Sprinkle sprinkle ice cream star

Posted on 11 May 2011 by The Manufacturer

Ice cream accompaniments manufacturer Askeys has a rich history that dates back over 100 years. A takeover in the mid-noughties heralded a change of culture and a raft of much needed investment; the company has gone from strength to strength since. Askeys has had to work hard to get where it is today, but it’s certainly now benefiting from the Silver Spoon in its mouth. Mark Young reports

Britain sure does like its ice cream. In peak season, Askeys makes one million cones per day at its factory in Aylesbury. It also produces wafers, sprinkles, biscuit baskets, flavoured crumbs and sauces under its brand. Today, the business is positively thriving, with a turnover that has increased from £6.5m to £8.5m in the last three years. It has an 80% share of the UK retail market for ice cream peripherals and a significant share of the market for restaurants, cafés and ice cream vans. But things haven’t always been quite so sweet for Askeys in its 100+ year history.

The company was founded in 1910 when Italian immigrant Laurens Tedeschi set up his family business in London and, with it, introduced the ice cream cone to the UK for the very first time. Soon after arriving, the family changed its name to Askeys and that’s how the brand began. The business was moved to Scotland before settling at its current manufacturing base in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire in 1965 when it was acquired by Kellogg’s. It stayed under the famed cereal maker’s ownership until 1995 when it was taken over as part of a management buyout. Though this takeover seemingly heralded a fresh start for the firm after a period of underinvestment, it wasn’t long before cracks began to appear.

“Short term profit was really the name of the game at that stage and not a lot else,” says Abdullah Khan, site manager, who joined the company three years ago. “The new owners weren’t really in a position to put the necessary investment in for long term sustainable growth.” After more than a decade treading water, in 2004 the business was bought out again – this time by The Silver Spoon Company, the retail trading arm of British Sugar. It was with this acquisition, Khan says, that the company was finally in a position to begin to realise its potential. The Silver Spoon culture is based around five values: customer focussed; open and accountable; one team; creative solutions; and ‘can do’ attitude.

“The introduction of this culture has completely revolutionised the way we work at Askeys and it’s been the cornerstone of our recent success,” says Khan. “Now we’ve got owners who have the supporting infrastructure and who are ready to make the investments we need to grow.”

The cream of the crop
The Aylesbury factory has certainly taken to the task with aplomb. Last year it won an annual award given to the team or site across the Silver Spoon group which best displays its values.

And its efforts haven’t gone unnoticed outside of the company either. Also last year, it was given the Judges’ Special Award at the Food Manufacture Excellence Awards for its innovation in redeveloping a product line. The company had foreseen that its coloured ice cream cones – a fringe product – would have to be redeveloped as they contained one of the Southampton Six – a group of food colourings which research suggested could have adverse affects on hyperactivity in children.

The business couldn’t find a substitute colouring with the same vibrancy, so, it took the bold step instead of relaunching the product completely as a chocolate cone with no artificial colours.

The move was a roaring success and the new product became one of Askeys’ biggest sellers last year.

Khan accredits the marketing and technical departments as having played an integral part in this success. “One thing we’ve been able to pick up from Silver Spoon is their very mature understanding of customer insights in the home baking arena,” he says. “Our marketing department recognised that there’s a growing trend in people wanting to provide wholesome foods for their children and taking pride in preparing foods themselves.” He says there is also a upward movement in people wanting to spend time having fun in the kitchen with their kids, because of both austerity measures and the fact that people can control what goes into their children’s food.

This has inspired innovation in not just ice cream cone offerings but also in the area of cake decorations. Overall, the business launched 12 new SKUs, under the Cakecraft brand, in 12 months with a total investment of £120,000.

“This has been a massive challenge for us,” says Khan, “but with the support of our parent company it’s been a massive success. The cake decoration market is growing but we are far outperforming that growth.”

Packed with new ideas
The other main area of innovation Askeys has concentrated on is packaging design. The company has reduced its packaging by 15% over the last two years by looking at different kinds of materials and density. It has also now committed to using 100% recycled cardboard where possible. “We’re trying to do everything we can in terms of the environmental impact of our packaging,” says Khan.

“This is even more important, given that the shape of our products means we have to transport a lot of air.” As you’d expect, Askeys has had to pay breakages a fair bit of attention when it comes to packaging. Last year, it launched a project on its highest breakage item – waffle cones – of which it makes 39,000 packs per week. As a result of the programme, complaints-per-million-units (CPMU) have been reduced by 63% in a year. Work on impact testing and breakage testing was completed in Askeys’ own laboratories and the business came up with a number of variables in shape and size – both of the thermoform tray which the cones sit in and the outer cardboard boxing. It transit-tested the different designs before choosing the one with the best results. It has also added protective corner posts to the pallets it uses for transportation.

Says Khan: “We went through the supply chain to ascertain where the breakages were occurring, sampling at our own warehouse and at each stage of the distribution process. What was clear to us was it wasn’t just one place – that’s why we had to redesign the packaging. It was a very robust exercise.”

The programme means the company has incurred significant costs, initially, because of the time spent on the effort and the recalibration of the plant and processes. But the cost benefits lay in repeat business. Khan estimates that less than one in ten consumers who receive defective goods will complain – the silent majority will simply stop buying the product. This year the company has seen strong growth in waffle cones and Khan says the breakages programme must be apportioned at least some of the credit.

The art of engagement
Breakages have also been a concern at the production level and this provides a perfect example of how Askeys’ employees have embraced the company’s improvement culture.

Recently, an employee on the hand packaging and inspection line noticed that an oven producing 180 cones per minute was breaking cones in a specific area at regular intervals, to a degree of around one per cent. He worked with an engineer to fabricate a new part for the conveyor on the oven which guided the cones around the area they were snagging and breaking. “It was a sizable amount of damage for us and this employee took it upon himself to not only perform the root cause analysis but also design and implement the fix, after getting the go ahead from managers,” says Khan. “This signifies the change in culture that we’ve seen on site in the three years that I’ve been here. The employees are now proactively looking to feed into and improve processes and the company is ready to listen to a good idea.”

The senior managers have implemented an initiative where each must nominate an employee for demonstrating strong use of the company’s values at a weekly meeting.

The employee described above made a perfect candidate. Out of the nominations, two to three are selected to receive a thank you card from Khan and a voucher and all go into an annual draw for bigger prizes like a large flat screen TV.

“This scheme is a good indicator of how far we’ve come,” says Khan.

“Initially the mangers were struggling to come up with nominations. Now, I’m constantly fighting to ration them to one.

People used to wait for instructions and they weren’t encouraged to think. In the past three years that has changed markedly. People are engaged a lot more and they are ready to challenge.

And they are ready to offer their time and solutions.” To instil the culture of productivity efficiency throughout the business, the company brought in an external consultancy to give the employees the tools to take control of improvement in their own work areas. One improvement that came out immediately was the need for short interval performance monitoring and reporting. “Before, we were very good at reviewing the last day’s performance,” says Khan. “But that was too late; we couldn’t do anything about it then. Unless you’re capturing information and the people on the line are aware of how well they are doing you’ll never change performance.” When regular monitoring began, an employee noticed that the tins for the Café Curls crispy rolled wafers product we’re being over filled by five per cent every time. As soon as it was registered, the problem was rectified immediately.

Through this productivity improvement programme, labour costs were reduced by 20% in two years.

This year, productivity is up by eight per cent and if this level is sustained the company will hit its annual target, meaning each and every member of staff will receive a cash bonus of £450.

The Askeys family
Profit and productivity are one thing, but people, says Khan, are Askeys’ primary concern. It’s fitting then that Silver Spoon has been investing heavily in health and safety in recent years. Around £250,000 of investment has been put up so far for things, like replacing the antiquated guarding around some of the machines.

There has also been a big emphasis on behavioural safety in an effort to continually drive down the chances of an accident. The company is in the middle of a project now to move all of its machinery and appliances over from 240 volts to 110 volts. “240 volts could kill you; 110 volts will only shock you,” says Khan.

Major accidents have come down markedly over the last few years – the site has now gone just shy of 500 days without a major accident. It celebrated at 365 days by giving everybody a day off. But recorded minor accidents and near misses have gone up lots. This isn’t because the employees have become clumsy all of a sudden, it’s because Askeys has implemented a no-blame culture for reporting any accident at all, however small, or, indeed, a near miss. “If we know about things then we can do something about them,” says Khan. “We even promote small paper cuts and grazes as being reported as small accidents just so we can analyse the root causes. Now everyone who handles cardboard wears gloves because we had a record of the problem.” He adds: “People don’t come to work to get hurt. You can make money, you can lose money, but when you injure somebody its unforgivable. We will not compromise the safety of our Askeys family.” Recently, Askeys was awarded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents ‘Order of Distinction’, achieved by earning 15 years of gold awards consecutively. So far this year, only 79 companies in the UK have been given the accolade. Fittingly, given the nature of its product, Askeys loves to throw a good shindig whenever it gets a chance.

To celebrate its centenary last year, the company held a “huge” fun day for all of its employees and their families with activities, games, a BBQ, and a childrens’ dancing competition. Even the town’s mayor got in on the act.

This focus on employee engagement, reward and well being has led to absence rate of less than two per cent, against an industry average of 2.5 – 3%, according to figures from EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation.

In terms of employee turnover, “the only people I’ve ever known to leave are those that retire or leave for personal reasons,” says Khan. “It’s a nice place to work. I’ve always been a great believer in engagement activities. Our people come to work to do a good job and we look after them.” That’s cause for celebration in anyone’s book. Make mine a 99 with a flake, nuts, strawberry sprinkles and chocolate sauce please!

Askeys at a glance

Formed 1910
Based Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire
Ownership The Silver Spoon Company
Key products Ice cream accompaniments – cones, sauces, sprinkles etc
Markets Mostly UK, some exports to Middle East
Key stat In peak season, the factory produces one million ice cream cones per day