200-year-old family business set to close after devastating fire
- Credit: Chris Hill
One of Norfolk's oldest family businesses looks set to close in its 200th year after a devastating fire ripped through its agricultural and garden machinery depot in Dereham.
Randell Agriculture's managing director William Randell said the decision had been taken with a "heavy heart" in the wake of October's blaze in Toftwood which destroyed buildings and stock, as well as leaving one employee hospitalised with minor burns.
While the injured worker made a full and quick recovery, Mr Randell said the complex insurance claim for the "substantial" losses has still not been resolved.
He said the experience had brought home the responsibilities of being an employer in a dangerous industry like agriculture, prompting the difficult decision to end two centuries of family tradition, stretching back to the days of horse-drawn farm machines.
He is "considering all options", and hopes a buyer can be found to take over the profitable £3.5m-turnover machine sales company.
But the firm's 16 workers have been given their redundancy notices, so if no buyer is found the business will be forced to close.
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Mr Randell, the sixth generation of his family to run the company, said: "I feel sad because it is a 200-year-old family tradition. This was never my intention but this fire has had to make me completely re-think my life, really.
"There are two main things that come into play with the decision. One is the realisation of the responsibility that you have as an employer in, let's face it, a dangerous industry. The second thing is that I find myself now worrying that should there be another accident or disaster around the corner, will I be insured for that?
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"It is not a financial decision - I don't owe anybody any money and I'm very lucky in that respect. It is a good profitable business. I don't want rumours going around saying Randells have gone bust, that is absolutely not the case.
"Ultimately it is a nice little business which someone might pick up and take on. I'm not ruling anything out, if someone said they wanted me to remain involved [on the farm machinery side] to a greater or lesser extent then of course I would consider it."
If no buyer can be found, Mr Randell said the firm's Horstead garden machinery shop will have to close, with the premises marketed for rent. None of the site's four existing tenants would be affected. Meanwhile, the agricultural machinery division will continue to run "for the foreseeable future" from Crown Farm in Little Ellingham, until a new distributor can be found to take over Randells' distribution franchise for specialist manufacturer Vaderstad.
Mr Randell said he had been touched by the way his decision had been received by loyal staff and customers.
"I got all the staff together and explained my thoughts on where I had come to and sadly gave them all their redundancy notices," he said. "Some of these guys have been with me 20 years or more, so it was very, very hard delivering this news to them. But without exception they said: 'Don't worry about us, we'll be fine'. They were all more worried about me, and I was quite touched by that.
"And I was talking to a couple of customers this morning and explaining to them what I am doing and they were also very understanding. In both cases I have dealt with them, and my father dealt with their fathers, and I daresay my grandfather probably dealt with their grandfathers. It is amazing, really."
The business was started by James Randell with a small foundry in Suffield in 1820, before moving to larger premises at North Walsham. All manner of agricultural implements were made there, including early horse-drawn seed drills and ploughs. As time went on, an ironmongery shop began trading in North Walsham which, with the advent of electricity, also sold electrical items. A second electrical shop in Cromer also undertook electrical installations in houses and businesses, as did a third in Reepham where another large machinery base was also developed.
As tractors took over from horses on farms, Randells moved from manufacturing to selling machinery and became one of the largest businesses of its type in the country. More recently, Randells has been operating its garden machinery business from Horstead and Dereham and a specialist large agricultural machinery business from Dereham and Little Ellingham.
The cause of October's fire at the Dereham depot has not yet been confirmed, and the Health and Safety Executive - which does not regulate retail premises - has handed the case to Breckland Council, whose investigation is ongoing.