The Challenge:

The Home-Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) was formed by Act of Parliament in 1965 and had become a well-established £10M turnover institution serving UK agriculture.  However, major changes to the European Common Agricultural Policy, including the removal of intervention buying, meant by the end of the century it was facing significant structural changes and questions about value for money from its major levy-payer customers.  Functions that had been carried out for years, including the statutory reporting of grain prices, were no longer guaranteed.

Due to the levy collection method, via a deduction by merchants from farmers' grain receipts, HGCA knew how much each trader paid for its services, but had no knowledge of who its farming customers were.  This was critical as farmers represented the largest number of customers and were the principle funders of the HGCA.

As a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, (MAFF now DEFRA) HGCA had to comply with ongoing public governance legislation including the recently introduced Nolan principles and the Citizen’s Charter.  In addition, the UK agricultural departments conducted a Quinquennial Review every four years to check that the HGCA was fit for purpose.  The first question the reviewers asked key levy-payers was whether the organisation should exist at all…

HGCA had to change drastically if it was to satisfy both private and public customers.

The Solution:

As head of the communications and planning department, I was part of the senior management team that refocused the organisation towards its customers and worked closely with the HGCA CEO.  As denoted by my job title, I had a dual role at HGCA: firstly working with top management colleagues to restructure the overall business and secondly to revolutionise communications.

As part of the restructure, the CEO and I attended meetings with key stakeholder representatives including merchants, processors and the National Famers’ Unions.  From these discussions we were able to define our customers’ needs, specifically: HGCA activities that worked and were wanted, activities that were not thought beneficial and activities which were wanted, and which could be provided by HGCA, but were not being conducted.

Having defined customer requirements, I was tasked with putting together a business plan which could deliver their needs.  As an NDPB in a devolved government department, this plan had to be passed by our own governing board, as well as the four UK Agriculture departments.

By creating a clear simple strategic framework around which the plan was built, individual departmental operational objectives were easily defined and from these individual tactical objectives set for each of the 60 staff members.  Each department worked with HR to re-evaluate all job descriptions throughout the organisation and ensure each employee had a clearly defined role which was directly linked to the business objectives as set out in the business plan.

In my second role of communications, the change in focus from continuing to do what had previously been done to what was actually being requested by customers, meant HGCA communications had to be revolutionised.  I was able to draw upon the business plan to unify communications across the whole organisation and chaired an in-house management team to plan and implement a £2M marketing and communications plan.  Export trade missions were tailored to local market requirements with new emerging markets in North Africa visited.  Greater use of UK grain in processed products was supported with the launch of the Farmhouse Breakfast week (still held annually in the last week of January).  Research results were publicised at dedicated events across the UK in new reader-friendly pictorially based publications and online, via a new website (  Grain market information, which HGCA was legally required to obtain and distribute, was repackaged and rebranded to gain better recognition and generate greater revenue from non-levy payers.  Hard copy printing of time-sensitive price and volume data was stopped and digital distribution online and by fax instigated.

A new communications team was recruited and trained to support all HGCA communications activities in office, online and at events across the UK, Europe and further afield.  The internal print production team was outsourced, with the print design manager retained within our Communications team. A direct mail campaign was run, securing backing from all four UK Agriculture departments, to reach-out to around 70K UK arable farmers with more than 1ha of arable land.  By achieving an incredible 36% response rate, we were able to implement the organisation’s first CRM system and begin communicating directly with our primary customers.

The Achievement:

The HGCA Board approved all the changes undertaken and future plans proposed by the HGCA senior management team. HGCA was able to raise its levy to fund transformational changes to the organisation and was endorsed by government as an effective organisation at its subsequent Quinquennial Review. 

By setting out SMART objectives in the annual business plan we were able to drive forward business performance, provide clear measurement of success in the Annual Report and conduct focused staff appraisals with individual performance being more easily assessed.  Despite a peak staff turn-over of 50% during the transition phase, all HGCA objectives were met and a more professional customer-focused culture instilled.

Demand for HGCA’s communications products in print, by fax and online grew, demonstrating that they were meeting the needs of our target customers.  HGCA went from not knowing who its key customers were to being able to interact with them directly via post, fax or email.

Independent polling found that HGCA’s customer satisfaction levels had risen, particularly amongst UK farmers.  Similarly, independent research confirmed that for every £1 HGCA invested in its multi-million arable R&D programme, it delivered £6.50 in benefits to farmers.

Key Lesson Learnt:

It is vital to take time to set clear goals and SMART objectives to improve business performance.  Trying to tell people how to do their job is futile.  Effective objectives linked from strategic ones for the business down to tactical ones for individuals, will ensure a task is done correctly with the added bonus that those doing the task can decide for themselves how best to do it.