Sweet dreams for sugar campaigner

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Sweet dreams for sugar campaigner
Although he started out as a chemical engineer focusing on kit, Steve Williams soon realised that success was largely down to the way you motivate the people who operate your machinery


The one thing that attracted me to this industry was the diversity of processes. I'm a chemical engineer, and a sugar factory uses almost every chemical engineering unit operation except distillation.

At the 'dirty' end you have a huge-scale mechanical handling plant. At the peak of the annual 'campaign' here at York we receive nearly 11,000t of sugar beet a day from our 1,300 growers. Once it's inside, there's a chemical extraction and purification process: extracting sucrose, purifying the juice and crystallising the sucrose. And finally, there's a conventional food handling area, with high levels of product protection.

Our most obvious product is white granulated sugar. We process 1.2mt of beet a year and convert that into 190,000t of white sugar, all of which goes to industry. Our customers are mostly in the soft drinks, confectionery and bakery sectors.

Our next key product is animal feed. We make 100,000t a year from the fibre contained in the beet. Product number three is electricity. We generate all our own power. We have a CHP (combined heat and power) station and burn natural gas to produce super-heated steam. That's passed through a steam turbine to produce 10mW of electricity, and the saturated steam is used to drive the sugar manufacturing process. Any surplus electricity is exported to the National Grid.

We also produce Limex, which is sold to farmers as a soil improver, and conditioned topsoil, which we sell in bulk to the landscaping industry. When beet arrives here, 3-5% of the weight is soil. That's washed off before processing and then recovered, conditioned, screened and blended.

The life of a sugar factory begins in March when the growers plant their crops. The beet is ready for processing in September and the campaign then operates for five or six months, depending on the crop size. While we're processing the beet only half the sugar we extract is converted to crystal. The rest is stored on-site as purified sugar syrup. Then, in April, we bring it back into the factory and continue the crystallisation process, and we do that until the end of July. So we're producing sugar about 250 days a year. We then take the factory from completely stopped to fully operational over a few days in mid-September. That start-up period is very intensive and involves huge effort, but we can't operate any other way.

I started out as an engineer but I very soon realised that success in manufacturing was largely down to the way you harness and motivate the people who operate your machinery. Most of our employees have between 10 and 20 years' service. The danger, after that amount of time, is that people just learn to live with problems rather than solving them. But my approach is to say: if we can run perfectly for one hour, we can run perfectly for one shift. And that translates into a day, a week, and a year. If we can do that, our results will be infinitely better than they are now.

The factory is highly efficient, but it's not perfect, and we continue to concentrate a lot of effort on continuous improvement. It's simple Pareto principle: you set out to solve the 20% of problems that will have the biggest impact. Some are obvious once you find them - like the speed of crystallisation. It's a batch operation, and we quickly discovered there was too much dead time between batches, which was holding up the beet processing. That's now a key measure every day: the dead time in the crystallisation process.

In the mid 1990s I was part of a working group that had a vision of every British Sugar employee being salaried, with no more hourly-paid workers. When overtime is available the incentive is not always there to maximise productivity. Our vision was to reverse that: to give people a salary, with the overtime pay built in, but encourage them to be more productive in their normal working hours. It was agreed with the trade unions to move forward in that direction and it has been a tremendous success.

We placed huge trust in the people as well, by stopping recording time and attendance. We still record presence on site, for health and safety reasons, but not time and attendance.

Motivation is important, but the other angle is accountability. Years ago I was operations manager in a factory in Suffolk, and I remember one evening, after a long day when there had been lots of problems, that myself and two other managers were still there, working hard. I watched a shift change happening, and I saw lots of people who clearly didn't feel the same accountability that we did. They just went home.

Everyone wants to start and finish at a reasonable time, but we now aim to share, across the entire workforce, accountability for the key drivers that make the factory work well. Previously, when there were problems, the pain was only felt by a few people. Now everyone, in a big or small way, has accountability, and we have a real team that depends on the contribution of every individual. And we share the pride or the disappointment.

One example is the way we manage maintenance. Individuals now have personal responsibility for planning, executing, testing and making the factory ready to run. And they take real pride in the job.

How did we persuade people to change? I did a Masters degree in managing change a few years ago. If I could condense that into a few sentences, that would sum up how we did it. It's about understanding how your actions impact on other people and understanding that it's okay to talk about it. We discuss things openly on a daily basis. People know their role, they know its importance, and they know where it fits with our objectives. And if anyone struggles there will always be someone prepared to help.

We don't have to use fear to motivate people but they do understand the environment in which we're operating. For one thing, we have now had three redundancy programmes within British Sugar. These have been driven mostly by technical change - for example, moving from manual operation to automation using distributive control systems. And there have been factory closures too. Twenty years ago, when I joined, we had 12 factories. We now produce more sugar from just six factories. The closures happened in order to reduce our cost base, and the pressure to do that is continuous.

The European sugar industry is currently going through the most radical change in its history. It started with the World Trade Organisation challenging the European Union's sugar regime and the trade barriers it has created. Now, the European Council of Ministers is debating a set of proposals for reform of the sugar sector. The aim is to create a more efficient industry that can compete in a more deregulated environment. Our aim is to be a key part of that. And the workforce understands that.

But the concept of a private limited company and how it operates is not widely understood. I spend a lot of time helping people understand the reasons for our existence and the role that we play in the business. It's not just about making sugar. It's being socially responsible, it's adding value, it's delivering excellent customer service. But most of all it's about continuous improvement, because that's what our shareholders expect.


Location:​ British Sugar, Boroughbridge Road, York, YO26 6XF

Annual output:​ 190,000t of crystallised white sugar, 100,000t of animal feed, 50,000t of LimeX70 and 25,000t of conditioned topsoil, from 1.2mt of sugar beet

Daily capacity:​ 9,450t

Employees:​ 95, rising to 135 during the 22-week processing campaign


Name:​ Steve Williams

Age:​ 43

Career highlights:​ BSc (Hons) in chemical engineering from Birmingham. Worked briefly for industrial group Foseco Minsep before joining British Sugar as a graduate trainee. Worked as team leader, production and operations manager at various sites, including a year's project management in Poland. Completed MSc in managing change while working as organisational development manager, then became senior operations manager across all six sugar factories before taking charge of York site in 2002.

Domestics:​ Lives in Escrick, York with wife Clare and son Daniel

Outside work:​ Fishing, following the Welsh RFU team, walking and mountain biking in the North York Moors national park.

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