“Driving lorries and working in logistics is a tough job” says Bee Kemball.
She should know, having spent her working life at the helm of family logistics business, Debach Enterprises.
She needed to be tough too, and, while taking the wheel at the £8m turnover firm, got her licence to drive the huge HGVs because she felt it important to experience exactly what her workers did.
It’s an ethos she has carried through to her very successful – and highly praised – term as director of the Suffolk Show. As the first woman to take on the three-year role back in 2017, it was a big burden to bear – particularly as she still had her considerable day job to contend with.
But Bee relishes a challenge, and has carried the responsibility lightly, while extracting maximum enjoyment from all aspects of running the county’s biggest bash.
“You have to understand what people do – it’s a bit like the Suffolk Show in that regard,” says the ex-Woodbridge Schoolgirl and Harper Adams university graduate, who is also a wife and mother of teenagers.
“If you are going to understand the process, in doing that, I think that makes you a better leader. It’s when they ask people to do something they have no understanding of themselves. I’m a mum as well, going to agricultural shows. If you can put yourself in other people’s shoes all the time, I think you make better decisions.”
The transport and warehousing business, launched in 1976, grew out of the family’s farming roots, which remain very strong, with Bee’s siblings, John, Sarah and Kate, all involved in different strands of the Kemballs’ multiple operations – including a business park at Bentwaters Airfield – which have sprung out of Wantisden Hall Farm. Unlike many families, the Kemballs have found a way to operate their businesses harmoniously, sharing responsibilities out among their members.
Bee, daughter of Debach’s founder, Bill, has been in post since 1992, overseeing the business’s investment in IT and green technology to make it one of the most forward-thinking in the sector. Today, the business employs 100 staff at Debach, as well as 20 at Bentwaters, and around 15 on the farm at Clopton.
But with the show, she is managing many volunteers as well as members of staff, and working for a charity.
“Those people are giving up their time for free, so you have to motivate those teams and very much get them coming along with you,” she says. “I always think you get to the best decision hearing everyone’s point of view first, even if you don’t agree with it, because then you are taking people with you. I think culturally that hadn’t happened in the past. Maybe it’s because I’m a lady director. I do think, being a women, you do take other people’s opinions on board. I think sometimes there’s a benefit in being a woman boss.”
Bill bought the site at Debach Airfield, extending to about 150,000sq ft, as an ‘insurance policy’ to help ensure the future of the 3,500 acre farming enterprise. With considerable foresight, he had already irrigated his land to ensure the health of his vegetable crops.
The logistics firm, which operates 700,000sq ft of warehousing space around Suffolk, deals with multiple clients from a range of sectors from engine components makers to food manufacturers. It needs to be agile to survive, as commercial storage rates today don’t justify the cost of building warehousing, says Bee. All this requires nimble working – and an ability to steer a big team.
“I would say we are a very typical farming family in that we are quite traditional in our choice of businesses,” she says. “It’s like having eggs in baskets – it’s spreading the balance.”
All the businesses are very balance sheet-focused. They own their own buildings and land, taking out a cost, and they want to employ local people and work with and help other local firms. “We like to do that rather than drive profit,” explains Bee.
She has worked for a big multinational – BirdsEye-Walls – but admits that, while she admires others from the corporate world, it’s not a life she hankers after.
“I had kind of done it. but I wouldn’t say I function as well in the corporate world. I enjoy working with people I have worked with for a long time,” she says. “I think the corporate world is very different from where I like to be. I like working in teams – it’s fun.
“Whether it’s doing the Suffolk Show committee or a board meeting at work and talking about planning for a Christmas season coming up, I think they are the best bits of any business. It’s the people you are working with that make it.”