The real meal

Posted on 8 Feb 2011 by The Manufacturer

Having added at least 10% to its turnover in every year since its inception a decade ago, Mark Young finds Kettleby Foods’ success is down to a steady supply chain, innovative process improvements and a commitment to its people.

Based in an East Midlands town perhaps most famous for pies, the Kettleby Foods bakery in Melton Mowbray was the first chilled ready meals site opened by Samworth Brothers, back in 1999. As a completely new entity at that time, Kettleby was created to take advantage of a growing appetite for good quality meals that are conducive to the busy modern lifestyle of today’s Britain.

Setting up this dedicated division has proved to be a savvy move by Samworth. Kettleby has added at least 10% to its turnover every year since its inception, in some years doubling it. This year is expected to be no exception.

Having initially opened with a 60,000 sq ft new-build factory on a nine acre site, Kettleby has steadily expanded over the last ten years. Its main site is now 72,000 sq ft and in June last year it opened up a 32,000 sq ft satellite site 800 metres away from the main site. This new facility, enabled with £4.5m investment from Samworth Brothers, gives it capacity for a further 400,000 meals per week.

The next development will be a storage facility also on the existing site which will consolidate storage in one area instead of spread over the site. This too could potentially house production facilities when growth necessitates; Building is due to begin this spring. The justification for this is the significant increase in raw materials and packaging to deliver exciting new product development and thus sales growth.

Kettleby’s product portfolio consists mainly of traditional British dishes like cottage pie, beef stew and liver and bacon. It supplies these to Tesco and Morrisons under the UK supermarket giants’ own brand labels.

Snow problem
Kettleby supplies chilled ready meals – as opposed to frozen ones – and freshness is its concern. The company has always been under pressure to maximise shelf life without the use of preservatives, but it is a challenge it has more than conquered. The company has a constant source of supply, including at least three deliveries of potatoes and two of meat, onions and carrots each day. This allows it to remain flexible to the needs of its customers, who place estimate orders at 6am and firm orders at 4pm for delivery first thing the next day.

However, that isn’t to say that life doesn’t throw in a card or two as a test every now and again. Take December, when heavy snow engulfed the UK, as a case in point.

Kettleby’s main beef suppliers found themselves snowed in and unable to deliver from Sheffield and Lincolnshire.

It was looking as though production might have to stop but, as Kettleby and Samworth Brothers keeps good relationships with a secondary tier of suppliers in addition to its main ones, managing director Ian Arnold was able to arrange a last minute emergency supply from a company in Lancashire.

“Because we have a good relationship with them, they are prepared to help us out at short notice,” he says. “Samworth Brothers as a group has always been dedicated to working with suppliers to improve efficiencies and is dedicated to paying on time. This means suppliers are ready to make us their priority when they have limited goods or a situation arises like we had in December.” Consequently, no order was delivered short as a result of weather which brought much of the rest of the country to a standstill.

Standard practice at Kettleby is to have key ingredients delivered from at least two main sources. “That’s a big part of our risk management,” explains Arnold.

Consistency in the supply base is also a key factor for success. Kettleby’s main potato supplier has been the same company for the past eight years, and one of its meat suppliers has been on board for the entire 12 years since Kettleby set up shop.

Supermarket promotions also offer the company a chance to test its steel. On a half price or buy one get one free promotion, Kettleby can expect demand to increase by as much as 30 times its usual levels. To meet this demand, Kettleby has to continually work very closely with its suppliers to ensure they are ready to react. Hence, the technical manager spends one day off site each week working with the supply base on quality, demand and process development.

“Unless you’ve got a very stable supply base you can’t go out and buy in the open market when you’ve got variation in demand like ours,” says Arnold.

For consistency and quality assurance, all suppliers have technical specification which they have to achieve. Potatoes, for example, only have a 3% range for dry matter.

Getting better all the time Kettleby has put much effort into creating an employee led culture of continuous improvement over the last few years and has profited from greatly improved efficiency in its processes as a result.

One team leader, Joseph Kumirayi, found a way to save significantly on raw materials while also increasing product quality. Part of the system Kettleby uses for cooling its sauces involves a paddle which stirs and agitates the sauce during the process so that it retains the correct consistency. Joseph noticed that the design of the paddle meant that when it was stirring sauces like onion gravy, much of the solid material was getting trapped around the arms of the paddle. He suggested an altered design which would circumvent the problem. Now installed, the new paddle saves the company several kilograms of onions per batch – amounting to an annual monetary saving of around £75,000.

In another example, Kettleby uses one machine to cut its jacket potatoes and another to insert fillings. Previously, it was using two members of staff to transfer the potatoes from the first machine to the second. However, John Kettell, an assistant team leader, realised this was needlessly inefficient and worked with a team of external designers to create an automated conveyor belt system to improve the process. The system cost only £2,000 to implement and takes away the need for two employees to perform a routine task.

Recently, shadow boards were introduced onto the shop floor which show where each tool should be kept, as a result of an ongoing focus on 5S.

The next stage of this involves two operatives, trained as kaizan leaders, who have been given open brief for blue sky ideas on how to improve the flow of people around the changing room and boot room areas. They will be looking at things like the positioning of overall lockers, boot rack s and overall hangers as well as the layout of hand wash and boot wash stations.

They’ll be consulting with cross functional teams from around the site – seeking suggestions from the workers affected – and will feed back their recommendations in three months.

Personnel manager Jo Carver says: “We began a big focus on continuous improvement training and brought in external training providers at the beginning of 2008 as a way of demystifying the process and obtaining common buy-in from the staff. Since then, 280 of our employees have completed the Business Improvement Techniques (BIT) NVQ to level two.

“It’s fair to say that not absolutely everybody buys in first time around but it is vital to get a critical mass of people who are confident in their own scope for making a difference and confident that the business is encouraging them to come up with ideas and solutions – that really breathes life into what we want to achieve.

“We’ve now got a real breadth of knowledge and experience. Our employees are at the point where if they see a quick and easy fix for something on their line – in terms of quality, efficiency or health and safety, they come forward because they know we’ll do something about it quickly.” Monthly continuous improvement meetings are held between senior managers and cross-functional teams of employees where all ideas are sounded out and progress from ongoing programmes is reported.

Community centred
Kettleby likes to show its employees that they are valued and it rewards good work and service milestones. Five years at the company, for instance, is celebrated with lunch served by Arnold and his senior management team, who also donned their aprons to serve up Christmas dinner to each and every employee over a week long period in late December. Ten years’ service is rewarded with a boat trip, band and a barbeque.

“Our staff are really important to us,” says Carver. “People work hard here and we like to give something back.” The prospect of Arnold dishing up must be an appealing one; Kettleby’s annual labour turnover is just 8.7% – extremely low for the food manufacturing industry. Shortterm absence last year was below 2% – another indicator of good morale.

Supporting the local community is also important to Kettleby. A recent example saw 24 volunteers from the company spend a day transforming a local community hall for a day with expenses – including wages – paid by Kettleby and with Arnold returning covered in paint.

Every week nine employees go to a local primary school to engage in reading classes for 6-7 year olds in a scheme run by Leicestershire Cares. Kettleby has been involved in the programme for nine years.

“It’s part of our corporate social responsibility in that it really helps the school children, but we find that it also helps our employees to build their own self-confidence and sometimes even helps some of them with their own communication and reading skills,” says Carver.

In December, the staff raised £630 for the MENPHYS Collect for Christmas appeal and also donated 150 presents.

The money will go towards supporting a new transport service to take kids to and from community centres.

Arnold has targeted growth of over 25% within three years – a feat that looks entirely achievable, given Kettleby’s track record. Some of the credit for this must go to Samworth Brothers, though. Arnold says: “I’ve worked for other companies within a group but I’ve never worked anywhere which gives you the tools and the support to get on and grow your business quite so much as here.” If the owners are an asset to the company, the same is certainly true vice versa. Kettleby Foods’ growth record speaks for itself, but when you look beyond the surface it’s clear that all the key ingredients are here for a company which is only going in one direction.