In this special series, Produce Business UK takes a look at how some of the food industry’s most high-profile figures have come to be in their current positions and their highlights along the way. Our third career spotlight brings us to businessman and entrepreneur George Beach, who heads up Mudwalls Farm and supports the annual London Produce Show and Conference as its sales and customer liaison manager
Name: George Beach
Position: Managing Director, Mudwalls Farm
Role: Transforming his multi-generational family business into a modern, branded retail and catering supplier of local fruit and vegetables
Time in post: Six years
Career length to date: 30 years
How did you first get into the industry and what qualifications did you study for?
George Beach (GB): My father was a market gardener so I grew up on a fruit farm. I always knew I would end up in the industry, but it was the business and marketing that interested me more than the production side. I left school in my late teens with an enthusiasm to find out more about it and instead of going to university, I went to the university of Tesco, who introduced me to the wider industry as a quality inspector.
Tell us about your career path to date:
GB: I was at Tesco for two years and learnt a huge amount about a much wider range of product – salads, veg and imported fruit on top of the apples and plums we grew on the farm. I also learnt what a supermarket supplier looked like and what they were expected to do for the supermarket very early in my career, which was very valuable.
When Tesco decided to open the first of its regional distribution centres and asked me to get involved in cheese, bacon and dairy, which didn’t really interest me, I went back to the family business – AH Hillers near Evesham – in a junior sales role. I was thrown in at the deep-end in a commercial sense and learnt how to supply supermarkets from the other side. Through my contacts, I was able to open up a Tesco account and I was responsible for developing that. We were a small grower, packer and distributor, as was very typical at that time.
We started to feel the rumbles of category management and were soon approached by our biggest customer, Asda, who told us that they wanted to deal with larger suppliers, as opposed to suppliers of our size. So we took the big decision to join marketing desk AMS and went to Asda with a category management solution for berries and cherries, which was a big departure for Hillers.
As the procurement and sales director at AMS, rather than working directly with supermarkets, I worked with AMS as the interface between the customer and the supplier. We merged the sales functions of Hillers and AMS and Hillers became mostly focused on growing.
With the market changing it was an opportunity for me to develop new skills and progress my career. AMS was very focused on Asda, but also supplied other retailers, so I got some excellent insight. It got to the point where I was assistant to the managing director at AMS and as supermarket buyers changed and got younger, I took more of a back-seat and concentrated on steering the business in the right direction.
The opportunity then arose to set up a retail business of our own and with some ex-Marks and Spencer people, we established Farmers City Market, which was a high-end, provenance- and quality-focused farmers market-style retail business for London. It was an ambitious project and eventually proved, I think, a little ahead of its time. I spent two years working on it and it gave me experience of sourcing, technical requirements, property and marketing from a retail perspective, which again has proved invaluable to me over the years. It was a costly time for me personally but it taught me such a lot.
My next move was to set up a restaurant supply business from the family farm. I bought a van, sourced and sold all the product, drove the van and delivered the product to more than 30 restaurants in London. By this point I’d left AMS and this took me back to ground level, but the plan was to see whether the business could be built on that. I saw an opportunity to rebrand and develop our farming business and that gave me the confidence to do what I’m doing now.
What does your job involve today?
GB: I’m run Mudwalls Farm, the company and brand behind everything we do now. We serve a range of high-end retailers, including cooperatives, Whole Foods Market and restaurants. Our brand recognition has built. We are also now working with other market segments that fit the brand, including e-commerce, where we have developed a strong presence quite quickly.
What have been your career highlights?
GB: Earlier in my career, it was being at the sharp-end when we developed the category management of berries and cherries for Asda, with AMS. It was quite an achievement for a company of our size – to manage specific products for one customer in that way – and I’m proud to have been a part of that. It taught me loads, it really did.
I‘ve also been involved in events at various stages. I was the chairman of the U40s Fruit Growers conference in the early 2000s and more recently, I have been working with the organisers of the London Produce Show and Conference, which has been a brilliant experience. I have used my network and understanding of the supply chain to spread the word, encourage companies to exhibit and buyers to attend the event and, for me, it has been a good opportunity to meet a wider sphere of people, which has undoubtedly helped me to develop my own business further.
What advice would you give anyone wanting to get into your sector?
GB: Keep your eyes open and be very open minded. Be prepared to look at any opportunity as it presents itself. This business has so much scope and so many parts to it.
I believe there are three core functions – technical, production/ operations and sales/marketing – and I don’t think you can be truly effective at any one of them without a decent understanding of the other two. Try and get experience of as much as you can and when you decide where you believe you can add the most value, stick to it.
Register here to secure your place at the annual event in Mayfair on June 8-10.