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Thursday, 30 October 2014

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New marts chief promises to get back in the black

A marts company chief has vowed to get the firm back in the black despite being forced to write off millions of pounds of bad debt.

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Trevor Hebdon

Cumberland and Dumfriesshire Farmers’ Mart, whose main centre is at Longtown, fell casualty to a small number of buyers who failed to pay up.

Those unsettled bills, accrued over the last four years, pushed the company into the red to the tune of £3.25m.

But a recovery plan has been launched with an experienced businessman drafted in as managing director to troubleshoot.

Trevor Hebdon has pledged to turn the business’s fortunes around within 12 months – predicting Longtown will return to its former status as Europe’s largest sheep market.

He stressed the blame for the bad debt did not lie at the feet of farmers who use the mart, but with some meat buyers.

Mr Hebdon, the former chief executive of Carlisle-based auctioneering to property firm H&H Group, said: “These buyers are no longer using the mart to conduct their business.”

Changes are being introduced to the credit system.

“When animals are sold through the ring we pay the vendor before we get the money from the purchaser,” he said.

“We take our commission and then collect the money from the buyer, but that is where the original model fell down.”

Mr Hebdon of Rosley, near Wigton, is a widely-known figure in the Cumbrian and agricultural commercial communities.

During his time at H&H he presided over a remarkable turnaround in the company’s profitability, while also overseeing ambitious expansion.

His business background is in corporate banking – he was an area director for Barclays Bank – and he currently holds non-executive directorships on the boards of the Cumberland Building Society and Longtown haulage firm William Armstrong.

Before the 2001 foot and mouth crisis more than 20,000 sheep a day could be sold through the rings at Longtown. Last autumn, the mart broke its record for the year with just short of 17,000 animals sold in one day.

Mr Hebdon is confident that can be built upon.

“This mart is here for the long term. I am here to ensure that the business returns to profitability.

“It has a fairly straightforward business model – it will be competitive and will have the strapline ‘putting farmers first’.”

In just two months great strides have already been made in a bid to change the auction company’s fortunes.

One is to widen the reach of Longtown’s sister mart at Dumfries.

“Dumfries was the jewel in the tarnished crown. I told the staff there this when I first visited the mart. It has huge potential as a great catchment area for beef, sheep and dairy,” said Mr Hebdon.

“We have a very clear plan in terms of growing the Dumfries business. Our new staff will be charged with developing customer relations and sourcing livestock.”

“We also expect to repeat the same ambitious growth at Longtown,” said Mr Hebdon.

Plans are also in the pipeline to build on the existing property services, and to restore cattle numbers at Longtown.

“This will be a challenge. About 80 per cent of beef is sold direct, instead of through the rings,” said Mr Hebdon. “For the foreseeable future I do not see us changing the business model, but I see us delivering it much more profitably.”

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