Guy Singh-Watson, Founder of Riverford Organic Farmers, grew his family farm into a household name, revolutionising a category and challenging assumptions about capitalism along the way.
Riverford began delivering vegetable boxes at a time when other delivery services, fish, for example, were becoming redundant in the UK. Consumers preferred the level of choice offered by modern supermarkets.
However, Guy’s initiative to differentiate his business from its competitors proved successful. He found a market for organic vegetable boxes among consumers who want more from their produce.
Now, the business utilises a cooperative of satellite organic vegetable farms to supply and deliver around 50,000 vegetable boxes every week to homes across the UK.
Despite his entrepreneurial success, Guy is a staunch opponent of unchecked capitalism and the attainment of unnecessary wealth. His recent decision to give equity to his employees aligns with these values.
As of June 2018, Riverford Organic Farmers officially became an employee-owned business. An employee trust now controls a 74 per cent ownership stake of Riverford. Guy believes that this is the best way to add value to his community and ensure a fair and merited succession plan.
He is hoping others will follow Riverford’s lead, establishing employee ownership programs across Great Britain and around the world. Recent statistics suggest his wish might come true: according to the Financial Times, employee ownership has been growing by approximately 10 per cent every year since 2011.
Recently, Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Guy Singh-Watson to discuss Riverford’s expansion, misconceptions about modern capitalism and the benefits of employee ownership.
How did your journey in organic farming begin?
I came to farming honestly; my parents were enthusiastic farmers. They were an inspiration to my siblings and I – all five of us continue to work on farms even now into our fifties and sixties.
Their passion for farming went well beyond the logistical practicalities of farming itself. They were concerned with the entirety of the food production process, from the field to the end consumer’s table. Their idealism continues to inform my worldview. I run my business the way I do today because of their influence.
How has farming changed since you started Riverford?
Scale and specialisation are the two most significant factors. We had chickens, sheep, pigs and dairy cows on the farm where I grew up.
However, with farms amalgamating and people retiring, this generalised approach is rarely the case now. There has been a constant trend toward commodity production and scale. Expansion is the predominant driver.
Currently, the dairy sector is feeling the impact of amalgamation most. The trend originated with chicken and pig farms – they became specialists early on. Now, every other sector is following their lead, which is untenable.
A farm that grows only one crop or a very narrow range of crops is, in my view, inherently less environmentally sustainable. This is a step in the wrong direction.
How did you grow the business?
The desire to prove myself as an entrepreneur drove me to reinvest everything I made. Riverford grew from three acres to 18 acres and then 30 acres very quickly.
Before Riverford, I spent two years as a management consultant in London and New York. This experience gave me perspective on what it means to be a commodity producer. As Riverford expanded, it became blatantly clear that, as a model, reliance on offering the lowest cost was unsustainable. So, I began looking for an alternative.
One day, a friend up the road started delivering vegetable boxes. He suggested that I try it myself. At that time, retail was headed in the opposite direction. Home delivery in milk, fish and bread was coming to an end. Personal choice was becoming increasingly important in the marketplace.
I wondered why anyone would want to buy a vegetable box that someone else chose for them. However, I was looking for a different direction, so I decided to give it a try. We were the third vegetable box operation in the country.
When did you realise you were on to something?
After the first ten deliveries, we knew consumers cared about how the vegetables were grown and what they tasted like; price and cosmetic appearance were only part of the equation.
In 2000, we had a falling out with Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s largest supermarkets and one of our main customers. Rather than continue supplying supermarkets, we decided to concentrate on the vegetable box business instead, which took off.
We grew to such an extent that I realised we needed help. This led me to found a cooperative with ten other growers. This cooperative is the main vegetable supply system for the business today.
Were there other factors that influenced your decision to start a cooperative?
The truth is I never wanted to run a big business. At that time, I was employing 200 people and simply did not want to grow anymore. Through a cooperative, I could encourage people to farm organically in other parts of the UK. My vision was to create an umbrella of regional organic vegetable box operations.
I had a difficult time identifying suitable partners. I was labouring under the premise that others saw the world as I did. To my surprise, I found very few people are genuinely entrepreneurial.
Eventually, we developed four businesses around the UK, which over time have become integral to our operation. I hired a professional managing director who centralised decision-making. Then, we established satellite packing stations to streamline our logistics.
How do modern consumers respond to organic food choices?
The UK, relative to our population, is one of Europe’s smallest markets for organic produce at about 5 per cent. Germany, Austria, Denmark and Holland lead the European market with around 10 per cent. Over the past decade, the UK market shrank slightly, which is perplexing.
“Honestly, I’m more passionate about disrupting assumptions around capitalism than I am about organic farming. The capitalist model is built on certain falsehoods which merit questioning.”
You’re both a proponent of organic farming and an outspoken critic of unchecked capitalism. Which is more immediately concerning?
Honestly, I’m more passionate about disrupting assumptions around capitalism than I am about organic farming. The capitalist model is built on certain falsehoods which merit questioning.
Without enacting fundamental change, we’re going to destroy the planet so a minuscule and exclusive group of people can accumulate a vast amount of wealth. I’m part of a movement that is challenging the status quo and offering an alternative.
“…Sometimes we pay too much attention to the small things that divide us.”
How were your unconventional choices received by your family?
There were times when the conversation was more emotional than rational. For a while, I couldn’t operate within the family partnership, which explains my brief career as a management consultant away from the farm.
When I came back, my father was very supportive, more than my siblings. In terms of worldview, we share many more similarities than we do differences. However, and this is true for many families, sometimes we pay too much attention to the small things that divide us.
That said, it’s not all bad. When it came to employee equity, one of my siblings was moderately supportive. The others were slightly bemused. The fact that I was giving the land I had acquired to my staff was difficult for them to comprehend.
I listened to their objections and absorbed what I could. Ultimately, however, I had to put my head down and get on with it by myself.
Why did you decide to implement an employee ownership program?
The idea initially came to me in 2005. In 2007, our main competitor, Abel and Cole, sold to some venture capitalists, which made an employee ownership program even more appealing.
Soon, there were investment bankers on the doorstep offering tens of millions of pounds to sell. They saw Riverford as a channel for exploitation – the thought of selling to them repulsed me.
Initially, I proposed a system where the money intended for paying the profit share would instead go towards growing the employee ownership stake. After two decades or so, Riverford’s employees would collectively own it. They initially rejected this proposal because of the economic crisis.
A few years later, however, we rehashed the idea and got it approved. It has worked out ever since.
Do you consider yourself more of an entrepreneur than a farmer?
The two go hand in hand; I have a hard time separating them in my mind. That said, being an effective entrepreneur in no way means I have to excel as a capitalist.
Most people do not believe me when I tell them I sold the business for a quarter of its market worth. It’s beyond their comprehension. They’re only thinking about the numbers, but to put it into perspective: is £25 million cause for greater happiness than £6 million?
Living outside of London and spending time in the fields has helped me keep a healthy perspective. Maintaining a balance between farming and entrepreneurship is incredibly important to me.
How does the next generation interact with the business? Will they take an active role in its future?
I have four children in their twenties and one who is nine. They are more interested in the business now than they ever have been. That said, they also have interests outside of the family business: they are in involved in the arts, they dance, they make music and cook.
At the moment, they want to make their own way. To be honest, though, I’ll be delighted if one day they express a desire to join the business. The decision, however, is theirs alone.