Lead interview: Robert Rendall

Director, Boxford Group
Our lead interview in the LEGACY issue of Essex Director business magazine is Robert Rendall, MD of Boxford Farms and Peake Fruit

Published in Essex Director magazine Summer|Autumn 2022

Lasting, Enduring and Trusted

“Growing up my parents were very busy working, but they were always around, so I spent lots of time with them. This, and listening to the discussions going on around the kitchen table, meant that from around eight or nine years old, I began to form opinions on the family business and how it should be run.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page

Robert Rendall talks to Essex Director

Sitting on the cusp of north Essex and its border with Suffolk, Boxford Group is a 84 year old family business, known to most through its operating subsidiaries, Stoke by Nayland Resort, Boxford Farms and Peake Fruit. Established in 1938 by Devora Peake and her first husband, Bernard Loshak, the business is now in its third generation with Robert Rendall heading up Boxford Farms and Peake Fruit as Managing Director.

With all but one of the second generation siblings playing an active part in the company, Robert’s whole life has revolved around and been immersed in the business.

“I am the middle child and have two sisters, Natasha and Octavia. We all grew up on the farm and as Mum and Dad were working, we would spend a lot of time at my grandparents. We were a close family and as Grandma’s kitchen table was the Board Table, there were always meetings going on. Every room had a telephone and there was no clear distinction between work and home. We would be playing and doing our homework, within earshot of the conversations the adults were having around us about the business.”

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To understand the family dynamic, we need to understand the history behind the business. Robert was born in 1977 and his parents are Roger Rendall, and Susanna, the oldest Daughter of Devora and Bill Peake. Susanna and her sisters, Tamara and Carmella, were Devora’s second family, as she already had Jonathan and Myra from her first marriage to Bernard Loshak.

When Bernard and Devora got married in the late 1930s, his family gave them 70 acres of farmland south of Boxford as a wedding present. Then when they got divorced, and Devora married Bill Peake, they ran the farm as a three-way partnership.

Yet although Bernard was involved from the outset, Devora and Bill’s vision was to buy farmland, adding it to the existing acreage, and extending their reach further into the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley, producing fruit, predominantly apples on what at the time was a mixed farm.

“My grandparents were  innovative in their approach, bringing in new ideas,” Robert explains. “For instance, they were founder members of the Soil Association, and in the 1950’s, they installed a pioneering irrigation scheme which at that time was the largest private irrigation system in Europe.”

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In 1969, Bill and Devora innovated further when they diversified their farm in two quite different directions.

It was just after Britain had joined the European Common Market and it became impossible to sell Grade 3 apples. In the face of growing competition from abroad, they decided to buy a fruit press, and process these unsaleable apples into a top quality farm pressed juice. Named ‘Copella’, it soon became a brand leader for freshly pressed English apple juice.

The second diversification was the creation of The Stoke by Nayland Club, where they built two 18-hole golf courses on land that was unsuitable for growing crops.

When the second generation siblings, Jonathan, Susanna, Tamara and Carmella were old enough, they all joined the family business, and Roger, Robert’s father, also worked on the farm and was a director at Copella alongside Tamara’s husband Stephen. Collectively they ran the business after Bill’s death in 1979, when Robert was two years’ old.

The rise of the supermarket

In the late eighties and early nineties, the wholesale food market dipped, and large supermarket chains emerged. The family decided to buy an existing apple marketing and packing facility in Galleywood, relocating their packing operation there in 1990. Six years later, the family bought Plantsman in Ardleigh, which also sold and packed soft fruit. Having sold some of the land at Galleywood for residential development, they moved again and combined their operations in Ardleigh under the name Peake Fruit.

“Farming is a very marginal business, so there is always a need to diversify and maximise on the opportunities that present themselves. From the age of 11, I worked on the farm in the school holidays. It is a tough environment and there is always some sort of drama going on; weather, pest, legislation etc… Added to that, the pressures that come with running a business, and my parents working together all the time, me and my sisters were actually not so keen on joining the family firm full time.”

“Although from the outside it looked as though, as a family, we were successful,  cash was limited. My parents and grandparents believed that you invested your profit on infrastructure and building the business and not to save it for other less strategic things.”

“I’ve grown up understanding the value of money and one of the things I am always concerned about is the cashflow in the business.

“It clearly took a lot of hard work to build the business and the assets up, and to the outside it probably looked like we had a lot. I hate to say it, but when I was younger I was embarrassed, as negative comments were often made at school. It wasn’t until I went to university and a couple of my friends pointed out, that I should be proud of what my family had achieved. It made me step back and look at things differently.”

Robert went to school at Cornard Upper and at 14, he discovered perhaps the greatest love of his life, rugby union.

“My father and grandfather played rugby to a high level, and I had grown up watching them. I caught the bug and found it a great channel for my aggression. I was very tall back then and because of that, quite introverted and self-conscious. My size was an advantage when playing rugby, and I was able to play hard and enjoy the freedom to let everything go. I learnt about myself and felt stronger for it, and I was a good player. Rugby gave me a lot of self-worth; I made friends and found my confidence, realising that people enjoyed my company.

“I decided that when I went to work, I wanted to do something that would allow me to continue to play competitively. My intention after going to university was to work overseas in a job using what I had learned in my degree, but where I was close to the mountains so I could ski, and which gave me the free time I wanted to play rugby.

“I got a place at Cardiff University reading Environmental Engineering. Influenced by watching Blue Peter, somehow, I had developed a strong environmental ethic. The degree concentrated a lot on how to mitigate the effects of development, industry, and its pollution.

“However, before going to Cardiff, I took a year out and went to New Zealand to play rugby for a team in Napier on the North Island. It was a good team and I played second row and back row. I came back four stone heavier, ready to go off to start university. Then I went and played a friendly game of rugby in Hadleigh.

“Unfortunately I severed my Anterior Crucial Ligament. I was 19, and as fit as a fiddle, but this injury plagued me for several years. Due to my injury, I never played for a top team, but I played at a good level, retiring from playing at 28 having had five operations on my knee. Rugby was a passion for me, but it is very much a contact sport, and the long-lasting repercussions of playing are hard.”

Coming into the family business

“Having finished at university I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for a job. Although I still hoped I could play rugby professionally, I knew I wasn’t good enough to play at top level.  

“Grandma had died two years previously and by this time I had also met my first wife, Lindsey, whose family lived in Hadleigh, Suffolk. So I came home and got a place playing for Blackheath based in South East London while I worked out what I was going to do.

“It was early in 2001 and the farm and Peake Fruit had had a terrible year. The family had sold Copella in 1997 to Tropicana, with the proceeds being used mainly to invest into building the hotel and repay borrowings. There was a big family meeting involving both the second and third generation to decide what we should do. I said that over the years, there hadn’t been enough investment made in the farm, and that was why the financial results were poor. We all had a strong emotional attachment to this side of the business due to our family legacy, and I spoke up and said that I didn’t think we should sell it without trying to turn it around and run it properly.”

“Mum said if that was what I thought, to put my money where my mouth was, and join the farming business. And that is what I did.”

Robert hit the ground running, knowing he needed to turn the business around quickly. The farm had lost its farm manager the year before, and it was being run by its financial accountant. With no real leadership, a negative culture had developed within the workforce.

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“I started in the business on a £12k a year salary. I joined at the same time as we hired an experienced Farm Manager, Andrew Cranston, who had the growing and organizational skills. I brought the business and people skills to the table. Together, we worked on a five-year business strategy, and almost straightaway, there was a change in the team – it gave them the confidence to see investment and that a family member was involved in the farming side of the business.

“It was 100 percent obvious to me how we could run things properly, but physically it was hard to get things done in a timely fashion while looking after the cash. It wasn’t easy, as you don’t make your money until the fruit is grown, picked and sold.”

Within a couple of years, the farm had turned a corner, but things were still not going so well elsewhere in the business.

“Mum then asked me to go and do a study in the packhouse in Ardleigh, which was losing money. It was clear that despite large investments and good sales and support from our supermarket customers involving new packing options, we were seeing no return in profits.

“At this time, I was putting myself on as many training and business courses as I could find. One in particular was about ‘lean operations’ and how you could reduce waste and increase your productivity. I also spoke to all the staff and learnt from them what they thought was going wrong in the packhouse.

“The decision was taken to offload some of our customers, as we felt we were not getting the margins we needed. There were high costs in their packaging requirements and the short shelf life of fruit didn’t help matters. So, we passed them over to another company.

“At this time I had learned a lot from Andrew but was getting a little frustrated that I could do more. As the farm was in safe hands, with a great team in place, it was the right time for me to go and work at Peake Fruit as Production Manager.”

Working under the group FD, Robert very quickly moved on to become General Manager and then Managing Director.

“When I started at Peake Fruit, we had built up £1m of losses. We instantly cut out the unprofitable work and reduced a lot of the overheads. We changed the way we pack, and we made a profit of £1k in my first year. We haven’t made a loss since.”

Carrying on the legacy

In April 2021, Robert was appointed MD of Boxford Farms taking over from his mother, Susanna.

“Since joining the farming side of the family business, I, along with the farm’s director, Robert England, who joined in 2005, have always had a lot to say about its direction.

“Mum was MD of both the farm and the resort. She started on the farm and grew up with it. She is my role model, and she has a great work ethic and drive. A good person to the core, I look up to her and I try to hold on to her standards.

“She has always been part of the decision making process, but when I started, our annual turnover for the farming side of the group was £3.5 million, and now it is £15 million. We needed to restructure the business so it could continue to grow further and move on to its next phase. But it’s too much for one person to oversee it all, so Mum stepped back, and I took over as MD of Boxford Farms and its subsidiary Peake Fruit.

“Doing what we do, you are acutely aware that in a farming business, without the team around you doing what they’re doing to grow and harvest a crop, you have nothing.

“I’m proud of being disciplined in where we spend our cash and we have turned the business around to become profitable by living within our means and working hard with what we’ve got.”

“We haven’t been risk-averse, but as Andrew Cranston told me: ‘Don’t pimp your business, don’t be flash; be clever with your cash!’ We are a marginal business, and we want to make sure that we are reinvesting the profit back into the company to make it better.”

“However, I have learnt that you can be too modest, as if you don’t promote yourself and your business, you have to work a lot harder to find the right people to work for you. We now realise that we need to invest in building the family brand, so we can recruit and build our internal culture.

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“Above all else, there needs to be a succession plan for the business put in place while Mum and her siblings are in a position to do so. Mum isn’t retiring, she is still MD of The Boxford Group, but she now focuses on the finances and getting the investment we need, as well as looking at new ventures and projects.

“When I joined the business, the orchards were old and unloved, and the buildings were in need of restoration. Together as a team, we have worked hard to build it up, so it is stable, secure and can continue well into the future. Grandma’s family grew up in Palestine. Her parents were Jewish and were early settlers there, having left Russia when, like so many Jewish families, their neighbours turned against them. I think that her vision for the business was to provide a safe and secure base that no one can take from her family. Hopefully we are creating this.

“One thing I have learnt along the way is when to draw the line between your work and life balance. It’s very difficult when you’re living onsite, and previously I have spent too much time immersed in work at the expense of my marriage and my family life.

“However, the role I play now means that I can spend more time with my four sons. I have three from my previous marriage, who I share custody 50:50 with my ex-wife, and my two year old son with my partner Floor.

“Personally, I am happy that I do what I do and the impact I have in the family business. I wake up every morning and I am immensely proud of my sons, who are lovely and well-adjusted little people.  

“Why do I do what I do? There’s no exit plan – we are running the business for the future generations. All profits made have been reinvested in the company. I’m one of 12 grandchildren and the only one working day to day in the business. I’m in it for the love and to continue the legacy. I want to get everything in the best possible position for the fourth and fifth generations to come on-board and carry it on. I also want us to be seen more widely as a local business employing local people.

“I see my legacy as doubling the business in size, providing a young vibrant workplace that positively contributes to the local economy. I want us to be a source of pride for the companies we deal with and the people that work for us.”

Diversification and Innovation

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An important part of legacy is to look to the future. So, over the years Boxford Farms has diversified into growing other crops such as asparagus and blueberries, and it now has five hectares of glasshouses growing strawberries and raspberries. It has therefore spread the risk, moving to growing higher value crops with better timings on when they are harvested.

Innovation has been crucially important to becoming self-sufficient, and although the business was already self-sufficient in water with its reservoirs and irrigation systems, in 2013/14, the business started looking at its energy consumption.

Robert explains. “We are installing more PV panels at Ardleigh, and we also dry the woodchip that comes from our farm. This, together with other sustainable resources, we use as fuel to heat our glasshouses.

“At university I had studied anaerobic digestion and we decided to build an anaerobic digestion plant at Boxford, which would process the bi-product from the juice pressings. This, along with maize and the farm waste, produces green energy that supplies more than we need, to power all the farm operations, the resort, the Copella factory, the houses and workers’ accommodation.

“Nothing goes to waste as all of the digestate from the anaerobic digester is used as fertiliser for our crops and the golf course. We are now branching out to produce our own organic certified soil improver.

“Another innovation has been growing our own beneficial insects, which we then introduce to our crops as a natural pest control. As far as we are aware, this is unique for a farm business in the UK.

“Our big focus at the moment is what we can secure into the soil. Orchard crops are perennial and deep rooted. If you don’t plough the soil, it establishes an eco-system locking in the carbon. Our work is around carbon sequestration and stabilising the carbon in the soil, to prevent it from being released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

“However, an exciting opportunity on the horizon that we are very keen to develop, is to build and find new opportunities for accommodating the growth of our packing facilities. We are currently on the lookout to work collaboratively with other like-minded distributors in the area, to develop into sustainable chilled facilities.

“Our view is very much based around the question, ‘what if…?’ We have to focus on maximising what we have at our fingertips, to ensure we have futureproofed our energy systems, and can easily add in new bits of kit, that will allow us to be totally self-sufficient if needed.”

 

 

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