thing that is really important to us is that our teams are clear about their responsibilities and what they are accountable for.
“Having clear, strong values that we actively live and breathe, is fundamental. It’s about putting people first, making sure people are accountable, open and honest and making sure we foster that right across the business. That starts with me and my team.”
Richard is under no illusions that the fortunes of Carr’s Billington are dependent on the success and wellbeing of British agriculture.
And it has been a tough few years for farmers.
He said: “The sector faces lots of challenges. It has come out of Covid facing high commodity prices and inflation – not just raw materials but input costs, fertiliser is more expensive. There has been some upside in processor prices, but this has significantly reduced in recent months.
“Some of these things have affected our margins because we’ve absorbed some of those rising costs and not just passed them on to our customers. We try to be competitive and make sure our prices are appropriate. It’s walking a tightrope.”
Looking ahead, he sees that Carr’s Billington will have a pivotal role in helping farmers adapt to new subsidy arrangements post Brexit, with the Government phasing in the Environmental Land Management (ELM) regime to replace the subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy.
Richard said: “Subsidy change is having a significant impact. British farming has been subsidised for a long time but the behaviours that farmers need to demonstrate to access subsidies are changing.
“Clearly there is a focus on the environment and environmental stewardship, that’s the direction from government.
“We can help them by, for example, having environmentally-sustainable feed produced from sustainable sources.
“The net-zero agenda has changed the way we think about animal diets and it has posed the question, ‘what do we need to do differently?’ in terms of products and advice to help our customers to run their businesses better.
“Farmers will adapt though, they always have done, and that’s why I’m optimistic about the future.”
Richard Quinn will be in the hot seat for a ‘Meet the MD’ session when the networking group LA23NET meets on Thursday October 12 at Carr’s Billington’s HQ in Montgomery Way, Carlisle, from 5.30pm-8.30pm. More information and tickets at https://bit.ly/LA23_MeetTheMD