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Lamma 2016 Preview: Success through differentiation

As margins get ever tighter for machinery manufacturers, we take a look at how one UK importer has overcome the odds to become one of the most successful in the country. James Rickard talks to Opico.

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Lamma show: The UK's leading farm machinery, equipment and services show
Lamma show: The UK's leading farm machinery, equipment and services show

James Woolway took over ownership of the company in 2007.

As large manufacturers and their subsidiaries compete for market share with their ever increasing line-ups of machinery, it has often been the role of small importers to fill the gaps in the market with niche, specialist products.

 

However, for small importers to survive and compete with mainstream machinery offerings it has meant doing things a bit differently. And nothing could be truer for UK importer Opico, which has capitalised on a ‘doing things differently’ philosophy ever since its conception. By identifying gaps in the market and ways to do things better, it has allowed the company to grow from humble beginnings to become one of the most successful importers and distributors in the country.

 

As Opico celebrates its Golden Anniversary, we talk to the company’s current owner, James Woolway, to find out the story behind the importer, its challenges and its triumphs.

 


How did it all start?

Jeremy Coleclough started the company by importing products from the United States.

The original Opico, or Openheimer Intercontinental Company as it was first known, was set up in America soon after World War Two by Jerry Openheimer.

 

With experience in the army of how to move troops and equipment, he identified a post war mechanisation boom in the US, and concluded it would be a good idea to create a business based on bringing machinery together from various manufacturers and exporting it around the world.

 

Opico UK, a subsidiary of Opico US, was then set up by Jeremy Coleclough, who worked for the firm in the States and decided some of the products could work in the UK.

 

Originally based in Essex, Opico UK’s first big break came with the introduction of Hesston pea cutters, used for cutting and swathing vining peas. Their popularity was such that it required a move for the firm to Spalding to provide 24/7 service to the pea growing area.

 

Opico UK became a company in its own right in 1975 when Mr Coleclough and two other directors bought the business. This allowed the firm more freedom to import machinery from other countries. In 1989, Mr Coleclough became sole owner, right up until 2007 when he sold the firm to James Woolway, the sales director at that time.

 


What are some of the products which have put Opico on the map?

Sward lifters have become a popular product in the firm’s grassland rejuvenation offering.

It has always been a necessity for Opico to be different. We can’t just bring in me too products. We either had to set trends or find ways of doing things better.

 

The batch drier, introduced in 1967, is a prime example of an innovative machine which was adapted for European conditions and went on to revolutionise grain drying in the UK, so much so, the company had to move to a new premises in Bourne, Lincolnshire, equipped with specialist assembly line.

 

Another trend setting product was the Vari Disc short coupled disc harrow, which was a first on the market in 1991, with the ability to pull itself into the ground. As a result of its popularity, the market is now full of them.

Some products do better than others. An interesting product was the square plough which we sold 400 units of in two years, before other manufacturers adopted the idea and the realisation it didn’t work in wet conditions put an end to the concept.

 

Retro fit turbos for tractors were another short term but popular product which sold well for three years before manufacturers started offering factory fit units.

 

Sometimes the reinvention of a product can open up a new market. For example, in 1994 half of all our weeding harrows were sold for grassland applications, and with the incorporation of an air seeder, kicked of our grassland rejuvenation range.

 


How do you decide what products to add to your portfolio?

Strautmann is the latest supplier added to Opico’s range.

When deciding which suppliers to go with, it is the product which is the main factor as this has to be right. The relationship is also a key thing which is built on a lot of trust. A fair amount of time is taken evaluating a company, analysing its strengths and weaknesses, and making sure it has a strong future. The potential supplier also does the same to Opico.

 

As mentioned, products have to stand out by being able to offer something different or set a new trend. In the case of Maschio, however, which we added in 2011, that was more of a commercial decision as the company was already established in the UK with room to expand.

 

We also like to keep a balance of products geographically across the country. For example, our grassland kit, including our most recent introduction Strautmann, allows us to cater for customers in the west parts of the country, while our tillage line-up appeals to the east. It also means workload is spread more evenly throughout the year.

 


Does Opico do any assembly?

Batch grain driers put Opico firmly on the map in the UK.

Depending on the product, the scale of final assembly can vary from about 100 hours for a grain drier, for example, to nearly nothing for something like the He-Va cultivation equipment which is almost ready made.

 

We also combine some products such as granular applicators and rollers from different manufacturers, and some products go straight to dealers.

 

In some cases we also have a lot of design influence over a product, particularly if we have already done a good job of selling their products. For example, we have a close relationship with Danish firm He-Va and actually instigated the design concept of its Subsoiler and Combi-Disc machines.

 


What are the benefits of an importer over a manufacturer?

The new range of Sky Agriculture drills now distributed by Opico sticks with the firm’s ethos of offering something a bit different.

Independence and flexibility are our biggest strengths; we don’t have to answer to a board of directors and we are free to choose what products we want to offer.

 

This means we can pretty much cherry pick the best products and not be stuck with a full line of products such as a manufacturer’s subsidiary. By reacting quickly to market trends, it is often the speed by which we can get a product to market which can make a big difference to market share.

 

While we are a small importer, we do operate on the same scale as many manufacturer’s UK subsidiaries, which means we can offer a high degree of backup to our products along with equivalent levels of parts supply and servicing, which is a big benefit to our suppliers who don’t have the scale alone to compete in the UK.

 


What are the main threats to importers?

One of the biggest threats these days is large manufacturers buying up smaller manufacturers to become full liners. As a result, their line-ups are getting bigger, which means our products can get pushed out of dealerships. Conversely, holes in manufacturer’s line-ups can mean opportunities for us to get into dealerships.

 

Currency movements, especially if a similar type product is made in the UK and abroad, always needs an eye keeping on. We can’t afford to be buying high and selling low and a large product portfolio helps balance out fluctuations in currency.

 


Opico milestones

Opico milestones
  • 1966: Opico UK set-up to import products from the States
  • 1966: First products included the Hesston range of equipment
  • 1967: Batch recirculating grain driers introduced
  • 1971: Retrofit turbos added to portfolio
  • 1975: Managment buyout by Jeremy Coleclough, Ray Ferrer and Mike Harley, to become its own company
  • 1984: Moved to Bourne, Lincolnshire with a purpose built grain dryer assembly line
  • 1989: Complete shareholding purchased by Jeremy Coleclough
  • 1991: The square plough
  • 1994: Started importing He-Va machinery
  • 2007: Company sold to James Woolway
  • 2011: Took on Maschio range of drills
  • 2015: Launched Sky Agriculture trailed drills
  • 2016: Took over distribution of Strautmann products in UK
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