Steelmaker to cake maker

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Related tags: Cakes, Cake, Baking

Steelmaker to cake maker
Me & May Factory Interview: Adrian Bowen, Dyfed Bakery Manager, Memory Lane Cakes

We have five bakeries on this site, making boxed round cakes, sponge cakes, loaf cakes, celebration cakes -- the large 'happy birthday' type -- cake bars, mini rolls, mini cakes and muffins.

It's a massive range -- something like 130 different products altogether -- and some of our lines are baking and packing 24 hours a day.

We make cakes for all the major multiples, including premium ranges like Tesco Finest, Sainsbury's Taste the Difference and Asda Extra Special. I think we've got product in every supermarket in the country.

We're also two years into a five-year contract with Nestlé to develop and produce licensed products for them, like Rolo, Smarties and Yorkie cakes. That contract has already been a massive thing for this site, and there's huge potential there too. The board is talking about something in excess of £30m per year, just on Nestlé lines. At the moment, our total sales are about £50m.

This is a 10-acre (4ha) site, employing just over 1,000 people, which makes us the biggest private employer in Cardiff.

Although they are more or less under one roof, the five bakeries are each treated as cost centres in their own right. Four of them have bake-and-pack capabilities, the other is primarily a finishing unit. We call that the Glamorgan plant, and it mainly decorates speciality or celebration cakes. Then there's the roll plant, making mini rolls and cake bars. The autobake plant produces mini muffins and cup cakes. And the Gwent bakery primarily makes bases for finishing in the Glamorgan plant.

I look after the Dyfed bakery, which is probably the hub of the factory -- it does about 60% of the site's output. And I'm effectively the number two to Paul Mitchell, the operations director.

In the Dyfed bakery, we mainly do 6in sponge cakes, 5.5in and 6in round cakes and loaf cakes. Any other time we have is utilised making cake bases for decorating in the Glamorgan unit.

We have three baking lines in Dyfed, two making round cakes and one making sponges. There's a finishing and packing line for each of the cake lines, and two for the sponge line because it churns out product much more quickly. Cakes are typically in the oven for 60 minutes at 160°C, and then they're cooled for about 2.5 hours on spiral coolers. But it only takes 18 minutes to bake a sponge, and they cool in about 45 minutes because they're much less dense. So we also have two spiral coolers to cope with the volume on that line. It produces about 5,000 cakes an hour, compared with an average of about 2,000 per hour on the cake line.

We've seen considerable growth in the four years since I came here. In the Dyfed we've gone from 110 baking hours a week on cakes to close to 200 hours, and from 70 to 110 hours of sponge. And we're now producing around 12,000 cases of cakes and 9,000 cases of sponges a day, with cases generally being sixes or nines.

Like most bakeries, we're only partly automated. Finishing and packing are very labour intensive. You've got people adding jam, buttercream, and a variety of weird and wonderful toppings from fudge pieces to chocolate curls. It's possible to do cutting and creaming automatically, but to make up all those different toppings automatically would be cost-prohibitive because there are so many different specifications.

So we'll typically have about seven people on each line looking after mixing, depositing and baking, and de-panning cakes onto the spiral cooler. But there will be more like 30 people per line on the finishing and packing side.

In Dyfed, I've got 350 people working across nine different shifts, and most of those are part-timers, so the labour control element is quite key. It's not something you can take your eyes off and relax.

All the different products that we run have different finishing requirements, so the labour can vary from eight to 24 people. We have to work closely with planning to get the best labour utilisation.

At 3.00pm each day we're doing the labour plan for the next day, working out how many we need in two- and four-hour slots. The biggest problem with 350-plus employees is knowing how many will actually show up. I work on who came in yesterday, who's on holiday, and then make an estimate. So there's an opportunity to get it wrong big-time if you're not careful.

I came from a different industry -- food can-end and beverage ring-pull manufacturing -- and we certainly didn't have these problems then. I did my apprenticeship with British Steel, then joined American Can at Rhmney, in the Heads of the Valleys area.

It was a real culture shock coming here. In can-end making there was zero labour turnover. The shop floor were very well paid, and you practically had to kill someone before you'd get kicked out.

That plant closed because they were moving production to the Czech Republic, where the labour was cheaper. I became aware of a position here, because the personnel manager at Memory Lane had previously worked with me at American Can. I managed to leave, with my redundancy package, before the plant shut as I didn't want to run down a plant where I had been for 22 years.

Memory Lane had been taken over in 1997 by an entrepreneur called Richard Ashness, and the new owners had put a lot of hard work into making the plant viable. But the Dyfed bakery had been without a department manager for some time. My arrival in February 2001 coincided with investment in new mixing and depositing technology, and they were experiencing some problems with the change. Most of it was just about new equipment, organisation -- making people responsible for the jobs they were supposed to be doing -- and working closely with the engineers, planning and technical departments to get things right on a daily basis.

One difficulty was that Paul, our operations director, was trying to do two jobs: looking after the whole site, but also trying to spend as much time as possible in the Dyfed department. He put a hell of a lot of effort and commitment in but it needed someone who could come in, just focus on Dyfed, and get everyone working as a team.

I quickly realised there was a core of people who had been here a long time and were very experienced. Working with them, and a group of highly committed line managers, we had some success. But it took about nine months, and there was a lot of pain and a lot of sleepless nights. Because of the continued effort from the team in general we now have a consistently efficient department.

Today the site has five bakeries that produce consistently well. The challenge for the operations team now will be to explore how to make even more labour savings on a daily basis by best utilisation of our flexible workforce across those departments.

We've grown very quickly, and at Christmas 2003 we took on too much work. It was very stressful -- and we didn't have a good time financially either. Basically we took on too many complex products: heavily decorated sponges that took up too much time. Normally we can bring in seasonal people and agency temps around Christmas. But we were working so inefficiently that we ended up bringing in people who didn't have the skills we needed.

One of the things I noticed when I came here -- and I haven't changed my view -- is that we have a board of directors who are very approachable, and who will listen. After that terrible Christmas, they got everyone together, asked us what we thought had gone wrong, came up with an action plan, and then really stuck to it. Hence, when it came to Christmas 2004, things went much more smoothly and improved financially.

About 18 months ago we were taken over by the Finsbury Group, which has quite an illustrious board, including Lord Saatchi. It hasn't had any obvious impact day to day. We have seen an increase in business and investment is continuing. We've seen £8m investment since 1997, and we're about to spend £600,000 on our first bit of automation in finishing and packing in the Dyfed bakery.

That will be on the sponge line. Most of those products are very simple -- just a jam or cream filling and either a plain or cream topping sprinkled with either coconut or plain sugar. So we're going to automate the whole process, from cutting to cartoning, using Turbo Systems' equipment for the application of cream and jam and Bradman-Lake for the flowwrapper and boxer.

That's going to decrease the labour requirement on sponges by 50% -- and means we can redeploy those people on the hand-finishing lines. Most people buy with their eyes, and they still want that individuality in a round cake.

Personal

Name:​ Adrian Bowen Age: 51

Career highlights:​ British Steel apprentice. Worked as a fitter for three years before joining American Can, progressing through engineering supervisor and shift manager to department manager and finally joint operations manager employed for 22 years. Joined Memory Lane in 2001

Domestics:​ Married to Gaynor, with two grown-up children

Outside work:​ "I play golf, mainly at the weekends -- I also like gardening -- and I'm a great socialiser"

Factory facts

Location:​ Memory Lane Cakes, Maes Y Coed Road, Cardiff CF14 4XR http://www.ml-cakes.co.uk

Site size:​ 4ha

No of employees:​ 1,000

Main products:​ Round, sponge and loaf cakes, celebration cakes, cake bars, rolls, muffins and cup cakes under supermarket own-label and Nestlé brand

Turnover:​£50m a year