Obituary: Fertiliser entrepreneur John Tooley pioneered farming innovations
An entrepreneurial and pioneering businessman who turned a sleepy Norfolk agricultural feed merchant into a major national concern has died aged 87.
John Tooley spent his whole career at Great Yarmouth business J and H Bunn, where he rose from order runner to chairman as it transformed itself throughout the 1970s and 80s to become one of the country’s leading fertiliser manufacturers.
After joining the Southtown Road firm in the post-war years, Mr Tooley soon became a regular fixture at weekly Corn Hall markets across Norfolk and Suffolk buying grains and feedstuffs from farmers and graziers in the weekly local markets. An important side-line included the distribution of fertilisers manufactured by household names like Fisons, Shell and ICI.
In the 1960s fertilisers were subsidised as the country sought to feed itself before the grain surpluses of the 1980s and Mr Tooley saw the opportunity to grow the business in a fertiliser market that was dominated by national companies.
He recognised that, based in Great Yarmouth, Bunn was in a unique position to import fertilisers across the short sea crossing from Holland to make more money selling imported fertilisers blended in Norfolk than could be made by reselling compound fertilisers made elsewhere in the UK.
In the early days, after a long day in the office he would join colleagues stitching hessian fertiliser sacks, where he lost a finger in the machine.
The force of his personality and commercial acumen put Bunn on a new path that saw animal feedstuffs left behind and ushered in a period of rapid growth that saw fertiliser turnover increase to nearly £200m per year from 13 UK production facilities employing over 150 people from the south of England to the north of Scotland by the time the Koch Brothers from Wichita purchased the business in 2011.
During a career of nearly 60 years, including 30 years as chairman, Bunn introduced many innovations to the industry including importing large self-propelled three-wheel Big A fertiliser spreaders from Kansas in the 1970s, popularising the use of mechanically-liftable half-tonne bags in the 1980s and pioneering the development of satellite-guided fertiliser applications in the 1990s – something that is only now becoming commonplace today.
Mr Tooley was one of five children of Bob and Myra, and who lived close to the business in Southtown Road in Great Yarmouth.
He married Shirley in June 1955 and four children followed including two that followed him into the family business, which was shared between two other families, the direct descendants of co-directors of Wallace Bunn, great grandson of founder James Bunn of Runham Hall, who died in 1964.
Under his leadership John ensured the company ran like a large family and he was always willing to help people advance in their own careers and personal lives.
Away from business, John was a keen rugby player and referee, and was one of the main instigators of the purchase Lowestoft and Yarmouth Rugby club grounds at Gunton Park in Corton, and served a long period as club chairman.
He was a past master and secretary of the Lodge of Friendship in Great Yarmouth and also a member of the old Framlinghamian’s Lodge in Suffolk which both supported a wide number of community events, initiatives and activities. He became chairman of the Fertiliser Manufacturers’ Association and served as a member of the Great Yarmouth Port and Haven Commissioners, a predecessor to the Broads Authority.
Mr Tooley was never happier than when entertaining and will be fondly remembered for his generous hosting of the Norfolk Rugby Cup in successive years in the 1990s. He developed a wide network of friends at home and abroad beyond the boundary of his Hopton home, near Yarmouth.
His funeral took place on May 3 at the Great Yarmouth Minster. He is survived by Shirley, children Belinda, Mark, Ian and Matthew, 12 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.