I enjoy the challenge of writing interesting pieces for sometimes quite technical publications. In this profile I managed to include Valerie Singleton and Robert Mugabe, as well of course as Simon Williams, the subject of the piece.
The Cultura Interview
Industry forward thinkers in conversation with Robert Ashton
When I was a child it was my ambition to appear on BBC Blue Peter. I had a pre-teen crush on Valerie Singleton and was star-struck when interviewed by her on a conference stage some 20 years later. I guess you too used to watch the programme, although perhaps not quite as long ago as I did!
Simon Williams, subject of this month’s interview, actually appeared on Blue Peter in 1989, quite by chance. A pre-College visit to Zimbabwe coincided with a Blue Peter expedition to the country. Somehow, Simon managed to appear in shot over a number of episodes. His family, back on the family farm near St Agnes in Cornwall were very impressed to see him unexpectedly appear on their TV.
Simon Williams, Cultura Technologies
Over his industry career Simon has made a habit of being in the right place at the right time. He has also always been enterprising, keeping pigs whilst still at school. With two older brothers and a sister on a 200 acre farm, diversification was in his blood. He describes how his grandmother had started a campsite on the farm long before he was born.
That farm, with its campsite and now an array of solar panels remains in the family. Simon’s brothers run the operation day to day in addition to their regular jobs whilst Simon has followed a trade career. After Seale Hayne and then an joint honours degree in Biochemistry and Economics he joined Dalgety as a graduate trainee.
This was at a time when Dalgety were a powerful force in British agriculture, buying grain and selling seed, fertilizer, chemicals and the output from ten feed mills. Simon has never lost sight of that circle of trade that made Dalgety so successful. Even today, many aspire to this close trading relationship. He talked fondly of the symbiotic relationships that grew between merchant and farmer.
Simon’s introduction to computing and software came when he was formulating cattle, pig and poultry diets. This work was done at Bristol for many of the company’s mills, although he frequently found himself on the M6 driving north, living for a while near Dumfries.
As computers became more powerful and the feed industry more competitive, Simon found himself becoming more involved with using software to manage far more than just ration formulation. Mill operation and efficiency and ingredient procurement become increasingly important.
In 1998 Simon joined the team at Calsoftware, a company that later became part of Cultura Technologies. His farming background and preference for pragmatic, rather than abstract challenges stood him in good stead as his career evolved with the fast growing company. He has never lost touch with his roots and often finds himself working with colleagues more familiar with the software than the context within it is used.
Cultura are part of Constellation Software, a large Canadian multinational, with operations in the USA and Germany as well as the UK and Ireland. Simon is based at their UK headquarters in Chorley, Lancashire and lives nearby. His role takes him beyond the feed industry, with customers trading grain, blending fertilizers, and malting barley, as well as making animal feed.
S imo n e x p l a i n e d t o me how traceability and the provenance of ingredients have become increasingly important. Of course quality and freedom from contamination has always been important, but increasingly consumers want the confidence the field or factory of origin is known. As the feed business becomes more global, this can often require coordination between systems that do not readily talk to each other. Bridging these gaps is where much of the future innovation will come.
Inevitably our conversation turned to Brexit and Simon’s thoughts on how leaving the EU would impact on the sector. Simon admits he’d have preferred us to remain in Europe, but could see some benefits to leaving. The weakening pound will make it more competitive to use home produced feed ingredients, with imports from Africa and the Americas likely to strengthen.
I pushed for a view of tariffs and other charges. Simon sagely pointed out that it had taken 30 years to reach the current trade arrangements. He did not see things changing overnight, but rather evolving over the coming years. He’s a regular face at Bristol Corn & Feed Trade events, so actively involved in the debate.
When not at work, Simon is both a family man and a lifelong sportsman. He has two children and often takes them back to the family farm. That said, he tells me neither they nor their cousins currently see themselves as growing up to be farmers. Sadly for many, farming has lost its appeal.
In his youth Simon played rugby for Cornwall and later took up martial arts. At university he even taught Karate. He also enjoys climbing and tells me that but for an avalanche; he’d have reached the summit of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps.
As so many of us do, Simon has taken up cycling as he’s grown older, although he’s no slouch in the saddle. He claims to enjoy those 100 mile Sportives that are too far for all but the most dedicated riders. I think it’s fair to say that Simon is a competitive man, at work as well as at play.
Let’s end back where we started, in Harare in the early years of Mugabe’s rule. Simon describes the flourishing farms he saw in 1989 and is sad that the country has gone the way it has. In a world where there is so much change, Simon is a man who cares.