Farm is Morvend we bargained for

Needham Market farmer Eric Morton had to think smart to keep the business afloat. He came up with a vending machine diversification, Morvend, which has gone on to become a highly successful enterprise in its own right

CHANGES of direction in life come about for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s a snap decision, a brainwave, circumstances conspiring, sometimes it’s the result of a long thought process or a dull realisation of what should or could be done. My own awareness of a need for change was thinking of a way to achieve a certain means to an end in which the result needed to be more income to support and dare I say enjoy a certain lifestyle for myself, my wife Sally and at the time two small daughters (now three young ladies). Let me explain, to put it bluntly, circumstances had changed the farming business and we needed to change with it to move forward. I had left school after ‘O’ levels, attended Otley College for two years on day release courses and then Writtle Agricultural College on a one year course and returned to the family farm to do what I always intended and farm. So I continued merrily along, fattening pigs, milking cows, growing crops and doing an amount of contracting work for several years but gradually with more income required against a backdrop of falling margins a minor light bulb moment occurred in October 1987.

On yet another wet autumn day that year I just looked around at possible extra income possibilities and two sprung to mind that were already present. One was a range of good buildings that we had mostly vacant after the dairy/ cattle enterprise had ceased and in an excellent location on a dual carriageway with access to the A14 one mile away. That presented an ideal opportunity to convert the buildings to commercial use, find tenants and rent them out. The second opportunity was an existing farming sideline, namely a fledgling vending business which my Father had acquired as part of the purchase of a neighbouring farm in 1968. We had christened it Morvend and was born out of packing milk, flavoured milk and orange squash into half pint wax cartons and selling them from a hand full of vending machines situated around Ipswich in factory, bus station and street locations. This had run alongside the farming business for 20 years employing one man and had gradually evolved into hot drinks and snack / confectionery vending losing the milk cartons through a combination of legislation prohibiting the sale of unpasteurised milk and coin changes due to decimalisation in 1971.

Here was the basis of a slightly unusual but interesting business, no doubt with some potential which quickly became apparent as we joined a national association of vending operators who had no representation in East Anglia. This was a body that purchased collectively, shared best practice ideas and exchanged business opportunities throughout the British Isles. I remember well my first meeting with my fellow members, a conference held near Manchester in the autumn of 1987 just after the October gale when I sat through a day and a half of meetings hardly saying a word (which those of you that know me will find hard to believe) but listening to the professionals and realising we had just been playing at vending and there really was much, much more to learn about the job. I think it’s fair to say that I left Manchester enthused about the prospects and encouraged that I could ring any of these members for advice and support.

Shortly afterwards plans to convert the farm buildings into commercial premises started to take shape, one of the first being our old grain store which we turned into a warehouse and offices for Morvend. When we moved into them from being in an office in the house and an ex airfield shed as a store they looked enormous and the few of us involved in the vending business were lost in the wide open spaces. Other buildings on the farm followed suit utilising farm expertise and labour during quieter periods and we now have about twenty five thousand square feet of commercial property being utilised in a variety of ways.

There is no doubt that instead of being on a trading estate our tenants enjoy this location with its character, road access and the added security of two homes close by on the farm. However as the vending business expanded I became aware that I was trying to be in two places at once dodging between the farm / building conversions and vending and probably for two years did not do either justice. With the building works slowing down and the vending speeding up the only conclusion was to put the farm out to contract and for me to concentrate in one area only on the vending business. As with all big decisions there is a lot of soul searching and the biggest negative was having to dispense with our two full time employees, excellent men who had been with the farm for years and one of the few times I have lost sleep at night. They took the decision well, understood the reasons and pleasingly one found new employment locally on another farm and the other is still with us part time on ground and building maintenance. The farm was contracted out and has been excellently farmed since 1995, for the last eight years by local farmer Jonny Ruffle, recently joined by his son Henry, who allow me to indulge my farming past occasionally by riding on the combine and drilling tractor and marvel at this new-fangled machinery with its satellite navigation and swap tales of open tractors and digging out blocked sugar beet harvesters!

The vending business continued to steadily grow, doubling in size in 2000 with the acquisition of a mirror image vending company to our own based in Buntingford, Hertfordshire. This increased our area of operations across East Anglia to the M1 corridor down into North London and the City from the two depots in Suffolk and Hertfordshire now employing 50 people, without doubt the backbone of the business, many of them local and loyal who have been with us for many years. These include our eldest daughter Fenella who is operations manager in the business continuing the family involvement and who knows, maybe our other daughters may follow one day. Just over a year ago we had thoughts about expanding and diversifying our business into the coffee shop, restaurant, hospitality and hotel market by supplying barista equipment and product combined with training and excellent after sales service. Thus MorBeans was born, a separate division under the umbrella of Morvend which has just been launched after we moved premises on the farm (once a tenant had moved out) into refurbished offices and a brand new showroom/ training room. The future looks exciting despite the economy and truly this is a vibrant, stimulating business which complements our existing set up.

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n Change for change sake, no thank you but change for the better? Yes please every time.