Cooking up success

Posted on 6 Aug 2010 by The Manufacturer

Mark Young hears about the business principles in place now and from the start that have taken KK Fine Foods from MD Leyla Edwards’s kitchen to an 80,000 square foot factory supplying the biggest brewery chains in the UK.

In the late 1980s, Leyla Edwards started her business as a mother of three from her own kitchen. Cooking vegetarian dishes which she supplied to local delicatessens, restaurants and hotels, she set out with two guiding principles for her food: innovative flavours and uncompromised quality.

“We went around pubs, working men’s clubs, delis and hotels – anyone who would listen to us – and most people hadn’t even heard of aubergine at that time! Vegetarian food was certainly looked upon with some scepticism. But in the end taste is the only real test. Once you got them to try the product they recognised the quality.” Soon the demand for the products grew and it was not long before Leyla had outgrown the capacity of her kitchen. A friend joined Leyla in her venture, and the two sought to raise the finance for their business.

After some persuasion, given the pair were new to business, a bank loan was secured for a 1,500 square foot premises. This allowed them to take the business to the next level. With a small, all-female manufacturing workforce, they increased production as their sales grew and new clients came in. They still had to contend with views that vegetarian products were still just a fad, but quickly built a reputation for quality and exciting foods.

“We worked extremely hard and long hours were the norm as I tried to cope with both a demanding home and business life,” says Leyla. “Looking back now, I wonder how I managed! But I felt a tremendous passion for the company and the industry, and this passion is still with me today.” The business continued to grow, and in 2001 Leyla bought out her partner. In 2002, an operations director and a financial director formed the first structure of senior management, and in 2003 Leyla built her first factory – a 30,000 square foot facility on a five acre site in Deeside, North East Wales. Two years later, a further 30,000 square feet were added and the company invested in state-of-the-art equipment.

Today, the company has 166 employees and turnover of over £13m. It produces 100 tons per week across more than 300 products. The range varies from soups, pates, pastry products, sous vide, and other ready meals. The cuisines originate from a number of different regions including Italy, UK, India, Thailand, Middle East and even Eastern Europe.

In 2004, KK expanded the product range to include protein, fish and poultry, applying the same principal of producing innovative, quality products at the right price on time.

Integrity, innovation and investment
KK has rigorous and robust release practices in place which entails products being tested daily for quality, flavour and appearance. Micro testing is done to ensure all the food safety requirements are met, and this is re-enforced by continuous auditing and the use of outside laboratories for technical testing.

The company continually invests in new processes; only this month a new process was installed which will give the company a further edge towards the image that it strives for.

Its new baking machinery will enhance the quality of their products and give them a special homemade appearance which deliberately contrasts against the mass-produced, machined feel which ready-meals are often blighted by.

“Our customers initially eat with their eyes, and then look towards the quality and price,” says Layla, “so appearances are massively important and form a big part of our ongoing strategy.” The company also knows that the quality of its products is dependent on using the best quality ingredients at the right price. In 2007, its Academy Kitchen was opened with five full time development chefs, where customers come and work along side KK development chefs to work on new ideas and concepts.

With most customers now opting for just-in-time service and minimum stock holding, KK realised the need to improve the supply chain department by strengthening it with new personnel and training in order to develop more efficient methods of working with the customers.

Next year, the latest CDC Factory Systems is due to be installed — which will allow every single factory floor user complete interface in terms of real time inputs, feedback, alerts and decisions surrounding their position. This gives every employee instant data to make valid judgments, allowing the company ultimate pro-activity in responding to its customers’ and manufacturing needs.

With a little help from my friends
With the world recession looming, Leyla and her senior management team were determined not to make any of her work force redundant. This meant they had to find other ways of cost saving in order to preserve the margins which customers continually attempted to squeeze. The company decided the best way would be training and development of its people, empowering them to be responsible and pro-active in their own areas of operation.

KK approached its neighbours, Toyota, for help. Toyota’s training team visited the KK factory and trained its staff on the principals around the Toyota Production Systems of Kaizan, Quality Circles and Gemba. Glyndwr University Business School then added some management science training to the middle and senior management teams.

Leyla says these training initiatives bred a new culture within the business and staff have become more aware of what waste means to the business. “We now operate in a way in which all employees own their own processes and make huge efforts to improve our bottom line by eliminating waste and drive productivity without compromising on our quality and service,” she says.

An example of efficiency improvements to come out of the work with Toyota is changeover times. Due to the large number of products manufactured weekly, the changeover and wash down times had been a big cost to the company.

Before the lean program it was taking the production team 30 minutes in between a changeover; within weeks that time was down to nine minutes.

“People are what make this company,” says Leyla.

“A happy workforce is essential to productivity.” And she’s prepared to put her money where her mouth is.

KK recently initiated an equal profit share scheme for the workers, and the company also offers share option scheme for all employees who have been with the company for five years and over. “This is the best way to reward and motivate everyone, ensuring everyone pulls together,” says Leyla. Good communication, conveying progress and company direction clearly and regularly is also high on the agenda. “We are all in it together; it’s a very democratic company. We work very hard and we enjoy our achievements.” These initiatives have helped towards a very low turnover of staff – typically 2% a year.

Leyla says challenging her earliest customers’ perceptions became a staple of the company’s missionstatement, and is a key reason for its sustained growth over the years.

“KK has always been able to think outside the box,” she says. “We are innovative, flexible, and proactive; we understand our market and our customers’ needs. We are a caring company that looks after and supports the work force and whenever possible the community.” What gives the company an edge over its competitors? “We are always evolving and we are developing along with the markets; we adapt to change.

I have a strong belief that we have so much to offer. We don’t compromise as far as quality and safety are concerned, and we don’t do half measures. We have a hunger and desire to improve and we’re passionate about what we do. We want to be the best in class and we work very hard to learn from our mistakes and put them right.” KK Fine Foods is a fantastic manufacturing story —a company that is undoubtedly set up on a bedrock of principles through which it cannot fail to flourish.