Interviews

Billericay Fertiliser Services sees its customers embrace creativity in light of Brexit

8 min read

04 October 2017

The recovering eurozone and rising optimism seem to be going hand-in-hand. But out of a sample of six countries, the UK is least confident. This is partly due to Brexit, an issue which hasn't actually spelled news for all, especially Billericay Fertiliser Services.

It was an observation made by insurance company Hiscox in its annual DNA of an Entrepreneur report, with Billericay Fertiliser Services being one of the companies taking part in its survey.

Having analysed the opinions of 4,000 owners and senior executives in SMEs across the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the US, Hiscox highlighted that the UK had grown more pessimistic. British leaders’ optimism dropped by five per cent. On the other hand, France faced an increase of 15 per cent.

It chalked the statistics down to worsening exchange rates and the fear of having to pass on cost increases – a subject of importance to head of Billericay Fertiliser Services, Rosalind Platt.

Initially, Billericay Fertiliser Services had been set up by her father, Anthony Cecil, in 1995. When he spotted that “gas liquor” – water that “washed” the gas produced from coal – contained nitrogen, he decided to sell it to farmers as a crop nutrient. By 1969, there was an additional agricultural contracting business and a fuel supply operation, the latter of which Platt is also in charge of. 

Declining optimism among farmers has changed things for the business. Liquid fertiliser is still an untried concept for many as they tend to rely on the traditional solid alternative, she explained. “But farmers are changing their practices and trying to be more creative, as their incomes come increasingly under threat. They are particularly nervous about the likely loss of subsidy after Brexit.”

Hoping to learn more about the subject, and to find out how she overcame initial challenges since taking over, we asked her a few questions. Here’s what said:

(1) What would you cite as BFS Fertiliser Services’ biggest challenge?

The fluctuations in the market make it very hard to predict where prices are going to be in a few months’ time. The markets have become more volatile and the fluctuations are greater. This makes it very difficult to forecast our raw material costs.

(2) How are you overcoming it?

Basically we try to hedge our bets and keep buying raw materials with the aim of ending up with an average which is acceptable.

(3) What have been your main methods of ensuring customers come your way instead of going to the sector’s more dominant forces?

Billericay Fertiliser Services offer customers a bespoke service. We are specialists in our market so, if something is possible, we have the flexibility to tailor what we do to meet individual customers’ requirements. Liquid fertiliser is actually a specialist product and we know both our market and our products.

One aspect of our service involves assisting farmers in choosing the most appropriate location for storage on farm, for example, for ease of access both for deliveries and for farmer. Application of liquid fertiliser is also a science in its own right. We have the knowledge to help in all these areas whereas the industry’s large players do not have the same level of expertise.

(4) Would you say confidence among your clients is on the rise?

The prospects for arable farmers are better now than they have been for a number of years. This has been helped by the collapse in sterling, helping them in their exporting endeavours. Providing they are not paying excessive rents on their land and have not taken on too much debt, there is an air of optimism.

Read on to see what impact Brexit has had on Billericay Fertiliser Services

(5) What has it been like juggling numerous companies?

We have nearly a 70-year track record so our people understand the markets. This really helps. We know what we have to do. Sometimes it can get a bit hectic because of the seasonal nature of our work but, in the main, the businesses are symbiotic so we help each other.

(6) How do you believe Brexit has impacted the overall business landscape?

At this stage, it seems there are two camps depending whether you are buying or selling. We are buying and our prices have gone up. However, farmers can sell their crops for more now. It is more significant that grain prices go up. In broad terms farmers would expect to harvest ten tonnes of wheat grain per hectare but they would expect to use less than a tonne of fertiliser to achieve that.

(7) Has it affected Billericay Fertiliser Services?

Initially, the dramatic change in sterling sent raw material prices shooting up, which was unexpected. Since then I would say he main effect is that farmers have seen their incomes increase which is encouraging. We tend to recruit locally although farmers do also rely on seasonal employees that are hired from overseas. It is too early to say what the effects will be until we know more about the plans for agriculture after Brexit.

(8) While citing increased deliveries, you’ve managed to reduce lead times. How have you accomplished this?

We have invested into our equipment, buying specialist tankers which are purpose-built. We have improved the loading systems so we can receive lorries and re-load them quickly. This increases the efficiency of our drivers: more time is spent driving and delivering. We have also made enormous improvements in our software which is written specially for us.

This means we can give drivers more accurate information about where their delivery points are and we are able to give customers more information at the same.

(9) With growth on the cards, what are your future ambitions for Billericay Fertiliser Services?

We are aiming to build on what we have achieved in the last ten years. We want to keep ahead of the curve with new products and to continue building our customer base.

(10) What new products do have in mind?

We are excited about two liquid nitrogen products we introduced this year, called BFS PolyN Plus and BFS PolyN Tonic – and we are already seeing results from this year’s harvest. We will be pushing these heavily in the next couple of years.

Farmers can apply them at the same time as other sprays. This has been completely unthinkable until now. They can use the PolyN products on the leaf or growing crop without harm and most importantly they can use significantly smaller quantities. This means huge savings for them.

Why is Billericay Fertiliser Services promoting using less? We believe that this is revolutionary as it will mean reducing the carbon footprint and will be more environmentally friendly so we anticipate more sales.