Farming feature: Pest controller and farmer Mark is in Command
- Credit: Archant
Farmer and pest control expert Mark Ward is the founder of Command Pest Control in Preston St Mary, near Lavenham. The business employs more than 60 staff across a large swathe of the UK and into Ireland. Around 65pc of its business is farm-based and it visits around 6,000 farms giving advice and support with rodent, insect and bird pests. Mark is also the proud owner of 350 acres of farmland, as SARAH CHAMBERS found out.
ENTREPRENEURIALISM is in Mark Ward’s blood.
The son of a farmworker, the pest control firm boss, who has been in the business for 30 years, was born on a farm at Hitcham, near Monks Eleigh, and can recall filling plastic yogurt cups with mud as a little boy and selling them for 10p. Amused visitors or passers-by would take pity and buy them from him, and so a passion for commerce was born.
Soon he was taking over dad Bert’s vegetable patch and growing sweetcorn which he would sell by the road.
At school – he attended Bildeston primary and Hadleigh High – he was more interested in the outdoors than the classroom, and would arrive off the school bus laden with pheasants which he would sell to the teachers.
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It’s hardly a surprise that after an apprenticeship of mixed entrepreneurial fortunes in his teens and early 20s, he eventually graduated to the big time, and now runs his own business, Command Pest Control at Preston St Mary, near Lavenham.
“I don’t know why but I have always been commercially minded,” he says. “It was just the fun, but it’s always stayed with me.”
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When he was about 15 or 16, he went to work on a pig farm, but quickly realised it wasn’t the life for him.
“That was a very hard job for a young bloke. It was the sort of job you could sit and cry really. It was relentless, you would be continually dirty, smelling of pigs and girls would say: ‘Where have you been today?’” he recalls.
By around the age of 16, he was making and selling boxes to put rat poison in. He knew he needed to understand accountancy if he was going to make it in business and went to night school for two years and studied farm office administration at Chadacre.
His first major setback occurred in his later teens when he was selling cut glass items at a stall.
“I suppose really when I was 16/17/18 I thought I could take on the world. I had a market stall and saw myself as a real entrepreneur. But I came crashing down at 18. I ran out of money and ran out of steam,” he recalls.
He secured a job with an orchid grower called David Randall, and stayed there for a year and a half while he ran the stall at weekends. In those days, orchids were worth a lot of money, and he would travel to Covent Garden to sell them. He left the job to seek his fortune, but before he went, David, an old Etonian, presented him with a gold pen to write his cheques with.
“At 18 things were not moving fast enough for me. I got bored in the greenhouse,” Mark says. “I wanted to get everywhere fast.”
He became a self-employed salesman, selling windows and fencing, but he found himself out of his depth.
“I was so young I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was doing more buying than selling. I basically got to a point where I couldn’t continue,” he recalls.
He was living at home with his parents, and his father spotted a job advertisement in the East Anglian Daily Times for a rat catcher with Mid Suffolk District Council.
“I went to an interview at Stowmarket with environmental health officers and sat in a waiting room with six other people I was a flash little git and I was wearing a pin striped suit and the chap opposite was wearing a string vest,” he says.
He wanted the post badly and that came across to the interview board of three. The job was a lifeline and allowed him to pay off his debts and get back on track. He would head out in his standard council issue green overalls, sorting out rat problems with his natural gusto.
“I loved it. I have always been a country boy and I was always hunting fishing shooting so it was second nature to me. I could do the job that was not a problem I had been rat catching since I was 10 years old. I was playing on the farm and it was what you did to amuse yourself in those days,” he says.
Then in 1986, he decided to branch out on his own and formed Command Pest Control. Today the £3million turnover business deals with everything from damp proofing and timber treatment to rodent control, but started as a much more humble affair.
“Effectively, the council job was sticking a tray of bait under the garden shed. I got very bored with that but I loved the job and took it very, very seriously. I was doing surveys and all sorts of things I knew it was the commercial thing I wanted. I wanted to be out there,” he explains.
“I think it’s the driving force and the excitement really. I actually used to be incredibly excited with the adrenaline of having no money at all and literally starting from base zero.”
His first employee was Colin Shingles, who started with him on the YTS (Youth Training Scheme), an on-the-job government training scheme for school-leavers. He is still with the company and is now its service manager.
“I paid him £17.50 per week that would have been in 1987. He was 16 when he started work for me and I said to Colin when he was old enough to drive I would buy him a van and we would have two vehicles on the road,” says Mark.
They were keen, but probably disorganised, he says, and would drive all the way to Leiston and Saxmundham to seek work in the shops and businesses. They started a fly killer servicing company. They would sell their servicing packages and spend the rest of the day cleaning the fly catcher units they had already installed.
They also caught rats, moles and mice. It was hard building up the business from scratch, but Mark was determined.
They spend a couple of years like that and started to work on one or two farms.
“I didn’t have any time off at all. It would be fair to say I probably worked seven days a week for years and years and years,” he says.
“Weekends I would probably be doing rodent control on the farm.”
The business grew. Mark had premises at the same former pig unit site his offices occupy today but they started off as a portable cabin with canvas over the roof to shield them from the rain and wind.
Today, Command Pest Control employs 60 staff, and has customers ranging from private householders to farmers. Farms are the main source of its business and his employees visit around 6,000 of them all over the country.
The company is expert in all types of rural pest control using a range of traditional and hi-tech methods against rabbits, rodents, pigeons and other pest animal species. The business also deals with flies, mites and other insects that affect poultry and other livestock.
Rabbits alone cost agriculture more than £100million annually, Mark points out, and controlling pests is vital to business success.
Mark lives down the road at Thorpe Morieux with his partner, Libbie, and their daughter, Eve.
He bought the site of his business in the 90s for £30,000 after securing a loan through his bank manager, paying back the debt in two years because of his desire not to carry debt.
“I had a house mortgaged up to the hilt so no assets to my name. I worked like hell. It was a good catalyst to spur somebody on to work. I paid up £500 and bank stumped up the rest,” he says.
“It was one of those moments where I wanted it badly. I could work lots of hours without having to travel. I didn’t want to give someone the rent money - I wanted to buy it myself.”
Today, Mark hates the idea of being in debt, and still recalls his struggle to lift himself out of it when he owed £150,000 to the bank to fund the firm’s expansion.
“I like things to be fair I didn’t like having debt and still don’t. We don’t have any debt and we don’t lease anything. Everything we have, we pay for. We pay for the photocopier. As we stand today, we have no debt at all,” he says.
At times, finances were tight, and he recalls asking one customer if he could pay for the services on the day. The man promptly paid up and remains a customer today.
Because of his own experiences, Mark is always keen to pay small tradesmen straight away.
“I do know what it feels like when you are desperate for money,” he says. “I remember that year when I owed £150,000 that year January, February, March I had £2,000 worth of bills and I honestly thought I was going bust. I missed my mortgage (payment) for three months.”
It was the late 1980s and mortgage interest rates had rocketed, but through it all the business continued to expand.
“We were taking people on at the time,” he says. “I just worked harder and harder and tried to do as much work as I could in order to bring in some money to start things moving the other way. It was slow and it was a slog. I still have the bank statements.”
Then, suddenly, things started to ease and light appeared at the end of the tunnel.
“All of a sudden it started to balance itself out,” he says.
Mark keeps a sharp eye on his finances and is not tempted by luxury items - although when he had the chance to buy parcels of farmland in the area, he grabbed them and is now the proud owner of 300 acres. He counts that as one of his few indulgences. While he doesn’t have the time to farm the land, or the extra 50 acres he rents, himself, he ensures the business washes its face.
“Every time I have ever bought anything I have walked away thinking: ‘I should not have bought that’,” he says.
“I would like to expand the farming business. I love the farming business and all that goes with it - the culture, the people the outdoors but I’m married to Command Pest Control, and this is a very hands on business. I would describe myself as a Sunday afternoon farmer. I can only get to do a little bit of farming when it suits me and not the weather.”
Land, though, has always been a pull, and despite initial misgivings when he bought his first parcel 10 years ago, he sees now that it was a sound investment. It’s a question of confidence, he believes. But food is a staple, and demand for it never goes away.
“Farming is steady and the thing is, yes, you get highs and lows but the need never goes away. I have always loved agriculture. You can’t get it out of your blood. My mother’s side of the family and my father’s side of the family all stem from agriculture,” he says.
“It was not a brilliant commercial decision at the time. It was just owning a bit of England, having some soil that belonged to me.”
One of his near ancestors once owned a mill in Suffolk, although Mark believes the family lost its land in the 1930s recession. It has made him conscious of where he has come from and keen to handle his finances with care.
“I’m a working class person at the end of the day,” he says.
“Literally I look at the figures every week. Our wage bill is tens of thousands a month and I never lose sight of the responsibility of financial control.”
The recession has hit everyone, says Mark, and his company, like any other, is exposed when other businesses go bust, owing money. Of the many pub businesses which Command Pest Control deals with, there have been those which have collapsed in recent times. Luckily, overall, the amount of bad debt hasn’t been significant. The company now has an internet presence and an internet shop selling chemical and cleaning products, which is working well.
“We just do what we do and we are quite conservative in the way we do it. We try and provide a high level of service. We just concentrate on that. We have no vision of anything else but that,” he says.