Starting out in the 1970s, family business Favis of Salcombe Ltd (formally known as WK Favis & Sons t/as Salcombe Crab and Lobster) saw the market for its fresh-caught crab and lobster shrink in the recession, but then a new market opened up for it in China.
This has resulted in a time of rapid growth, which saw it win the title Exporter of the Year at the Western Morning News Business Awards 2013.
The business, which trades as Favis of Salcombe Ltd, is a family affair, which now exports between eight and 30 tonnes of live crab to China every week.
It was established by William and Valerie Favis in 1976, with sons Nigel and Kevin coming aboard in 1982 and 1984 respectively.
Both sons began their careers by going fishing from their parent’s 37ft day boat. Then in 1986, the family acquired a Vivier, with a saltwater tank for keeping live crabs, enabling longer trips of up to seven days out to sea.
“We fish the same areas and have done since 1986; mid channel 40 miles off Salcombe,” said Kevin, who along with Nigel is now land-based as they have taken over more of the day-to-day running of the business from their parents.
The business has up to 20 employees at peak times – “we’re pretty busy, packing for China” - with nine crewing the fishing boat and five other full-timers.
In its early days, the business supplied most of its crab to processors and clients including Young’s seafood and London’s Billingsgate market.
By the mid-eighties, the business had begun to export to Europe, with increasing numbers of freight lorries being dispatched to Devon from France.
“You get French crabbers fishing alongside us,” said Kevin. “But the demand is so great, they pick up from us, as well.”
Crabbers, French and English stick to their own patches of seabed, according to Kevin, as part of a long-standing gentleman’s agreement. By doing so, he adds, each boat is responsible for the husbandry of their plot; returning crabs that are below the minimum size back into the sea and ensuring that each will have a got few years of breeding before being ready for the pot.
“A crab fishery really looks after itself,” said Kevin. “If you don’t land them when they are too small, they have those extra years of breeding. Since you fish the same area, if you don’t put them back, you cut your own throat.”
Favis and Son’s lead into the Chinese market began pretty much by chance, when a visiting agent from came on a scouting mission to South Devon when the recession was at its peak.
“Luckily, our boat was in at the time and he said: I want to buy all your crabs,” said Kevin.
“Most of our crabs had been going to France, but four or five years ago, the market was poor and we’d had to sell one of our boats. The future was looking pretty grim – so the China market has helped a great deal.”
The relationship between Favis and the Shanghai-based company has grown and, as a result the Salcombe business has gone from exporting one tonne of crab per week to Shanghai, to sending eight tonnes per week to Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.
At peak times, this can rise to 30 tonnes of crab every week - around 80% of its total catch – with the business growth now having levelled off, after a few years of rapid acceleration.
Weekly deliveries are also still made to France, Spain and Portugal.
The crabs are packed live in iced polystyrene boxes, in which they can survive out of water for 30 hours. They are transported by road up to London where they are freighted to China from Heathrow and returned to salt water tanks when they reach their destination.
While the business has not been impacted by the torrential floods and related chaos of recent weeks, the winter downpours of 2012 proved disastrous when torrents of freshwater diluted the briny in Salcombe Bay.
“Fresh water kills crabs and it was soul-destroying,” said Kevin. “When we land crabs, we put them in store cages in the harbour.
“This year, we have an articulated trailer with tanks in it and if the water’s of poor quality, we can put them in it and keep them alive that way.”
With six of their own children between them, Kevin and Nigel are focused upon maintaining and growing the business, to hand down to a third Favis generation.
Kevin has not ruled out the acquisition of an additional boat in the future and the business has recently completed the undisclosed-value purchase of a new hub building located close to Salcombe, into which they have consolidated a number of storage facilities and units previously dotted around. This also has capacity to handle bought-in catches, with the business also handling crab caught in Scotland, at this time of year.
Reflecting on the company’s WMN Business Awards win, Kevin said: “We were very honoured to get it.
“”Every year, it gets harder to export; there’s more and more red tape, which is quite long-winded. But it’s worth the hard work and let’s hope it carries on.”