Management buyout sealed at Suttons

Commercial director David Robinson and operations director Rufus Roberts take ownership of Devon-based seed firm.

Suttons Seeds: investment plan
Suttons Seeds: investment plan

Suttons Seeds has undergone a management buyout from Limagrain, which had owned the company since the mid 1980s. The new owners are commercial director David Robinson and operations director Rufus Roberts.

Limagrain first put Devon-based Suttons up for sale in 2007. The French company specialises in agricultural seed and did not see Suttons as part of its core business. Negotiations for the buyout have been ongoing all year.

New managing director Robinson said: "We're still optimistic about the retail seed sector going forwards, although the market, it's fair to say, is not growing at the moment. We see ourselves maintaining and growing our share in the future.

"On the direct side, we're growing again after four years of decline and we've seen a small increase last year and further growth this year, and we have new campaigns for 2015, so we're bullish."

Robinson said the new management is looking to invest in the business and to bring in new directors. Limagrain has been "incredibly supportive in a way I suspect UK owners might not have been, in fairness, over a number of years", he added. "They've been supportive, helping us stay in this building and leaving money within the business."

Suttons has renegotiated rent for its headquarters and has been left a "significant sum" of money in the business. Robinson added: "They're keen to see the business succeed - that's why they're doing it. It's perhaps a bit alien to some British businesses but they have a strong corporate social responsibility ethic. It plans to invest in IT and warehousing, after little money was available in recent years.

"Our business is not core to Limagrain's. Our ambition is to grow the business focusing on gardening. That's what Suttons and Dobies are known for. We're looking at bringing more people into gardening and growing our name in the sector. We see ourselves as a multichannel business. We've been siloed as retail and direct, and that's becoming more blurred.

"It is a crowded market, which means you need to do what you're doing really well, so we've gone back to basics, having a clean-looking product. You have to give good support to your retailer and our service proposition has improved already this year."

Robinson said he is proud of Suttons' 8.6/10 Trustpilot rating. Further James Wong ranges are launching in 2015, including a plants line. Robinson said there has been evolution over the past 12 months but it will not be until spring 2015 that the public sees the changes.

Financial backing Loan and grant secured

Torbay Council is supporting the buyout with a £1.5m loan, while its Torbay Growth Fund, part of the Torbay Development Agency, is granting £150,000.

Turnover at Suttons is now £15m, with full-time equivalent staff numbers at 107. Turnover was £19m in 2009 and staff numbers were 140 a year ago, with staff lost through natural wastage and 12 being made redundant this summer.

Robinson said part of the problem was that as turnover declined fixed costs were not rebased. But Suttons is on a "solid footing now", he added.

Competitor view

John Fothergill, joint managing director, Mr Fothergill's

"It's good for the employees and the customer base that there is greater certainty now around the future of Suttons. We want to have genuine competition. It can only be good for the industry and encourage us to do more and work harder. I have an inclination, given David Robinson's background, mail order and e-commerce might be the thrust of Suttons' future activities."

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