Cream of Cwmbran

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Cream of Cwmbran
Me & My Factory: Tim Wilson, md Loseley Dairy Ice Cream

I was born and bred in Yorkshire. The only reason I'm here in Wales is that the Kildwick-to-Crossflats flood-relief scheme failed, effectively putting us out of business. Having said that we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves in such a beautiful area -- the countryside reminds us of Yorkshire in many ways.

My wife Liz and I started Yorkshire Dales Ice Cream at Cononley, in the Aire valley near Skipton, 20 years ago. The factory was damaged several times when the River Aire burst its banks. But in November 2000 we had a truly catastrophic flood. There was six feet of water in the cold store and the factory was devastated.

There was no way we could continue on that site, and that's when we decided to join forces with Thayers, the Welsh ice cream manufacturers, who already owned the Loseley brand.

We operated out of their Cardiff factory to begin with. Then in 2002 we purchased this site at Cwmbran, and spent 12 months equipping it to the highest food standards. Now we're producing all three brands -- Loseley, Thayers and Yorkshire Dales -- from here.

In volume terms, Yorkshire Dales is the biggest brand. But some of the multiples seem to think the name is a bit regional, so when we merged with Thayers we settled on the Loseley name. Of the three, it's the brand that's best known in London and the Home Counties. We sell 8m single-portion pots in theatre-land each year, and we're the official supplier to Wimbledon.

This had been a Panasonic factory before, so the main work was putting internal drains in place, which was a massive operation. There are kilometres of drains and pipework now. We also had fully vitrified tiles put down throughout the factory, each one laid by hand. If an epoxy floor gets damaged it can end up like a patchwork quilt and any seepage underneath can cause major issues. So we went for tiles, which can easily be replaced, and used a Microban-impregnated antibacterial grout. We took the tiled floor up to a stainless steel kerb and we set the Microban wall panels into that.

We tiled the entire factory, including the storage areas. I'm really glad about that now because we've just started expanding into that space with two extra lines.

We've got about 8,000m2of factory area on a 13.5 acre site, with plenty of room for expansion. There are six lines running. Lines 1 to 3 are for pots, from single-portions up to 2 litres; line 4 is all fruit or milk lollies; line 5 is choc ices; and 6 is stick products like our choc or fruit Maximums.

We've got a new robot packer on Line 6, from Bradman Lake in Bristol. It's the first one they've installed in the UK. After the lollies have been made and flow-wrapped they're picked up and counted by the robots into retail cartons. There's integrated carton erecting and closing too.

We've aimed for a high level of automation in packing, so we've got some fairly sophisticated Europack collators on the tub lines. They're quite nifty because they invert every other tub before shrink-wrapping them, which means you get a tighter bundle and less wasted space.

We've moved to shrink-wrap instead of cartons on all but one of the lines. That was an idea I picked up when I was looking at ice cream factories in the States. You have less inventory and, more importantly these days, less packaging waste, which is a benefit to customers as well. The saving is getting on for 30g per tub, which over the year adds up to tonnes.

We're very busy at the minute, and we're in the process of building two more lines -- another 2 litre line and one for 0.5 litre or 1 litre tubs. Those will help us with extra volume we've picked up from the combined Morrison/Safeway business.

At the moment, it's our mix plant that governs capacity. Its current output is 5,000 litres an hour, which makes about 9,000 litres of finished product once we've added air to it. We're probably producing about 120,000 litres a day, but it rather depends on the product mix since we supply such a large proportion of single-portion tubs. They don't take a vast amount of ice-cream.

There are separate recipes for the three brands but the process is identical regardless. A liquid ingredient goes into one tank, a dry one goes into another, and then they're pumped backwards and forwards to blend them. They're pre-heated to 60°C, then the mix is diverted to a pasteuriser, and while that's being done we're preparing the next mix. The whole process takes about half an hour.

We homogenise the mix to rearrange the fat molecules into a degree of uniformity, which gives you a creamier texture and longer shelf-life. An ice cream mix is pretty much a solution that doesn't want to stay a solution. When I was young the bottled milk on your doorstep used to separate, and if you were up early enough you'd get the cream off the top. I could never see the point myself -- I preferred an extra hour's sleep. But homogenisation stopped all that anyway.

After that, we cool the mix to 4°C and pump it into an ageing tank, where it 'rests' for about 12 hours -- usually overnight. We've got 13 tanks altogether, in a separate tank farm, ranging in size from 2,000 to 10,000 litres. It depends on what we're mixing for -- filling 2 litre tubs obviously needs a bigger tank. The whole mixing process is controlled by a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, and that allows us to call the mix from any of the tanks to any of the lines.

Moving here has been a real challenge in terms of design, layout and implementation, but the biggest challenge has been having brand new employees. We've got 100 people here, and no more than six of them worked for us previously. Thayers was only 13 miles away from here, but for a lot of people it was not possible to travel the distance required.

I like to think of this as a family business. Liz works here full-time, and my daughter Alice is our marketing manager. With so many new employees, we've had to work hard at creating a team spirit.

There is definitely a reservoir of good, skilled people in Wales and we've been lucky in that staff turnover has been low -- touch wood. It's just that we've been trying to train new people and commission new machinery at the same time. We did include a high degree of innovation in the design, especially on the environmental side, which can create its own problems.

For example, we created two artificial lakes in the grounds so we can use the water for cooling our compressors. It looks pretty, too. But we did have a problem, basically because of poor construction. The designers failed to take into account the natural water table, and when that rose it began pushing the liner up from underneath.

Another thing was the reed bed we introduced for the natural treatment of effluent. You don't get 100% out of reed beds until they're fully established -- and this one's not established yet. So we've got a settlement tank ahead of it where we collect solid waste, and we're experimenting with using microbes there, as well as in the reeds, to help digest the effluent.

We'll always need to control what we put through the reed bed so we don't overload them. But the good news is that when they're fully operational we'll be getting clean water back from them.

Going forward, water prices are going to escalate, sewage treatment will get more expensive, and the government is reducing the number of landfills and increasing the tax on them.

We've also installed some huge underground tanks that we use to capture and store rainwater to top up the lakes. Someone said to me: "So, you harvest the rain, then?" I thought that was a nice way to describe it.

The other pioneering thing we've done is build a glass walkway the length of the factory so we can have visitors round. They've got a separate reception area and a mini-cinema where they watch a video about the factory. And there's a shop where they can buy ice cream to take home, packed in dry ice. We had 45 Women's Institute members round yesterday, which meant we had to make 45 cream teas too.

From the walkway, visitors can see 100% of the process, and the local schools are over the moon about being able to show children a factory in production. We charge a nominal sum so as it becomes more popular I'm sure it will more than pay for itself.

Interview by Mick Whitworth

personal

Name: Tim Wilson

Age: 56

Career highlights: Md at Yorkshire Biscuits and chief executive of Argyll Foods' manufacturing division before becoming founder-md of Yorkshire Dales Ice Cream in 1984. Yorkshire Dales merged with Thayers/Loseley in 2002.

Domestics: Married to Liz, with two daughters. Alice is Loseley's marketing manager; Anna has just passed her Bar exams.

Outside work: "Liz and I are both foodies. Our greatest pleasure is to cook quietly at home, just for the two of us. I suppose you'd call my style 'modern brasserie' -- simple cooking but with top quality ingredients."

factory facts

Location: Loseley Dairy Ice Cream Ltd, Loseley Park, Llantarnam Park Way, Cwmbran NP44 3GA. Tel: 01633 833000. http://www.loseleyicecream.com

Size: 8,000m2factory on a 13.5 acre site.

Number of employees: 100.

Main products: Loseley, Thayers and Yorkshire Dales ice cream and lollies.

Throughput: 120,000 litres of ice cream a day.