Jane Gray talks to Mark Duddridge, managing director at Ginsters, to find out how the company is satisfying the nation’s growing hunger for its products while also feeding its own prospects for future growth.
With winter firmly set in, there are few to whom the thought of a piping hot pasty does not seem deliciously appealing. Thanks to Ginsters, the oldest and largest member of the Samworth Brothers food manufacturing group, the prospect of satisfying this cosy nutritional mirage is now available in wide variety at a multitude of corner shops, supermarkets, service stations, leisure centres and other points of retail right across the country. Mark Duddridge, managing director at Ginsters explains how the company has grown over the past three decades, from a modest Cornish enterprise, into one of the nation’s best known food brands: “When the Samworth family bought Ginsters back in 1977 the company was operating out of a very modest facility in Cornwall and totalling about £1m turnover a year. That would now represent less than half a week’s sales.
“The growth has been made possible through investing in a modern bakery, modern manufacturing practises and in the brand. The brand is what makes us a little unusual in the [Samworths] group. It is very predominant nationally whereas many of the other members are own label operations or less recognisable brands, like Dickinson & Morris the pork pie brand.”
Winning the name game
Ginsters has used direct consumer marketing and “non-standard retail markets” in an aggressive push towards securing a place in the 50 national brands, food or otherwise.
Investments into machinery and workplace skills have also been absolutely essential. Without them, Duddridge knows the company could never have secured its current market share or output capabilities. “The amount of units we can now make per week has gone up three or four-fold thanks to the automation investment.
The direction of investment over the years has always centred on unlocking production bottlenecks by being more efficient. Our only other option was to keep growing floor space and doing things the same way as ever. The technology route was very risky for us because, although the equipment we are using is fairly common in other food industries, we had to work hard on making it bespoke to the special needs of savoury pastry products which are more fragile. The benefit, however, was that at the same time as significantly growing productivity we were able to maintain the same site footprint.” Ginsters decision to dedicate the £20m odd that it has in its bakery equipment has not solely been led by productivity considerations however.
Duddridge says the second key driver has been the lean principle of valueadd: “Like many markets now ours is extremely competitive so anything we can do to remove processes that do not directly add value to our products is critical. Putting things into packets, putting packets in boxes, labelling and palletising aren’t adding much to the finished product as far as the consumer is concerned. Our philosophy is that once a good product has been baked we really don’t want to have to touch it again. We are now pretty close to achieving that. We have automated three high care lines and palletising and the work is continuing.” Furthermore each new investment, which also now includes baking and cooling technologies, has been carefully optimised using lean principles to minimise downtime and maximise process consistency and flow. “We have not just looked at the investment in terms of bits of kit,” says Duddridge.
Optimising processes and equipment in this way has not been easy though and Dudridge knows that the improvement battle will never be over due to the constantly changing demands of customers and the innovation of new products. “Keeping up with sales growth efficiently has been our key driver but we have had to adapt our improvement focus over the years,” he says. “The product range we are selling now is quite different to what we might have expected three of four years ago. Changes in customer base and consumer demand have meant alterations in shapes and sizes and pack formats. In the first bits of kit we got I don’t think we built in enough flexibility for this kind of thing but we have got a lot better at that. We have learnt lessons and had a small team really focusing on this problem so that the last two lines we have put in are extremely flexible to allow for the dynamic conditions we didn’t anticipate with the first. Particularly in the three high risk high-care lines this has meant we have been careful to use the same supplier for each; a company which understands our business hugely well and with which we have a good learning relationship.”
Leave nothing to chance
There is no doubt that the high-tech bakery Ginsters has been able to continue building throughout the recession has been the fortuitous product of its strong growth in recent years and the relative ease of access to finance that this has brought with it. Duddridge though is proud to say that, although Ginsters has benefitted from fortunate timing in some ways, careful planning, hard work and rigorous reporting have meant that, in the long run the company made its own luck: He says: “We have invested some £20million in the last four years. Because the business has been growing and Samworth’s overall has been growing it has been – I will not say easy – but it has been OK to secure the funding and to put the case to lenders and investors.
However, on an ongoing basis because we have been very careful in the projects we have chosen to do and have worked hard to make each one a success we have been able to build confidence. When we are looking for funding there is a track record that demonstrates when we say a certain piece of automation will achieve X, it will do so. We do a lot of post capital justification activity.” Making propositions for what current and future investments will deliver in terms of business capability and customer value is however getting harder Duddridge says: “It is very tough out there. Consumers have less disposable income and are being very careful how they spend their money. This impacts on the behaviour of retailers and the pressure on us for cost reduction is quite intense. Although we are very keen to continue our improvements this cost pressure means we have to be very careful how we invest and vigilant in ensuring that every project will enable us to keep driving efficiencies up.”
Power to the people
Although this automation and efficiency talk may sound alarmingly like a Skynet style ‘rise of the machines’ to some readers concerned for Ginsters’ 770 Cornwall-based employees, Duddridge would be quick to dispel any such fears. Throughout the four years of investment in new technology and automation Ginsters has maintained a steady staff turnover with retention rates consistently in the mid 90 percentiles. Duddridge clarifies: “Throughout the investment we have not lost staff, we have redeployed.
The key thing with the automation initiative was to reduce handling costs. We have been lucky that we have continued to grow so that we still need every employee and what we have thankfully been able to do is create a far more skilled workforce of technical operators. We have an extensive training and personal development programme which helps staff develop the process, engineering and product knowledge they need to get the best out of a bakery which is very different to the one which existed five, or certainly ten, years ago.” A key area where skills have changed dramatically is in packaging. Duddridge recalls: “Five years ago everything we baked was fed into a wrapping machine, each product being presented by hand. In addition the products were then placed in boxes by hand and the boxes themselves where made up by hand. Now nobody touches any of that.
It is all done by robots and machines. What this means for the people involved in packaging is that as well as retaining all their knowledge of the product, which they needed to do their job before, they have to know how to operate some very complicated bits of kit in terms of knowing how to set up the rights programmes, doing elements of preventative maintenance and managing the process by making use of the data which is automatically collated by the machine.” The front end area of the bakery is another area that Duddridge identifies as having undergone a similarly dramatic transformation in terms of the skills needed by front line staff. It is a change which the MD sees as hugely empowering but one which has required careful management. “Building technical skills has been one thing but building confidence has proved to be, in many ways, more important,” he says. “People have responded very readily to learning and training but it one thing knowing the facts about how to do something and quite another to apply that knowledge independently and with confidence.
A lot of our staff have been with us for many years and all of a sudden they are being asked to do a very different job. With the right support most people have responded brilliantly.” Delivering all of this personal and professional development has been achieved through a number of different routes. Work has been done with the regional Cornwall colleges to develop bespoke courses for the training that needs to be done off-site, other technical skills have been taught onsite using Samworth’s own academy for employee development and other third-party resource has been recruited for specialised personal development schemes. Duddridge says: “The development provision is a matrix of in-house and third-party provision but where we are using external help we have always made sure it is with people we have worked with for donkey’s years. So people know who they are working with and there are no strangers coming in.” The attention to employee progression throughout a period of such tangible change in the way Ginsters works is an area of particular pride for Duddridge and reflects a broader appreciation of people and community within the company culture. “Both Ginsters and the Samworth’s family want very seriously to be responsible members of the community. We want to reinvest in the local community as we grow. We work with local suppliers for beef, pork, vegetable, flour, cardboard – the list goes on. If we can get a local supplier then we do. This is of benefit to us as well as the local economy as it helps keep food miles down and everything is as fresh as possible with deliveries coming several times a day.”
The big picture
Not all links between community engagement and business benefits are so clear cut, but Ginsters remains committed to the belief that if they show they care, the rewards will return sooner or later. Duddridge says: “We do a lot of volunteer work with the homeless, with schools, with an initiative called Chicks – Country Holidays for Inner City kids – and we do a lot of care challenges. We also now have a strong programme with staff to get them to be more conscious about their lifestyle and activity levels. That initiative is now used as an example of best practice nationally and the great thing about it is that it represents a low financial investment but has managed to engage a huge number of staff and has made a big impact on activity levels in the workplace.
We do all this work because it makes a difference but it is also linked in to our training and development of staff and it reinforces our position as local employer of choice. Looking to the future we can be confident that our reputation for how we treat and develop our staff will enable us to capture the best talent.” With such an holistic vision it is hard to see Ginsters’ growth trajectory meeting with much resistance as the broader economic outlook begins to brighten and the British government throws its weight behind the concept of a rebalanced economy in which manufacturing has a prominent role to play.