Floor to ceiling

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Value added

Floor to ceiling
She may have worked her way up to divisional operations director but Allison Smith has her feet firmly on the shop floor

Allison Smith, divisional operations director, 2 Sisters

I'm basically a people person. What I enjoy most about my job is meeting people and at 2 Sisters I get the opportunity to do that. Coming originally from the shop floor, I know just how people feel. But I am quite determined.

I've been divisional operations manager for 2 Sisters' Scunthorpe and Flixton sites in Norfolk for six months. I oversee both sites and am responsible for technical, engineering and environmental issues. I spend about half of each week at each site and ensure that we meet our customers' requirements. Before that I spent four and a half years at Flixton.

I started work here at Scunthorpe when I was 19. I'd been travelling in Germany after working as a nanny for a family on a US air base. I came back to the UK and my sister had a job here prior to training to become a nurse and she got me my first job. The site provided free transport from my home in Doncaster, which also helped as at that time I didn't drive.

I worked for a year on the shop floor, before I was asked to transfer into the technical department looking after products supplied to KFC. It was a very different role, carrying out quality control work, and I quite enjoyed it. It was there I realised there was much more to the job than just packing chickens. Within six months I was made a supervisor, then I became a senior supervisor. At that time we were working with frozen chicken, but it's all fresh now. When we started Line One fresh packing, I was promoted to manager of that line before moving on to becoming shift manager working on whole birds and portions and eventually became factory manager.

**Feet on the ground**

Having worked my way up from the shop floor I understand what the job involves. I know how hard it is getting up at four o'clock in the morning for a six o'clock shift. But it has been great for me and I've done very well. However, it's not always been easy. I believe that the harder you work, the luckier you get.

Each morning I drive up the hill to work I'm thinking about what I want to achieve that day. I am very fortunate in that I love the job, although I get tired sometimes because I live my life out of a suitcase. My pet hate is my mobile phone, because you are never away from work. I need people to know that they can always contact me - and I tend to get a lot of calls because we are on short order lead time, which means that orders are coming in at eight o'clock in the evening for the following day.

Being a woman has never been an obstacle for me in this business. As the only female when I sit down at a management meeting at Flixton, I know it's unusual having women in my position but it doesn't bother me - and I can talk about football like the rest! In fact, it was through one of my colleagues at Flixton that I got into supporting Aston Villa (but I watch Hull as well).

When I first moved to work in Flixton, the site was in trouble. We were only processing about 400,000 chickens a week and I had to bring it up to 680,000. We're well on target now. Moving from somewhere I had worked for 14 years helped to make me a more rounded person. But it was probably the biggest challenge of my career, especially moving away from family and friends. I love going to work in Flixton now - it's such a beautiful area.

You change with experience. I know everyone has bad days. But if you're in a bad mood it can ricochet through the factory. So on a difficult day when everyone is feeling up against it, I find the best way is to smile and try to bring some humour into it.

Take our busy periods leading up to Christmas, when people tend to get a bit stressed: we have a lot of pre-planning and I try to mirror expected demand by second-guessing retailer demand. I'll make a conscious effort to remain calm; I'll smile and put my arm around the person and say: "Look, we can do this." When there are problems, people know that they can come to me - when they are stressed, adding to it doesn't achieve anything.

We are like a family. One of the greatest moments of my life was here. I'd taken seven driving tests over a year and failed each one and I can always remember coming into the factory and taking a lot of ribbing. But when I passed after the seventh attempt they gave me a standing ovation in the canteen! The people instil strength in me because they show so much confidence that I'm going to make everything okay for the site. They make me feel so humble some days. There are still people here at Scunthorpe from when I first started. When I returned to Scunthorpe, it was about filling in the gaps on the four to five years since I'd been gone.

I always have my breakfast and probably tea here in the canteen before I go home and people will come and join me. Anyone can join me any time they want to. In the first few weeks back I saw so many baby pictures and wedding photographs. Meanwhile, some of the supervisors had moved on to become managers - it's a nice natural progression. Theoretically, as I succeed I need to take my team with me, because you are only as good as the team below you. It's about recognising what each individual wants to achieve.

**Talent spotter**

Our business relies on a large amount of migrant labour - Lithuanians, Portuguese, Kurds and Poles - and managing diversity is an important part of the training we provide. It's all about recognising talent - including amongst the overseas nationals - and bringing them through the business so that we have the team leaders, supervisors and departmental heads that we need.

The Flixton site processes 680,000 birds a week, while Scunthorpe does 1.8M. Flixton does a large part of our specialist chicken for retail customers. We slaughter and pack whole birds and portions - all hand filleted. Traceability is key. The remainder of birds slaughtered on site are shipped to our plants in Birmingham to be processed into portions.

At Scunthorpe, 350,000 whole birds are supplied to retailers, and 150,000 are cut for foodservice. A further 450,000 birds go for rotisserie, while the remaining birds go to the Birmingham plants for portioning. It might seem strange to ship birds to Birmingham, but we have a lot of cutting skills there and birds need to rest anyway before they are processed, which they do during the journey.

Also at Scunthorpe we have our added value department, where we do things such as chicken en croute and marinated BBQ products for customers. A typical example of the sort of things I get involved with are the British Retail Consortium (BRC) hygiene audits and various customer specific audits. We achieved BRC Level A at Flixton recently and the Marks & Spencer hygiene audit just before that. Next week at Scunthorpe we have our environmental audit.

I sit in on all the audits, which some auditors find unusual. But because every one has a different view of your site, you can learn so much from them. I take the audits as an opportunity to improve - not as a criticism.

The day-to-day running of the site is about recruiting the right people and putting them in positions of responsibility. This allows me to focus on making improvements and adopting 'best practices', such as pest control procedures or making sure that everything is in place for, say, an environmental audit; making sure there are sufficient chemicals and bunding for chemical containers; or ensuring that all the drains have been properly risk assessed. Ethical and environmental issues are becoming more and more important for us. We are developing strategies with some of our customers on these.

One challenge we face as an industry is the future loss of migrant workers, who I expect to start returning home soon. But probably the biggest challenge the industry faces is meeting tough new environmental standards.

Interview by Rick Pendrous



Location: Foxhills Industrial Estate, Ram Boulevard, Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire DN15 8QW

Weekly throughput: 1.8M chickens at Scunthorpe, 680,000 at Flixton

Products: Whole birds, portions and value added products for the major retailers and foodservice clients

Staff: 1,000 at the Scunthorpe site and 550 at Flixton



Name: Allison Smith

Age: 38

Career highlights: "Turning around 2 Sister's Flixton plant in Norfolk and meeting former Marks & Spencer chairman Lord Burns and former chief vet Debby Reynolds, who visited the site in recognition of the achievements we have made here."

Domestics: Single - "no kids and no cats."

Outside work: "In the small amount of free time I do get, I like to do as little as possible - have a nice bath, watch a 'chick flick' and have a chat with the girls."

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