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East Anglia Future 50

Meet 'frustrated farmer' Jon Duffy, the boss of the AF Group

PUBLISHED: 07:39 22 April 2019 | UPDATED: 09:21 23 April 2019

Jon Duffy, CEO of the AF Group. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.

Jon Duffy, CEO of the AF Group. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.

He admits to being a "frustrated farmer" who dreams of living in the country but in fact he wears a suit to work and bosses a £270m business. CAROLINE CULOT spoke to Jon Duffy, CEO of The AF Group

Jon Duffy always wanted to be a farmer.

But although he climbed the corporate ladder instead, he's ended up at the very top of a business that looks after 3,500 shareholders who are indeed mostly farmers.

“I could have been a farmer,” he muses. “I chose the wrong parents so, I am a frustrated farmer. If you ask me what my perfect day would be in 10-15 years time, I can see myself in the country with some acres around me – not being a 'proper' farmer but a pottering farmer.”

It's hard to imagine Jon, 54, who's talking to me while gulping down coffee in his office at the AF Group headquarters in Honingham Thorpe, which overlooks fields of sheep, could ever 'potter'.

Jon Duffy, CEO of the AF Group with EDP business writer Caroline Culot. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.Jon Duffy, CEO of the AF Group with EDP business writer Caroline Culot. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.

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This is a man who's focused and driven. He's dressed smartly in a suit and tie with just a glimpse of his love of finer things in the form of an understated Tag watch.

He came from a hard-working family, went to a comprehensive school and is the fourth out of five children, all of whom have excelled in their careers. Two became headteachers, one is an executive chairman in advertising and another, a senior banker.

Ask Jon, who took over at AF from former CEO Clarke Willis who stood down after 15 years, his management style and he quips: “Empowering, engaging, driven ... but I let people get on and do their jobs. Does it work? I'm probably not the right person to ask. My job is to lead the business but to let other people get on and run the business.”

Jon Duffy, CEO of the AF Group. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.Jon Duffy, CEO of the AF Group. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.

Like all bosses who come in, Jon wanted to make changes and so drew up a five year strategy at AF, the UK's largest agricultural purchasing group.

Some of this involved redundancies and possibly the most contentious issue when he implemented the change in the business' name from Anglia Farmers to the AF Group.

But this is not a boss who sits in an ivory tower – another change he made was to put windows in his office, literally ensuring transparency.

He said: “Do I think it matters if I'm liked? We put a big notice on our doors saying we care deeply about people, it's a people-based business, so I think it's vitally important staff respect each other. Do they have to be mates? No, but life is a damn sight easier if you get on with the person you're working with.

Jon Duffy, CEO of the AF Group, gives business writer Caroline Culot a tour of the building. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.Jon Duffy, CEO of the AF Group, gives business writer Caroline Culot a tour of the building. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.

“I hope staff respect me, know I've got their backs, the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is seeing them develop. I don't spend too much time worrying whether I'm liked or not – I spend more time worrying that the staff here are happy and contented.”

With an accomplished career in managing director, trading director and business development director roles, Jon saw the potential in AF for more growth and it was that which enticed him to go for the job.

And now, 18 months into his five-year plan, the results are starting to show.

“You know, stuff happens and sometimes you're above the line, sometimes below, at the minute we're above the line, we're doing exceptionally well. Staff are the heartbeat of this business, there is a natural turnover of 10-15%, some people want to move on, but I have no plans for redundancies, we're in a growth phase and we need to be resourced correctly for growth.”

The AF headquarters at Honingham Thorpe. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.The AF headquarters at Honingham Thorpe. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.

Year-end figures will show AF with a healthy turnover of around £270m with this year's projections at more than £300m. But Jon refers to turnover as “vanity”.

“We don't target turnover,” he said. “It's the value given back to members, that's our target.”

Membership, currently at 3,500, is growing at the rate of 20 new members a month. Yet Jon makes no assurance he's in the business for as long as his predecessor.

“I generally don't know, I've written a five-year strategy, but do I see myself being here until I retire? Probably not, that's being open and honest. But I'm passionate about this business, passionate about making it a success, passionate about people in the business and I want to leave a legacy. At the minute I have no plans to move on.”

Inside the AF headquarters at Honingham Thorpe. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.Inside the AF headquarters at Honingham Thorpe. Pic: Victoria Pertusa, Archant.

He is enormously self critical but believes he has already created change. “There's a cultural change in the business, a feeling of 'can do', a willingness to be on the front foot. So many businesses are standing still or on the back foot so that willingness is just palpable and lovely. We have a 'no-blame' culture, people have the ability to make mistakes and know they are going to be supported.

“I want people to try new things, to look at things in a different way, want to improve what we do, if you allow people to make those mistakes, you know 95 times out of 100 they'll do something that's bloody good.”

Jon currently lives alone because he's divorced and his three children, aged 17, 15 and 13, live with their mum in Nottinghamshire. However, he sees them regularly and one of his biggest loves is coaching his son's rugby team.

In fact Jon tries to have a healthy work/life balance. He does not believe in working late. He gets in the office at 7am, sometimes going for a run near where he rents in Norwich and rarely stays later than 6pm. “Work is important but it is just work, what is far more important is people's home lives. The time they are at work, they should be successful and have as much responsibility as they can and flipping well enjoy it.”

Jon Duffy pictured when he took over as CEO of AF with chairman Nigel Savory in 2017Jon Duffy pictured when he took over as CEO of AF with chairman Nigel Savory in 2017

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