Strategic salad leaf success from horticultural venture

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In a world where market demands and consumer preferences are constantly changing, now more than ever businesses have to be willing to adapt and look to the future. Family owned WS Bentley, (Growers) Ltd, incorporating the brand B Sow Healthy, are producers of salad cress, pea shoots and micro greens, and are one such business that has done just this, with support from Virgin Money (the rebranded Yorkshire Bank).

To adapt and improve the infrastructure of this Yorkshire-based enterprise, Virgin Money has recently arranged a 5-year CIBL of £800k, to help finance the £1.85m capital expenditure costs of fitting out new glasshouses and expanding its packing capacity.

Having run the enterprise since 1996, Jan Bentley managing director has helped the business go from selling directly to one leading UK supermarket, to supplying seven of the country’s leading supermarkets. The company’s unique selling point, and guarantee to customers, is that all produce is grown soil free, hydroponically and responsibly, with no pesticides and herbicides used. Everything is grown year-round in Yorkshire and, employing 50 members of staff, Bentley’s only sell what they grow.

Giving background as to how this has been achieved, Mr Bentley says: “Continually assessing the market and its fluctuations has always been integral to our business. I was really keen to expand and diversify our product range, and most recently identified pea shoots and micro greens as real gaps in the market which we could capitalise on using our existing facilities and expertise.”

Through all of the recent improvements at WS Bentley (Growers) Ltd. and across their business journey, the Bank has played a key role in providing financial support to help enable progress. In 2020 it provided a £500k fully-amortising 5-year loan to cover costs of equipping the new glasshouse, the new annexe and the expansion of existing glass space. Effectively this was a re-cash of prior spending to allow the phase-in of the next stage of increasing the growing space.

Commenting, Darren Smith, the business’s relationship manager at Virgin Money, says: “Diets are becoming progressively more sophisticated and adventurous, and Bentley’s has worked really hard to grow their enterprise by responding to market trends and the associated demand for healthy food. We are no longer a ‘meat and two veg’ country, as their sales are showing, and it has been really exciting to help Jan strengthen and expand the business to meet the needs of today’s health-conscious consumers.”

Over the last year, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the business. Most of the catering market, which represented 20% of turnover, was lost. Demand for salad cress also went into steep decline as it is bought primarily by older consumers, many of whom were shielding. However, with an eye always on the future, the Bentley’s further developed their pea shoots and micro greens ranges to meet increased demands which were a result of them proving  exceptionally popular during lockdown.

Being a family-owned business, the Bentley’s can react very quickly to market demands and decisions on investment. Jan Bentley continues: “Customer relationships are key and we have looked after some of our supermarket customers for decades. We have learned to react and respond quickly to their needs, developing products in line with their own individual strategies. This is exactly what has happened recently, working closely with the supermarkets, listening to where the gaps are, and where our strengths can fit in. We engage in new product development to fulfil their needs.

“We are well supported by the Bank, and our relationship manager, Darren, is very knowledgeable.  When we meet face-to-face, he looks around the business and takes time to understand what our overall objectives are. This is a real strength of the Bank. To me it is about our relationship, and I know that Darren will do his best to be helpful and supportive as he wants us to succeed. Horticulture is very specialised, and investments are sizeable, so when looking for finance, it is about having an established history and successful track record.”

To protect the business for future generations, Jan and his team have learned to grasp new marketing tools and embrace new technologies to really elevate themselves and their products in a digital age.

Mr Bentley continues: “For example, a few years ago we launched our micro cress and pea shoot blends under a new ‘B Sow Healthy’ banner. This launch followed extensive market research and development of recipes, as well as a wide-ranging social media awareness campaign. This enabled us to communicate with customers directly and identify future trends.”

Looking to the future, Virgin Money are keen to help this innovative and progressive business further capitalise on renewable opportunities and to grasp other technologies. This is about future-proofing their enterprise for many years to come.

 

 

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About Author

Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is an avid follower of Stoke City.