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Ulster Business Top 100: Agility helping commodities giant W&R Barnett post strong results

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Claudine Heron

Claudine Heron

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Claudine Heron

W&R Barnett firmly remains one of Northern Ireland’s most successful and biggest family-owned and run businesses.

The group was formed in 1896 and is currently headed by William Barnett. It’s a business with several strands, including the international trade in grains and derivatives, molasses trading, animal feed and packaging.

And like other firms it’s had to pivot and deal with the challenges of Covid-19 and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Claudine Heron is chief executive of the commodity trading arms of the company, and oversees businesses such as United Mollases, Barnett Hall, Precision Liquids and Biosearch.

“Like all businesses Covid posed its challenges for us,” Claudine told Ulster Business. “There have been some unexpected opportunities that have come out of it as well.

“The agri-business felt the real lack of demand drag as a result of lockdown and the related bounce as the world opened up again.

“The packaging sector experienced unparalleled demand arising from that surge in online retail and we were delighted that some investments we had made in Logson [business] were made at the right time to service our customers’ needs as best we could. There were still challenges.

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“We did suffer from the supply chain challenges that were felt globally, across the group.”

W&R Barnett is arguably Northern Ireland’s biggest family-owned firm, with turnover of £1.27bn according to its latest set of accounts for W&R Barnett Ltd, while it posted pre-tax profit of £51.3m.

It was performance in the Logson part of the business, which specialises in packaging, that helped the overall group see strong results, accounting for around half of the profitability.

The overall business now boasts a workforce of around 1,600 staff.

In the middle of that storm the firm also had to deal with a fire at one of its grain storage facilities in Cork Harbour.

“...but we were delighted as we had a decent business interruption and continuity plan and we were able to roll that out with good effect to minimise the impact to customers,” Claudine says.

“The overriding aspect across the group has been agility that the team was able to employ to best cope with that volatility that arose because of Covid.

“Whether that was the challenges in actually coping with staff shortages that arose… at the operational facilities which were key because of their supply into key industries.”

And like others in the sector and wider economy, the ongoing war in Ukraine has also played its part in impacting business.

“We are feeling that impact significantly but in different ways,” she says. “You have that bite of the energy cost increases and we have had that added layer of market volatility in terms of global commodities.

“We have had to react very quickly at short notice, both in terms of managing supply chains and the price impact of that volatility.

W&R Barnett remains a giant of industry here, but one which is still family-led and now in its fourth generation.

“In the early part of my career I worked in the oil industry and the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) business, so to come to a family firm was quite a big change for me,” Claudine says.

“The things you do see are the personal touches, it’s the connectivity they have to the wider team across the business. It’s the investment they are prepared to make for the long-term.

“As a business we are continuing to invest in the assets, in the people, and also with a real ESG (environmental, social and governance) lens on what we are doing.”

On the NI Protocol and the impact of Brexit, Claudine says as a business focused in international trading it was well-placed to try and deal with changes and challenges.

“We spent four years preparing in readiness, scenario planning. A lot of investment went into that to make sure we were ready,” she says.

“You would also expect that as international traders we should be best placed to navigate around the various protocols because that is what we have to do anyway as we trade globally.

“On a positive note the NI Protocol at least gave us certainty to know what we had to deal with. That said we do recognise that there are some challenges for many businesses, and particularly in the agri-food sector that have to be dealt with.” 


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