business PROFILE: Call that now answers farmers' cries for help; David Jones on how David Hughes is helping farmers find the way through form filling nightmare.
DAVID Hughes had bought a house in Criccieth and moved back to his native North Wales after selling his financial services business in England.
He was thinking about taking things a bit easier, of putting his feet up and leaving the rat race behind.
But the prospects of imminent retirement began to recede the day he picked up a newspaper and read about the paperwork problems facing farmers in Wales.
The more he read about the difficulties they had in meeting statutory requirements relating to the registration of animals the more he decided that he wanted to try to help.
The solution he devised - a Bangorbased call centre - is set to transform the way cattle movements are registered.
A pilot project launched last October showed the idea was feasible and Livestock Registration & Movement Centre Ltd now employs 30 people in offices on Parc Menai and is set for a ten-fold increase in size and a move to a new base as the service is rolled out to cover the whole of Britain.
Hughes said a heavy burden of form-filling had fallen on the shoulders of farmers since the Foot and Mouth crisis five years ago.
New legislation was introduced to record animal births and deaths and the movement of cattle from farm to farm, market or slaughterhouse. Every newborn calf is issued with a 'passport' which stays with it for life.
It was little wonder, says Hughes, that suicide rates among UK farmers rocketed.
'It was causing stress and they could not cope. They have 27 days in which to register the birth of an animal and can fill in the form online if they are IT literate - many aren't - or post the paperwork,' he says.
'I went to see the secretary of NFU Cymru and said I was prepared to do a 12-week pilot scheme under which all the farmer has to do is to phone our call centre with the details and the forms will be filled in for him.
'I am not IT literate myself - I have always employed someone to do it for me. So I thought we can help these people - I like challenges - but I also thought we have to keep things simple.'
The union had calculated the average cost of registering cattle by post was more than pounds 156 a year, while if the job was done online with the government's cattle tracing system that figure rose to pounds 195.
LRMC can provide the same service atan annual subscription of pounds 50 together with the cost of the telephone calls needed to register the information. Farmers can register as many animals as they want but the job usually takes just a few minutes.
The call centre sends all entry details directly, to the British Cattle Movement Service, part of Defra, receiving confirmation within seconds.
Hughes insists he did not view it as an opportunity to make money out of the farmers' plight: 'It is a limited company, but I am not here to jump on the band wagon and say ' This is a chance to make a lot of money'.
'At the end of the day all I want is to get out of it what it is worth and to get our investment back.
'I was thinking that this could work for the benefit of the farmer. Every farmer can use the phone and that is all he has to do to register births, deaths and movements of his cattle. It is a system that will benefit both the farmers and the government because Defra will have all the paperwork in place.
'Previously the farmer had nothing to cover himself if the information was lost in the post or was wrong.
'Now if there is a mistake by one of our call centre agents the farmer is covered for up to pounds 250,000 on any one claim - so he can sleep at night.'
Hughes says he has invested close to pounds 500,000 in the operation to date, with support from HSBC bank. Ken Byrne, sales director for England, has also invested in the company.
But Hughes makes no secret of his disappointment that he has, so far, been unable to secure any public sector funding to support the continued development of the business, and of his dislike of the bureaucracy that has to be waded through in making grant applications.
'We have had nothing from the Welsh Assembly Government. It seems to me that either nothing matters in North or mid Wales or people in South Wales are better at filling in forms,' he states.
'The red tape in Wales is an absolute nightmare. You have to prove to the Assembly that you have exhausted all other avenues of funding.
'I chose Bangor as the location for LRMC because I wanted it to be a bilingual call centre. A lot of farmers prefer to speak Welsh.
'But this operation is going to create between 300 and 400 jobs in the next few years and while I would like to keep it here in Wales I will only do that if I can get help.
'If I cannot, I will leave the bilingual call centre here and move the rest of the operation to England or Scotland. It won't matter where it goes because the service is designed to be used by every single farmer in the UK.'
Hughes reveals that he is in talks with the Welsh Development Agency which is building the first phase of a new industrial park, Parc Bryn Cegin, at Llandygai, on the outskirts of Bangor.
A move to new offices on that site is on the cards by the end of the year, unless Hughes decides to switch the business to a location outside of Wales.
He says 8,000 farmers in Wales have expressed an interest in using the call centre, but he is aiming to enlist 40,000 farmer members from across the UK in due course.
Last week he was on the NFU Cymru stand at the Royal Welsh Show, Builth Wells, and says the response from farmers attending the event was 'absolutely phenomenal'. The union has given its staunch support to what he is doing.
LRMC gives them the chance to 'test drive' the new service, with the first two calls free.
Employment will rise in 10-job steps for every 2,500 farmers who join.
A 40,000 membership would give LRMC a projected turnover from registration fees of more than pounds 2m, but Hughes envisages that the scheme can easily be broadened to encompass other services to vets and marts.
But perhaps the biggest additional source of revenue to the company will come when sheep farmers are also able to take advantage of the registration service.
Hughes says that by 2008 all sheep will have to be electronically tagged: 'We are researching, with the University of Wales, Bangor, and the Centre for Advanced Software Technology, an electronic scanning device that will actually do the job for them.
'Over the next six months we will be looking at a simple way of scanning the 60m sheep in Wales. It will use a unique technology but one that can be added to our existing system. We know that Defra wants to get everything paperless as far as possible by 2008 and we are here to help them do that
Hometown Deiniolen Now resident Criccieth
Marital status Married
with one daughter Interest Welsh choirs Personal business philosophy In business you are only as good as those you have got working for you
David Hughes has set up a call centre for farmers to get advice about animal registration form filling Picture: ROBERT PARRY JONES
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|Publication:||Daily Post (Liverpool, England)|
|Date:||Jul 27, 2005|
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