SAM Sprayers Interview: “Adapting to Change & Driving the Future”
Soon to celebrate over 50 years in business, Sands Agricultural Machinery (SAM) was the brainchild of Neal Sands, who had developed products that would lead the way in crop protection for farmers. Years later, Thomas Sands, Neal’s son joined the business with a broom and shovel to learn the ropes from scratch. Here we find out more from Thomas, now one of the Directors about how the family business keeps moving forward with the times and why picking up the phone is still the best way of doing business.
HOW LONG HAS YOUR BUSINESS BEEN ESTABLISHED FOR?
Our business began in 1973, so this year we celebrate our 50th birthday. Our family has been involved in agriculture for over 125 years, from farming in Norfolk, through supplying crop protection products with a previous business, to our current focus on manufacturing crop sprayers – although we still also farm today. My father Neal Sands started the business in 1973, after previously running a crop protection business alongside his father Hubert and brother Andrew, supplying farmers around the UK with the products they need to maintain healthy crops. They also offered contract crop spraying, which back then used either light aircraft or Bedford lorries with spray equipment on the rear that we made in-house.
As times changed and aerial spraying fell from favour, with the focus switching entirely to in-field sprayers, the contract spraying side of the business was sold in 2001. In 1973, my father, having designed a high-capacity self-propelled sprayer, then founded Sands Agricultural Machinery, to meet the growing demand from larger farmers looking to take their crop spraying activities in-house rather than using a contractor. The company’s first machines were based on bought-in David Brown tractors that were then converted to forward-control self-propelled sprayers in the Sands workshops by Dad, Arthur Bacon and the small but very knowledgeable team be had recruited. The first David Brown-based sprayer was launched at the Royal Norfolk Show in 1975. Alongside a fantastic engineer called Barry Cotter, Dad then built first Sands self-propelled sprayer to a full in-house design. Since then the business has grown into a leading sprayer manufacturer supplying farmers across the UK and around the world, with our newest Infinity model hitting the market in 2022.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AND HOW YOU GOT INVOLVED?
I joined the business in 2005, being given a broom and shovel to start my life cleaning the factory floor! When I had done this to a standard that satisfied my manager, I then moved onto becoming part of the assembly and manufacturing team. I would like to think I have done pretty much done every job in our business at one stage or other. Today I am one of the directors, working alongside my father Neal, who is managing director, and our other key staff on the day-to-day running of the company. We both have direct involvement in all aspects of the business, including giving our team of designers the feedback they need to develop with new component designs and the next model in future product development.
WHAT DO YOU OFFER CUSTOMERS?
Sands manufactures self-propelled crop sprayers with tank capacities from 3,000 to 6,000 litres and steel booms from 24 to 40m, to enable farmers to apply products that protect crops against weeds, pests, and diseases, as well as liquid fertilisers. We offer the complete package, from designing, fabricating, assembly, painting, delivering with our own lorry, to sales, after-sales support, servicing and trading-in against new sprayers. Today we employ 43 in our team, but we are currently seeking to increase this number due to product demand.
WHO BUYS YOUR EQUIPMENT?
In the main they are farmers and agricultural contractors who may need our machines to cover anything from 500 acres to many thousand. While they are mostly in the UK, we have customers in countries across the world.
HOW HAS THE BUSINESS CHANGED IN RECENT YEARS?
The most significant change has been the growth in the size of farms and the reduction in the number of them, as cost pressures force farm businesses to become larger by pooling resources, merging with others, or selling or renting out their land. We have had to anticipate and adapt to these changes, with customers seeking larger machines offering higher capacities and increased levels of technology that mean they are more efficient and capable of doing more in a day.
HAS THE LAST YEAR IMPACTED YOUR BUSINESS?
Covid-19 put us in the difficult position of either closing the factory temporarily or putting in place the correct measures to ensure our staff could safely continue production. The farming world did not stop, and it was vital we could continue to manufacture and supply. That meant we did everything and more to protect our employees, giving them the space and protection, they needed to complete our orders on time. Since then, of course, there have been considerable additional challenges including Brexit, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cost-of-living increase that has resulted from it. But we are determined to continue working closely with our suppliers regarding the deliveries of everything we need to build our machines, and with our customers to help them get their sprayers when they need them.
The twin current challenges are sourcing parts and finding staff. We work very closely with our suppliers, but unfortunately the issues surrounding parts and components is out of our control. As always, our aim is to do the best we can and ensure full communication between all parties.
The issue of finding good staff is just as challenging. We make a point of offering our employees an attractive working environment, a good package and excellent pay, but as many other manufacturers in all sectors are finding, it is becoming much harder to find good people in engineering. We continue to develop what we offer our employees, and our new factory will be a big part of this.
WHAT IS YOUR COMPANY ETHOS?
To put our customers first and provide the service we would expect to receive ourselves. As a business our aim is to always move forward with the times, and not stand still and risk being left behind.
WHAT GETS YOU OUT OF BED IN THE MORNING?
I want to make the business better for the next generations of our family, our staff, and our customers, as I see their future being harder than the present I am experiencing at the moment! Over the past five years I have seen some very big changes in our business and the businesses of our customers. My father has built an incredible company from looking after customers and picking up the phone to communicate. This is perhaps one of the simplest solutions to serving customers better, but we find it’s one that works very well indeed.
In 2023, Sands Agricultural Machinery celebrates its 50th birthday. That is something we are particularly proud of, but of unarguably more importance is the fact we have committed to purchasing a new site nearby and building a new multi-million-pound factory to increase production and be more efficient.
WHO IS YOUR INSPIRATION IN BUSINESS?
That’s an easy one for me, as it must be the person who founded our business, my father. He came from a small farming business to create one of the UK’s leading sprayer manufacturers. Things have not always been easy, and as a family business we have had some very hard times – the past year alone has seen not only the world events mentioned above, but also the sad loss of my sister to cancer. But through all this he still takes the time to answer every phone call, even late at night or when there is the occasional weekend service call. It is always great to hear a customer say how nice it is to hear a Sands family member on the phone rather than someone I have never heard of – or an answer phone. Dad is still very much the worker he has always been, and sometimes I can’t keep up with him! If I can manage 50% of what he has achieved over the last 50 years, then I will be very happy.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT?
In 2012 our company was named ‘Barclays Business of the Year’ at the Eastern Daily Press Business Awards, run by the largest newspaper in our region. When we arrived at the presentation evening and saw the finalists we were up against, we were honoured to be in their company but thought we stood no chance. We were really pleased when the judges awarded us the prize and acknowledged our strong family heritage, very active new product development and adoption of the latest precision farming technology.
IF YOU COULD DO IT ALL AGAIN, WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
I think the major thing would be to have built much earlier the new factory that is currently in its early stages, as it would perhaps have helped us to keep up with production, recent demand has been such that some customers have had unfortunately to wait for up to two years for their machine order. On the other hand, this is also a nice position to be in when farming has a hard year and supermarkets are not paying the farmers the money they deserve.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR FUTURE?
If we avoid any setbacks, we plan to move into our new factory by the first quarter of 2024, so that’s perhaps the biggest one. Beyond that, we plan to continue our focus on giving our customers the service and support they require, and adapting to the changes that are happening in agriculture, so we can give the next generation of farmers the machines they need to protect their crops.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BEGIN WORKING WITH WITHAM GROUP?
Witham has been our paint supplier for a considerable time now. Witham supply us with paint that is made specifically for us, to our unique colour and to the specifications. We require a paint that can stay tacky for a longer period and therefore work well with items we manufacture that are not easy to paint.
The most important attribute for us is communication. Knowing I can pick up the phone and speak with Tom, Dave, Ralph, or Nigel anytime is a big plus. We choose to work with Witham because we feel we can get the best back-up, a family business like ours that works to the same high standards. They could also produce a product to meet our specific requirements.
OUR DEVELOPMENT: COMMITMENT TO TOMORROW’S FARMING
Sands has underlined its dedication to the future of farming and crop protection in two keyways. The first is family management continuity, ensuring that existing and potential customers can be assured of the company’s commitment.
While the first mark of dedication is in the business’s people – and in addition to senior management Sands is committed to training its employees and helping them to develop their skills – the second is in premises. Over time, Sands has developed manufacturing facilities that are a match for those of any other firm in the UK self-propelled sprayer business. Now, though, plans are underway for the development of a whole new manufacturing facility close to the existing Stalham site, in the most significant development in the business’s history.
OUR MANUFACTURING: MAKING AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE IN-HOUSE
SAM sprayers are all made at our Norfolk factory, where we manufacture most of our machines from scratch. Key components such as engines, electrical equipment and tyres are sourced from trusted external suppliers, but almost everything else in made in-house. Here, we design the entire machine, from chassis to cab and tank to boom. Using the very latest technology, we cut and fold steel, employ a team of dedicated welders to complete key components, and have a team of talented paint sprayers for the best possible finish, while our expert assembly engineers know every model of our range inside-out.
With a SAM sprayer our customers can rest assured that their machine has been built by people who care about their work and take the highest possible pride in it and what it means for the businesses.
OUR QUALITY STANDARDS: ONLY ONE LEVEL
Whether customers order from Sands our smallest and simplest machine or the largest model with full specification, we treat every order identically – with the utmost care and attention. Each is subject to the same high standards that have kept customers coming back to Sands for the past 50 years.
OUR MACHINES: SOMETHING FOR EVERY SIZE OF FARM
We produce a wide variety of models, which can be tailor-made to suit customers’ individual requirements. Our high capacity, high output ‘Horizon’ range offers users a comprehensive choice of self-propelled crop sprayers with capacities of 3,000, 3,500, and 4,000 litres. At the top of the Sands line-up is the recently introduced ‘Infinity’ series, comprising two models with 5,000 or 6,000 litre tanks. These machines feature an all-new chassis, a turning circle of just 7.6m, adaptable four-wheel steering, new cab, fully independent suspension, and a track width that can be adjusted from 72-88in/1.8-2.2m.
OUR BACK-UP: NO MATTER WHERE
With Sands, our customers’ sprayers are supported directly no matter where their location. In the UK, machines are backed up by a spread of strategically located sites, at the heart of which is our Stalham factory headquarters, at which a team of five dedicated field service engineers is based. With a strong following for our machines particularly in the combinable and vegetable heartland of Lincolnshire, we operate a satellite service centre at Holbeach, with a further dedicated service team of two. Customers in and around the north of England and into Scotland benefit from a dedicated parts facility into which we ship essential spares for customer access around the clock. To support farmers across the west of England and into Wales, we have a dedicated franchised dealer based in Evesham, Worcestershire.
All these service centres are supported by Sands-approved self-employed service staff across the UK. With Sands, support is never far away. And we also have sales and service agents around the world, across continents from Europe to Australia.