Entrepreneur David Ball has impressively transformed his family’s ornamental horticulture business, Neame Lea, into a multi-million pound fresh produce growing operation. Here, he talks to Produce Business UK about his plans to make further connections with buyers as he embarks on a new diversification project for the expanding Lincolnshire company, with new offerings for the foodservice and retail sectors
Ball, a 31-year-old grower and young father, admits that joining his Spalding-based family business, Neame Lea, was not the original plan he had in mind after completing an economics degree at the University of Sheffield.
However, as his return home coincided with a decline in the houseplant market he found himself putting his newfound business expertise to good use by helping out his parents, Tony and Jayne Ball.
“It was then that I became really passionate about the [horticulture] industry, and saw the huge amount of opportunity in the sector,” he reveals.
Having successfully expanded the ornamental plant production side of the business, Ball, now company managing director, has also taken full control of Neame Lea’s herb growing operation, which he plans to reinvigorate.
Ball explains: “I have been fortunate that my parents gave me full support to take on Neame Lea in 2010. The company has grown its turnover from £1.6 million to £20m in the space of just a few years – due mainly to the growth of our ornamental business, as well as taking back the herb business, Neame Lea Fresh, that we sold in 2014.”
Next big thing
As the firm prepares to expand its herb range, Ball and his team are actively seeking to build new relationships with fresh produce buyers.
Currently, Neame Lea Fresh’s staple products incorporate a wide range of culinary pot herbs for the mainstream retailers – with the majority of these products being sold under the customers’ own label. This range includes core lines such as coriander, basil and parsley.
But since Ball took over Neame Lea Fresh at the end of last year , he has already hurtled into the commercial production of a new range of micro-greens, living salads and cut herbs for the foodservice and retail sectors.
Ball says: “I’m always looking for the next big thing. We are seeing a large increase in more niche product lines as consumers become more adventurous. The new product development in this area is very exciting. There are a lot of potential products out there because of the growth in the herb market over the last five or six years. If you look at society as a whole there are a lot of people seeking a healthier lifestyle who are closely looking at the foods they eat. So there’s a lot of potential.”
The micro-greens Neame Lea Fresh now produces include: pea shoots, wheatgrass and peppery greens, and Ball expects these new products to enter into some of the major UK supermarkets as their popularity continues to increase.
In expanding the firm’s herb product range even further, Ball is drawing inspiration from the United States (US). In fact, in January this year, his commercial manager Richard Priestley spent a week in the country to research trends and future opportunities in both products and packaging.
Ball notes: “In most cases, innovation in packaging seems to flow from Europe to the US, whilst the development of healthy living, nutritional foods and trendy eating flows the other way. The explosion in micro-greens, vegetable smoothies and health-conscious eating is a revelation in the US. That’s where we think it can become mainstream in UK retail.”
The production of micro-greens in the US has rapidly evolved from what Ball describes as small ‘mom and pop’ operations to sophisticated hi-tech production. He adds: “The marketing of micro-greens [in the US] is also mainstream now and it seems to have captured a sizable place in the market. This is from small burger topping packs to full-blown servings for salads, sandwiches and smoothies. Although our visit concentrated principally on the East Coast we understand that the West Coast and all places in between are following [the trend].”
Since Priestley’s visit, Neame Lea Fresh has begun to trial several more products, including edible flowers, such as violas and marigolds. “We are already growing many of the edible varieties so it’s about picking the right ones and going through the trial stage,” Ball reveals.
Hard work and enthusiasm
Ball’s ability to view challenges as opportunities has no doubt played a key role in his success – particularly since he took over the company during a difficult economic period that saw many similar firms either close down or consolidate.
He says: “The tulip-growing industry around Spalding used to be massive but gradually, over the years, it declined because of a lack of investment. What we’ve tried to do is recognise where there is an opportunity and invest heavily to find ways of cutting costs. We know our prices are not going up, so we have to look at ways of streamlining things and that’s mainly involved investment.”
Ball’s courage to invest was evident from the start. Almost a decade ago he became the first grower in his area to invest in a biomass boiler. “That was back in 2007,” he says. “We now have five [biomass boilers]. We’ve also invested heavily in machinery – we are probably one of the most automated nurseries in the UK.”
Given his visionary approach, it’s not surprising that Ball is a regional finalist in this year’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. The grower proudly admits that it’s refreshing to have someone from the horticulture industry joining the ranks of the UK’s most successful business folk.
“Our business is widely regarded as one of the best performing in the Midlands, which shows that opportunities really are there [for the taking] in the fresh produce industry with a bit of hard work and enthusiasm,” concludes Ball.
Neame Lea Fresh is exhibiting at next month’s London Produce Show 2016.
To attend the annual trade event on June 8-10, register here.