James Truscott: Feeding the nation

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Sun, sea and sand may have been an amazing lifestyle for James Truscott, 46, and his family when they lived in California, but since moving back to the UK two years ago he has put his heart and soul into Branston (Potatoes) Ltd.

After only five months of being Managing Director of a local company that turns over more than £100 million per year, he has already been awarded a long term strategic partnership status with Tesco and is fighting a declining market to help educate the nation.

Originally from Birmingham, James studied Economics at Bristol University. When he left he started out on a journey towards a career that he loved, being involved with people and really getting to the heart of what they want. “I feel quite fortunate that I have got into something that I really love doing,” said James.

“I guess I’ve always migrated towards stuff with a customer service element to it and businesses that I have enjoyed the most are the ones where that culture is quite extreme.” To some, this career path may not seem overly exciting but to James, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Focusing on the needs of customers and the service that they receive is a challenge that he lives for.

“Being in an industry where customer service is valued, for me, that’s great because I think about it as a way of working. I like to be able to get into the head of the customer, really understand what would delight them and find a way of us being able to deliver that quicker and better than the competition.

“You have to be quite close to the detail in order to get the detail right. But clearly you have to be able to operate at a strategic level to be able to make sure that things are going in the right direction. So it’s an interesting tension that exists in produce and some people love it and some people don’t – I love it. I think it’s an amazing industry. You know that you’ve done a good job if you have happy customers.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Leading to leadership

During his journey to the top, James was offered the chance to start a new business across the pond in California, Wild Rocket Foods, which supplied Fresh and Easy. But the business life out there is very different to the UK and it is an experience that taught him a lot.

“To be exposed to a different culture is brilliant on lots of levels. We have experienced different foods, and I hadn’t learned to surf before I went there. In terms of business, the west coast attitude of ‘failing is OK’ was very interesting to see.”

“Whilst Fresh and Easy was a small business, for a Tesco business, it was still a Tesco business. So lots of what you got exposed to were the big Tesco governance processes and training methods. It was actually an easier place, particularly maybe because it was over there and it was small but you could try stuff. It was the first time that I could be a bit braver about trying different ways of running a team and it didn’t feel like a problem to have a go at something else. It was clearly a different way of running a business.”

After seven years in the States, James and his wife Lucy decided that it was time to come back to the UK. He started at Branston Ltd as the Sales and Marketing Director in 2013 with the view to becoming Managing Director when the time was right.

He had never wanted to be the head of a big company and over his career he kept downsizing until he found a place that was just right size for him. “I deliberately moved into gradually smaller businesses to get something that felt like you could get your arms around it a bit more. Each time, it felt more like what I wanted to do. It felt more like a real business and less like a functional discipline role.”

In May 2015 he took the helm from Graeme Beattie, who had been the Managing Director since 1982. Graeme still remains on the board of the company and a valuable asset for James. “He has seen a lot. The potato market is very volatile in its pricing and very volatile then in how the market behaves.

“Having [Graeme’s] knowledge along with the rest of the shareholders to talk to and their wise council is really helpful.”

However when the reins changed hands, and he took charge, it gave him the opportunity to really shine. James has been working towards becoming a long term lead strategic partner of Tesco and this has now been awarded to him. It is one of his proudest achievements.

“I’m very proud of the enormous team effort that has been made by everyone at Branston. This followed an intensive 12 month review and negotiation period during which we completely redesigned the way in which we deal with Tesco.

“We’ve been supplying them since 1990, and we will now have a big increase in the volume we supply to them as well as increased responsibility to help them run and grow a successful category. This puts us in a strong financial position and means that we’ll be able to continue to grow and invest in providing a great service to all our customers.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Educating the nation

With a £100 million turnover, it is hard to believe that the potato supply industry is a declining market, and has been for 10 years or more. “I think the Atkins diet was a bit of a trigger point for the industry where suddenly a proportion of the country felt like carbs were a bad thing. The industry has been rather slow to respond to that.

“It was also slow to respond to the other powerful consumer trends like the desire for health and convenience and indulgence. So the steady decline has been fairly relentless,” James said.

As Branston works on behalf of other companies such as Tesco and Waitrose, it doesn’t have a specific brand that it is able to go out and shout about. But James wasn’t ready to lose the battle and so started a counter assault on the market. “We thought we can’t complain about this if we’re not prepared to do something about it!”

That is when the Branston Potato Bus came into existence. Working with Tesco’s ‘Eat Happy’ campaign, the initiative helps children to understand more about the food chain, where the food comes from and how it gets onto their plates. It was the perfect opportunity.

The bus was designed and created by local companies such as Optima, Allen Signs and Broughton Powell and works perfectly with the national curriculum for all primary aged children. It has been a huge success and it is already fully booked until Christmas 2016.

Educating the nation is not his only focus, quality and consistency is something that James is always striving to perfect. Technology is now playing a big part in every aspect of the process from field to fork.

“All of our growers now have tablets that record all of the information from the point of which the seed goes into the ground to the point that it comes out. It gives them reports that they might have had to wait days and weeks for. Now they get that instantly. That gives us information that we can use much more quickly to help agronomic strategy in the future and how we get better at growing a crop of potatoes that’s closer to what we want every year.

“There has been a lot of investment in data and giving people the information to make good decisions. We have done the same thing in the factories, we have live data capture now.”

In the last two years, James has already started the fight against a declining market and invested in new machinery as well as people. The company has grown from 80 staff in 1987 to over 640 workers across its three sites in Branston, Taunton and Perth.

“We are very passionate about what we do. We take pride in what we do and we are restless in finding ways to do better everyday. We have done some brilliant stuff here that I’m really proud of.”

Now that he is back in the UK and settled in, he takes his family to explore the Lincolnshire countryside, whether that’s cycling with his 13-year-old daughter Olivia, or just spending time in the outdoors. “If you have never been to Lincolnshire you don’t really know what’s there,” said James. “You might think that it’s broadly flat. I can tell you from my bike ride last weekend that there are some really hilly bits as well. There’s surprises around every corner I think and we’ve loved it.”