Why a globe-trotting executive quit his high-flying career to run a Sheffield farm shop

“With you in a minute, I’m just finishing a cake order,” Ian Proctor says as The Star arrives.

By David Walsh
Friday, 1st October 2021, 3:29 pm

It give us a chance to take in Knab Farm Shop in the sunshine and its wooden boxes and wicker baskets of produce outside and in.

It is an idyllic scene, a world away from when Ian would visit 35 countries drumming up business for the University of Sheffield.

But although it looks like The Good Life it sounds more like The Hard Life.

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Knab Farm Shop has more than 30 Sheffield suppliers and growing. Pic: David Walsh.

He works 14-hour days and six-and-a-half days-a-week and has no pension, sick pay or even wages (yet) and has responsibility for four staff.

He’s lost a whopping 10kg since he took over in mid-August and reckons he can do 10,000 steps a day without leaving the curtilage of his little shop.

Ian, aged 54, is one of thousands who have changed direction due to the pandemic.

Offered redundancy twice, a year apart, the second time he took it. In doing so, he said goodbye to 26 years of security and took an ‘all or nothing leap’ into a new future.

Ian Proctor works long weeks at Knab Farm Shop. Pic: David Walsh.

He took all of his redundancy money - and more from a co-investor - and spent £65,000 on the long-established shop on Montrose Road, Carter Knowle, ‘technically Millhouses’. And so far he has no regrets.

Just don’t confuse lifestyle with leisurely.

He said: “This is not a business where you can put your feet up and relax. It’s hard work. This is what a lot of self employed people are facing. The only thing I’m expecting less of is income, because I’m investing everything back in. I think I have £25 in my account.

“It’s a risk, I could lose the roof over my head, I have to make it work.”

Harriet Bull and Mary Tyas at Knab Farm Shop. Pic David Walsh.

In Ian’s favour is a steady stream of loyal customers. The shop was run by Elaine Ramsay for seven years and then by a family for just six months before Ian.

And he has some business nous. At school he set up a tuck shop. Later, he did a masters in business administration which he’s now putting to use.

And for 20 years at the university he helped companies innovate, before becoming MBA programme manager and travelling the world.

That came to a juddering halt in the pandemic and eventually led here.

Ian Proctor at Knab Farm Shop employs four and has 30 Sheffield suppliers and growing. Pic: David Walsh

So far, he has changed the brand, bought a new stock control system and increased the number of local suppliers to 30 - some of whom have launched after being made redundant themselves, like the Derbyshire Pie Company. He’s also doing online orders and home deliveries.

All this swift, executive decision making is what he’s in it for, and stands in contrast to being ‘answerable to big teams’ and making decision by committee.

The other day, for example, he decided to start selling sweetcorn and very soon after he was.

He added: “For me, it’s a passion for Sheffield. I loved promoting it while at the university. I looked at outdoor clothing but the market is saturated and I’m into food and produce in particular. It was always going to be this kind of shop.

“I’m happy because I’m seeing things I’m doing growing turnover. My motto is ‘let’s be vocal about local’.”

Sheffield-made Bhaji Shop curries are flying off shelves, trebling in sales in three weeks, he says.

‘Nevertheless’ local cakes are also going well. Moss Valley and New Close Farm meats and apple juice by Sheffield Organics are proving popular too.

Only yesterday, the shop’s Facebook page was updated with this: ‘Felix and Sheila are our latest local suppliers from Casa Gomez. We are thrilled to bring to Knab their chorizo and Spanish sauces and on Fridays we will stock their freshly-made Spanish omelette. Their chorizo has just won a national taste award in London!’

The shop is in a little parade next to a newsagent, cafe and gift shop. They all support each other and Ian thinks a Chirstmas fair could work.

Independent he may be, but as a small retailer you don’t have much power.

There was nothing he could do when a popular sweet-maker cut him off - apart from break it to disappointed locals.

He added: “I see the farm shop as a good showcase for up and coming start-ups to be able to retail their produce through the store.

“Two great examples being the recent additions of Nevertheless cakes and The Heart of Sicily, both started in the lockdown by young Sheffield entrepreneurs.

“I think there is something very appealing about locally-produced and the pandemic has really made communities value their small independent stores. We continue to play our part in helping the local community, by offering free delivery to the elderly and those having to shield.

“Almost 40 years ago when I was at school, I started the tuck shop, I organised fellow sixth form students to work their breaks and lunchtimes and a teacher took me to the wholesalers twice a week. This is my only experience of retail.

“At the time, the teachers dubbed me the ‘young entrepreneur’, well it has only taken me 40 years to become that retail entrepreneur!”

But he mustn’t take his eye off the day-to-day detail.

He added: “You can make rewarding decisions fast, and I’m really enjoying being responsible for my own destiny. The most stressful thing is making sure there’s enough on the shelves. I go to the fruit and veg market, then pick up the bread order on the way back, before setting up the shop ready for business. And every day I do at least four orders.”

And with that he’s back on his phone.

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Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.