Against all odds

Posted on 9 Mar 2009 by The Manufacturer

John Gatenby, managing director, explains to Louise Hoffman how Vale of Mowbray has stood the tests of time

Vale of Mowbray was founded in 1928 when seven brothers bought an old brewery building in which to begin food manufacture, and the company’s trademark product – the pork pie – was central to its range even then. It was remarkably successful, and continues to be so to this day, but its journey has been by no means a walk in the park.

In 1961 the firm “was purchased by FMC (Fatstock Marketing Company) and they bought it as part of a plan to have a national distribution of sausage and pies under the Harris banner – of course, Harris was a very famous brand at that time,” explained managing director John Gatenby. “But that failed miserably, and in 1968 there was a mass reorganisation of the company because it was losing money. Harris withdrew from national distribution and Vale of Mowbray was left as an independent.”

In 1981 the floundering FMC was bought by Hillsdown Holdings, thrusting Vale of Mowbray into new hands yet again. But parent company problems soon resurfaced: “For various reasons there was a demise of Hillsdown and that split up into three organisations in the mid 90s. There was a desire by the Hillsdown board to sell off all the meat businesses, and Vale of Mowbray was one that was sold to private buyers.”

Which is where Gatenby himself steps in, along with colleague Doug Graham (now retired), as the new owners of Vale of Mowbray.

The strength of the business throughout its history, even despite the surrounding gloom of parent company downfall, has been mostly thanks to its products, with Vale of Mowbray pork pies having found success at their 1928 roots and from their 1971 relaunch through to the present day. In fact, the firm now produces between one and one and half million pies every week.

And this success is yet more impressive when you consider the hindrances the product has experienced, from the modern day concerns over salt and fat content in foods, to the soaring prices of raw materials and energy.

“Input prices are very serious at the moment,” said Gatenby. “Flour, for instance, is double what it was in August 2006 – it was £160 per tonne back then, and now we’re up to £320 per tonne. And we use 45 tonnes per week!”

Meat costs have also seen an increase of late, as well as gas, electricity and fuel. Indeed, “the cost of pallet load delivery has gone up by about 20 per cent in the last four months.”

But the company has tackled these issues head on, embarking on several major operational and product improvement projects. “You can never get the full cost returned straight out of price increasing – it doesn’t work. You have to keep improving efficiencies,” Gatenby commented.

The efficiency and quality of the main factory were already high as it had gone through a complete rebuild following a major fire in 2002 – yet another hurdle the company has jumped. Indeed, the facilities have been awarded a highly coveted ‘A grade’ EFSIS (European Food Safety Inspection Service) rating. “Only about 30 per cent of manufacturers get an A grading as we understand, so we are very proud of that,” he smiled.

In order to achieve (and maximise) operational efficiency, the firm is ensuring that the entire workforce shares a keen understanding of its importance. “We are training all our people on a level two NVQ in Business Improvement Techniques, and we are implementing as a company the lean manufacturing initiative,” said Gatenby. “Hopefully the training will help us to retain staff and improve the appeal for new and young people coming into the industry. It’s a twopronged attack – one is to give staff a qualification, and two is to help the company reduce the cost of production.

“Lean is a very topical way of improving your techniques and processes, and to date we are finding it very useful,” he added.

Recent investments in new equipment, increased automation and structural changes have also contributed to the improvement evolution. A £0.5 million extension to the dispatch and loading facilities is currently in progress and due to be finished just in time for the Christmas rush, while two new machines are set to accommodate the firm’s new product offerings. “This year we have put in two new pork pie lines – one is already installed and the other is about to be delivered – to make six pound pies and three pound layered pies. We also have two large machines which make our snack range – 80 grams – and the individuals or small pies which are 125 grams. Those machines have been in line since 2003 and are fairly automated.”

Product development is seen as a key factor in the continued success of the firm but, due to the static nature of the industry, it did not receive top priority. Now, however, Vale of Mowbray is investing much resource in this area. Having seen significant demand for its bitesize pie, launched last year, it is hoped the new layered pie will also prove a hit with the consumer. “We are also going to launch a 45 gram cheese and pickle a bit later in the summer, which is not a new product [to the market]… but we see an opportunity in our customer profile to launch that product. And then we are tweaking some of the recipes to improve some of the aspects and to give longer shelf life.

“One of the main factors in the good eating quality of a pork pie is the crispness and succulence of bite of the pastry, so the longer you can keep it crisp, the better,” he enthused.

Looking to the future, Vale of Mowbray has a target – to increase its turnover by £9 million over the coming few years. “We have about 18 per cent of the market share now, and if we reach our goal, that will take our market share to about 25 per cent,” Gatenby stated.

It’s come this far, so why shouldn’t it reach for that pie in the sky?