East Anglia: Needham Chalks is quarrying on after tragic loss

NEEDHAM Chalks Ltd was established in 1947 from its base at Needham Market Chalk Quarry and now includes five quarries across East Anglia. The Needham site also includes a diverse set of businesses which were fostered by the late David Smither, an entrepreneur who died in a tragic accident last year. SARAH CHAMBERS was given a tour by Brian Annis, a former head of production, now retired, and Richard Blew, who manages the chalks business.

IF you were to compile a list of natural (or man-made) Suffolk wonders, Needham Market Chalk Quarry should be placed close to the top of the list.

On a dry day in summer, the quarry takes on a powdery quality and resembles a swirling dustbowl of icing sugar.

Today, after an incessant period of rain, the quarry floor is like unkilned potter’s clay, a creamy, malleable confection that sucks in wellies and cakes them in off-white mud.

It’s a surreal environment – a lunar landscape on the move which is populated by heavy machinery and workers in hard hats.

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The raw chalk undergoes a series of processes through which it is collected, dried, crushed, screened and prepared for transportation.

Most is quarried by hydraulic digger or a wheeled loading shovel and taken by a feed conveyor to a 25 tonne feed hopper before reaching a giant, 68ft long reclaimed oil-fired rotary dryer. It is ground and screened ready to be shipped out for farming and industrial purposes.

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A secondary plant takes the chalk through a series of purifying processes, from a feed hopper to a Bradley pulveriser, and an ‘air classifier’ to be separated into coarse and fine chalk ready for use in paint, rubber, plastics, adhesives, horticulture and water treatment.

When Maurice Smither left the army in 1946 he saw an opportunity to use his demob money for a useful purpose and set up a business selling chalk. Initially, he rented Needham Market quarry, but later bought the farm it sat on, Watering Farm. The business grew. Maurice died in the late 1980s, but under the next generation it continued to thrive and expand. Other businesses grew up around it, including a laboratories business.

The company, now on the market, is still largely owned by Smither family descendants, who are now mainly based in Guernsey. Sadly, Maurice’s son David, who took over the business from him, died in an accident while gardening at his home in Thrandeston, near Eye, in April last year. He had been with the business for 32 years, and was a clever and adventurous entrepreneur in his own right. His sister, Lady Jane Blom-Cooper, also a director of the company, died several years ago.

Following David’s untimely death, Kesgrave-based Paul McCartney, a former financial director who was a financial adviser to the company, took over the role of managing director.

Richard Blew manages the chalks side of the business, while the testing laboratories side, Alliance Technical Laboratories, is headed by Michael Girling. The laboratory business includes separate sections used by the food industry and other sectors, as well as soil testing. Michael also runs Peelaway Paint Strippers, another business which was fostered by David.

Needham Chalks enjoys a turnover of around �5million, while the laboratory makes around �1m. The other, smaller, businesses make around �0.5m combined. Overall, the businesses employ about 40 staff.

Needham Chalks owns five quarries – Needham being the first – and together they produce 100,000 tonnes of chalk for farming and industry.

They are at Newport, near Stansted Airport, Barton Mills, near Mildenhall, Castle Acre at Swaffham and Caistor St Edmund near Norwich.

Agricultural lime, brick chalk, industrial chalk, line marking and heritage mortars are just some of the uses the lime is put to.

There are also some very successful sidelines to the business, including as one of the largest producers of knapped and whole flint for the decorative building market.

Separate to this, the group offers, through a highly successful laboratory service based at the Needham site, soil sampling services to local farmers for pH and nutrient analysis.

The company is the primary supplier of Fibrophos, PGrow and upKeep Fertiliser in East Anglia, making it an important part of the region’s farming tapestry.

The chalk at Needham Market quarry – which is nearing the end of its useful quarrying days – is something special, as Brian Annis OBE, who joined the company in 1960, can testify.

Brian, a former chairman of the Agricultural Lime Producers Council, worked his way up the career ladder at Needham Chalks to head up production up until his retirement in 2000.

The Needham site contains some of the youngest chalk in Europe, which gives it certain qualities much sought-after by builders, for example. Because, by chalk standards, it’s young, it’s still soft, because it hasn’t been subjected to the same extremities of pressure that other chalks have. It’s also very absorbent – about 25% moisture – and quite pure (about 97.5% calcium carbonate, the rest being substances like aluminium and iron silicates).

“We started loading just chalk on to lorries, then the job became more scientific,” Brian explains. “In those days, in 1947, there was a Government subsidy for spreading lime (onto fields). You’ve got to realize in the 1930s agriculture was really, really depressed and because of the effect of the war, we needed as much food as we possibly get. The fertility of the soil had to be improved really quickly.”

One way of achieving this, where soil was acidic, was through mixing in lime.

“This is obviously where we get the name from and as it’s expanded, we have added quarries as they have come up,” explains Brian.

Each quarry has its own specialty – such as flints at Caistor. Within Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, there are only two other chalk quarries which the company doesn’t own.

The business is also involved in the waste management industry and has a joint venture agreement with another company in Hertfordshire, Resource Services Contracts Ltd,

The laboratories side started out as an independent business which was renting a small amount of room on site. The chalks business found it was using the services of this small firm, Gooch Garforth, a great deal for its soils analysis, and decided to buy into it in the late 1990s. About six years ago, a new two-storey laboratory was built on site, and, having bought another laboratory business, the group joined them together on the one site. Since then the labs side has enjoyed organic growth.

“It’s one of those businesses which thrives on red tape and regulations,” explains Brian. “It’s growing so fast, they are actually running out of space.”

The chalk side is also doing “exceptionally well”, explains Richard. Since the 1990s, the business has been involved in a product called Fibrofoss. Ash from Eye power station, which burns poultry manure, and from other EPR plants, is mixed to create a high value full spectrum ash fertilizer.

“The majority of our customers, if they don’t have one product, they’ll have the other. It uses the same infrastructure as we use for the chalk,” he says.

The company now runs 41 spreaders across East Anglia which it contracts in. Products like Fibrofoss require specialist application, so the army of contract spreaders is an important part of the structure, which comes under the umbrella of Needham Agriculture.

“What I will say is that the business has been very well run from the bottom up,” says Richard.

When David died it was a “massive shock”, he says, and picking up from there was hard.

As with many businesses, a lot of very useful information was stored in David’s head, but fortunately, he kept very good records, and Paul was able to keep the business on an even keel. Last year, it enjoyed an exceptionally good year, in spite of the downturn.

“I think that’s because all of a sudden your mind is concentrated in so many ways,” says Richard.

“David was really passionate about the business and had lots of things on the go.”

He adds: “I think one of the primary reasons we had such a successful year was everyone took the view this is not going to break us and we are going to do our damnedest to pull through, and we did.”

Luckily their business has often been at odds with the economy as a whole, perhaps as a result of farming being a ‘counter-cyclical’ industry. However, in the past when farmers were finding it tough, lime-spreading was one of the first things they neglected but is now routine through thick and thin, says Richard.

“We are all aware of food security and we are an important part of that chain,” he says.

“Liming is about creating the maximum environment for plants to maximize their yield potential.”

It’s not all plain sailing. The price of oil is high, which has an impact on the costs of inputs. Six years ago, they were paying 7p a litre, compared to around seven times that today.

The future of the Needham quarry is relatively short-term, but other quarries in the group have permissions to 2042 and there is a lot of material in them still to be quarried.

The laboratories side, under the aegis of Michael, an analytical chemist, who joined the company in 2005, has really begun to take off.

When he joined, the company had just taken over a small microbiology company based in Manningtree, and already had Gooch Garforth, which was set up by Don Wright. In the first year, they made a slight loss, says Michael, but by 2007, it was becoming profitable and since then it has gone from strength to strength.

“The industry is not known to make huge sums of money but we have definitely pushed the boat out,” he says.

In 2008, Richard Page was brought in as director of microbiology, and in 2011, the business enjoyed a “fantastic” year. The business now employs 20 staff and tests a range of products from food to water for over 200 customers. Anaerobic digestion tests are a growth area.

“You spend a few nights lying awake sleepless because you have got to up your game. Our business is really about service and really being absolutely rigorous about that,” says Michael.

The tests are wide-ranging – from food for human consumption and pet food to compost.

The microbiology side deals with analysis of bugs – salmonella, e-coli, pollutants and biological contaminants etc.

“Our range of activities is growing all the time,” says Michael. “That’s why it has been successful.”

David was an inspiration within the company, he explains, often collaborating with others and building on ideas.

One of these was Peelaway, a paint-stripping business. A man called Michael Brailsford was developing a material, which was relatively benign, that could be applied to paint in a kind of poultice. David was impressed, and that was how he became involved in that business, explains Michael. Sadly Michael Brailsford died about three years ago, but the business carried on and while it’s still small, it’s now beginning to take off, particularly in Germany.

“David really was one of those blue sky kind of guys who would be thinking of what else can I do with chalk. Obviously, they are not always successful,” he says.

“We are looking at expanding (the Peelaway business). It’s a testament to David really which is really what we would like to see because without him I don’t think it would have happened in quite the same way.”

Following the tragic and untimely death of David Smither, there are now no family members involved in the day to day management of the business. The family have therefore decided to seek new owners to take the businesses forward as a going concern.

The businesses were marketed through Robert Fiske at Prism Corporate Broking, and are now under offer from a leading player in the agricultural supply sector.

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