Cultivating green shoots

Posted on 9 Aug 2010 by The Manufacturer

From singlehandedly developing the UK watercress industry, Vitacress has established itself as a leading European grower and packer of salad and vegetable products. Tim Brown discusses with members of the Vitacress team the differentiating factors that have afforded the company its considerable success.

Originally founded by Malcolm Isaac in the 1950s, from a single acre of watercress bed, Vitacress expanded its growing base to be the first to develop a pre-washed, ready-packaged watercress offering for the retail market.

Expanding the product range to include lettuces, spinach and other kinds of baby leaves, the company quickly developed a reputation as a reliable supplier of healthy, nutritious and fresh salad products. In order to support the company’s growth it expanded its supply chain expertise and capabilities. To ensure that the product could be presented in the freshest possible way to the consumer, the raw material is not only grown in the best possible way but it is also kept cold and transported quickly.

While still headquartered in Hampshire, Vitacress is now a fully-owned subsidiary of Portuguese company Grupo RAR, whose portfolio of diversified businesses includes packaging, contract manufacturing, food, real estate, services and tourism. With consolidated sales of 900m euros (2008), it is present in Portugal, Germany, Spain, Poland and the UK employing 5400 people. The 2008 acquisition followed the prior year’s purchase of Wight Salads, leading UK producer of tomatoes largely based on the south coast.

Delivering freshness

The UK remains the largest market for Vitacress, although the company is also joint market leaders in Portugal and is building a considerable share in Spain. “The Portuguese and Spanish markets are supplied from our farms in Portugal where we also have a modern pack house,” says Mike Rushworth, managing director of Vitacress Salads UK business unit. “During the peak UK season, in the pursuit of freshness we supply from our UK farms in to the UK.

Outside of that period when inevitably we can’t grow in the UK, our own farms in Portugal and our joint venture partners in Spain supply raw materials in to the UK.” As well as ensuring freshness, UK production director Andrew Davidson says the company employs a procurement strategy that plans for 80% of its projected needs to come from its own farms and the balancing 20% from partner growers, giving the company flexibility in supply and geographic (climatic) hedging, since the weather has a massive impact on growth rates and continuity.

In addition to being highly dependent on favourable weather, Vitacress must also overcome difficulties associated with the delivery of a product with a very short shelf life. “But growing our salads as close to the factory as we can is only part of the strategy” explains Rushworth “we also run an industry leading cold chain…simply defined as “Keep if cold.

Move it fast”. To that end we beat the frozen pea claim of field to frozen in 90 minutes…we aim to go from field to chilled in 60 minutes!“ “The packed product then has a shelf life of five to six days in store. The difficulties associated with the delivery of a product with such a short shelf life is the single biggest challenge within the business. To meet this challenge we use our own internal logistics to take the product when it is the ideal size and quality,” says Rushworth.

Growing together

With such a strong emphasis on in-house operations, Vitacress has undertaken a number of procedures to ensure effective communication, process improvement and staff development. The business has been divided into various areas including planning, production (growing), inspection, and operations with individual teams allocated within these areas, known as mini-businesses.

To assist with the development of the business’ culture and its staff, working with a company called Competitive Dynamics, Vitacress implemented a system called ‘mission directed work teams’. It is a ten module continuous improvement programme which includes both people development and process modules.

“Goal alignment and 5S are the two core modules,” says continuous improvement manager, Rachael Williams. “The system recommends the implementation of goal alignment initially, as we did in 2004 which develops the concept of the level one mini-business teams at the foundation of the business and creates a structure within the more senior levels, through which information cascades both up and down throughout the business.” Every area within the business has undergone 5S and now follows set standards. The majority of teams will do an end of shift checklist and the company also uses a team of auditors that visit the various areas of the factory. “We’ve seen a massive improvement generally in our standards and there is no doubt that the base standard has risen considerably.

We do however expect to see peaks and troughs where standards will improve and then stabilise for a while. In these situations, we fully expect to have to introduce another initiative to achieve the next improvement.” Rachael admits that maintaining staff engagement in continuous improvement requires constant attention.

Indeed, the goal alignment and 5S modules have been re-launched several times to help sustain involvement. “In August 2008 we launched a recognition event, something we had never formally done in the past. Now every quarter we recognise those that are performing best or showing the most improvement across the various aspects of our continuous improvement programme. We are also focusing a lot of resource on people development and training and so we had a training recognition event at the end of last year.” “We’ve taken a view that moving forward in terms of profitability is essentially governed by how fast we can improve,” says Rushworth. “We knew that the obvious improvements we could make would eventually come to an end and that we needed some sort of structured framework to implement new changes. Our capacity is now approximately 70 per cent higher using slightly less equipment than it was before we implemented continuous improvement.”

Raising expectations

Vitacress washes its salads in pure spring water drawn from the deep chalk aquifer beneath its Hampshire factory.

The process of “Washed only in Pure Spring Water” is unique to the company and has become a strong market differentiator and is fully supported by their major customers Sainsburys and Marks and Spencer.

“After almost two years of development we implemented Washed only in Pure Spring Water back in 2007,” says Rushworth, “and we manage the system in such a way as to make it non-consumptive, the wash water flowing from the factory being used to reduce the nearby abstractions to grow our watercress. We then go one further in making this a truly sustainable operation, using the water flowing from the watercress beds to feed a series of chalk streams we have created on the site which have become a fantastic biodiverse habitat. This concept of “borrowing” pure groundwater to wash our salads, using it to supply our watercress beds, and then to feed some very special chalk stream habitat fits perfectly with our philosophy of minimising our environmental impact – the company’s efforts in this regard have been recognised in a number of prestigious environmental awards.” “Having a Washed only in Pure Spring Water offer is very important to the positioning of our products in the market” says Rushworth “but equally important are their nutritional credentials. We have a number of research projects underway with the University of Southampton aimed at better understanding, communicating and continually improving the health giving properties of our salads. This work has paid major dividends with watercress, helping us position it as a leading “Superfood”.

Vitacress has most certainly made a concerted effort to ensure the company is moving steadily in the right direction, and those improvements have not gone unnoticed. In 2006 the company won the Zurich Best Factory of the Year award as well as several other awards including best supply chain. Not only was this a welcome surprise considering it was the first competition of that kind that the company had ever entered but it also demonstrated to the management that it was indeed taking the right steps towards improvement. Most impressive of the company’s accolades was to be named the 2009 Sainsbury’s Supplier of the Year particularly considering the international level of competition.

As the company continues to grow it is looking to continue to innovate in terms of its products, packaging and processes. Recently the company launched a rocket leaf with wasabi flavour as well as a new branded offering, Steve’s Leaves, that allows the company greater freedom with its marketing and packaging for better communication with end customers. Such a commitment to consistent development has certainly led to tremendous achievements at Vitacress but the business is very aware that the scope for further improvement is enormous. Vitacress recognise that continuous improvement is “never-ending” and is all about adding value on the journey, rather than reaching an end-point. With this approach hopefully its continued development will undoubtedly lead to further business improvements and most likely their fair share of industry accolades and recognition.