Ulster Business Top 100: Flexibility helps commodity giant W&R Barnett perform well

W&R Barnett remains one of the most successful and largest family businesses in Northern Ireland.

The group was formed in 1896 and is currently led by William Barnett. It is a multi-line business including international trade in grains and derivatives, trade in molasses, animal feed and packaging.

And, like other firms, it has had to turn around and deal with the challenges of Covid-19 and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Claudine Heron is the executive director of the company’s commodities trading division and oversees businesses such as United Mollases, Barnett Hall, Precision Liquids and Biosearch.

“Like all businesses, Covid has given us challenges,” Claudine told Ulster Business. “There were also some unexpected possibilities that came out of it.

“Agribusiness felt a real lack of demand as a result of the lockdown and the resulting rebound as the world reopened.

“The packaging sector has experienced unprecedented demand associated with this surge in online retail and we were delighted that some of the investments we have made in Logson [business] were made at the right time to meet the needs of our customers in the best possible way. There were more problems.

“We’ve really been hit by supply chain issues that have been felt all over the world, across the group.”

W&R Barnett is arguably the largest family firm in Northern Ireland with a turnover of £1.27bn according to the latest set of accounts for W&R Barnett Ltd and a pre-tax profit of £51.3m.

It was the performance in Logson’s packaging portion of the business that helped the entire group see good results, accounting for about half of profitability.

The overall business currently boasts a workforce of approximately 1,600 employees.

In the midst of this storm, the firm also had to fight a fire at one of its granaries in Cork Harbor.

“…but we were delighted as we had a decent business interruption and continuity plan in place and were able to implement it to good effect to minimize the impact on customers,” Claudine says.

“The main aspect in the group has been the flexibility that the team has been able to use to best deal with the volatility that has arisen due to Covid.

“Was it the challenges of actually overcoming the shortage of staff that arose… at operating facilities that were key because of their supply to key industries.”

And like other industries in the sector and the economy as a whole, the ongoing war in Ukraine has also played a role in the impact on business.

“We feel this impact significantly, but in different ways,” she says. “You have this bite of rising energy costs and we have this added level of market volatility in terms of global commodities.

“We had to react very quickly in the shortest possible time, both in terms of supply chain management and in terms of the impact of this volatility on prices.

W&R Barnett remains an industry giant here, but still a fourth-generation family business.

“Early in my career, I worked in the oil and FMCG (FMCG) industries, so joining the family business was a big change for me,” Claudine says.

“The things you see are the personal touch, the connection they have with the larger team across the business. These are investments they are willing to make in the long run.

“As a business, we continue to invest in assets, in people, and with a real ESG lens (environmental, social, and governance) about what we do.”

Regarding the NI protocol and the impact of Brexit, Claudine says that as an international trade-focused business, he is well positioned to try to cope with the changes and challenges.

“We spent four years preparing, planning scenarios. We have invested a lot to make sure we are ready,” she says.

“You also expect that, as international traders, we need to better navigate the different protocols, because that’s what we have to do anyway, since we’re trading all over the world.

“It’s good that the NI protocol at least gave us confidence in what we have to deal with. However, we recognize that many businesses, especially in the agri-food sector, face certain challenges that need to be addressed.”