Making Cheddar

Personality and profitability in the West Country.

There couldn’t have been a finer July day to drop in on Wyke Farms, located just outside Bruton, Somerset, than graced my trip last week.

Set in a rural idyll, the cheese manufacturer was always careful to preserve a comfortable relationship with its environment as it sought growth; not to become a blot on the verdant landscape around it. And the attention to detail in maintaining this attitude even now that the company is turning over almost £60m and exporting to 150 countries was evident as I toured the sun soaked facilities.

The digester vessels for Wyke Farms' new biogas plant.

Richard Clothier, Wyke Farm’s MD and grandson of Ivy Clothier whose cheddar recipe first sparked the business, was disarmingly keen to show me every aspect of his dairy and packaging facilities as well as the company’s ever expanding green energy and waste management portfolio. Most recently this has included the commissioning of an impressive biogas plant – due to be officially inaugurated on September 22 – but the company also has two CHP generators, an array of solar panels, a water treatment plant  and bought a Nissan LEAF to use as a company car. In total, phase 1 of its two phase green investment plan racks up to £5m.

There’ll be more on these investments and the integrated Wyke Farms 100% green business strategy in our November Energy Supplement which addresses strategies for on-site power generation, but while Mr Clothier hot-footed me into the packaging facility to show off a £3m investment in automation which has made the line “the most advanced in Europe” according to the MD, I tried to remind him that we were actually due to talk about him and his recent nomination as Personality of the Year in Food Manufacture magazine’s awards.

The big cheese

Clothier is a dynamic character and he is palpably passionate about his business. So when Morrison’s supermarket announced a supplier rationalisation campaign in June 2012 which asked suppliers to bid for the position of lowest cost, he felt degraded.

“I took it personally,” he told me, “And I don’t see that as a fault,” he told me. “I own this business and I believe in our brand which stands for more than simply quality, but for sustainable business in its fullest sense.

“To accommodate the cost reductions would have gone against my whole brand philosophy. A brand is more than simply a promotional label. Our brand has substance. It has provenance, history and real values and to that end I don’t think we should ever have been included in that supplier review.”

Clothier was clearly very disappointed in Morrison’s approach. While he says he appreciates that they had fallen on tough times, he felt they were not assessing their categories strategically and he was angry that they would compromise a brand which was working very hard for them. “Our products were selling very well in their stores,” he says – around 40,000 packets a week were shifting.

While pride in his brand and commitment to his own growth targets were the foremost reasons behind Clothier’s stubborn refusal to tow Morrison’s line, concern for his beleaguered dairy suppliers strengthened his resolve.

The low cost of milk in the UK is a well-documented challenge to the dairy industry and Clothier says that he could not have met Morrison’s demands without passing on cost reductions to his suppliers – something the company had stirred up local discontent by doing a few years previously.

Refusing to meet Morrison’s demands provoked the inevitably supermarket edict and Wyke was delisted as a Morrison’s supplier. More fool Morrison’s.

Customers immediately started asking where Wyke’s products had gone. “When they couldn’t get a straight answer in store they started emailing us and contacting us via our Facebook page,” explained Clothier.

“Out of nowhere a social media campaign sprang up and people were giving tips about alternative places to source our products. We encouraged it, and while on the one hand it reached a crescendo that I almost felt was out of control, it was great to see consumers rallying behind the brand.”

Just a few days after posting an explanation about the delisting on Facebook, Wyke saw ‘likes’ go from 5,000 to 7,000 – today it has 25,0000 as well as thousands of followers on twitter – many of whom tweeted directly to Morrison’s about their supplier decision with the hash tag #keepwykeinmorrisons.

“When consumers feel strongly that their needs are not being met by retailers or that they are being taken for granted, they speak out about t and they take action.”

It’s a wonderful testament to the popularity of Wyke’s cheeses with its consumer base that the strident social media campaign and consequent supermarket switching, allowed Wyke to hold true to its annual commitment to grow the brand and minimised the financial impact of the delisting.

“Waitrose picked up most of the volume gap,” recalls Clothier. “Followed by Asda and the Co-op. There was some Switching the Sainsbury’s as well – but Waitrose did particularly well out of it.”

Impressively, despite the Morrison’s delisting, Wyke made such headway in its relationships with other retail outlets and in its relationship with consumers, that both turnover and profits held firm. Accounts closed in March 2013 with a turnover of £59m and pre tax profit of £2.1m – the same as had been achieved in the previous financial year.

Lesson learned? Social media is powerful, quality brands have a value that money can’t buy and there’s more to ‘making cheddar’ than chasing pennies.

Best of luck to Richard at the Food Manufacture’s awards where he is head to head with other sector leaders for the Personality of the Year Prize. The winner will be announced on November 21.

Wyke Farms has also entered The Manufacturer of the Year Awards Sustainably Manufacturer of the Year catergory.