Movers and bakers

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Warburtons, Bread

Movers and bakers
Warburtons' southern invasion continues apace with the launch of a modern, £45M bakery in Avonmouth, Bristol. Elaine Watson reports

Coloured maps peppering the walls at Warburtons' new plant in Bristol leave visitors under no illusions about the scale of the firm's ambition.

The redder the map, the greater Warburtons' market share, and judging by the deep red hue of the 2013 map emblazoned across one corridor as you walk in, the nation's favourite baker is feeling pretty confident.

As Jonathan Warburton reminded assembled dignitaries and journalists at the site's official opening last month: "We want to paint Britain a deeper shade of red."

'Switch and save' campaigns from the major supermarkets notwithstanding, his optimism appears well placed. Much like milk processor Robert Wiseman, Warburtons has been steadily marching south over the last 15-20 years, building new, well-invested facilities in a market that has suffered from overcapacity.

And its rise has been pretty meteoric. From humble beginnings in Bolton in the late 19th century, Warburtons is now the UK's second largest grocery brand behind Coca-Cola and the number one selling branded bakery manufacturer with a 32.4% share of spend on wrapped bread, according to Nielsen data.

The bakery arms race

It is also in an enviable competitive position according to City analysts. While Warburtons and arch rivals Allied Bakeries (Kingsmill) and Premier Foods (Hovis) have all pumped significant amounts into marketing in the last 18 months, Warburtons has the most modern, efficient plants, stresses Investec analyst Martin Deboo. "Warburtons' operating profit margins are almost certainly better than its rivals'.

"There is a real capex catchup required at Hovis; some of its sites are a bit clapped out. Back in 2006 [before Hovis was acquired by Premier Foods], Warburtons' operating margins were almost double those at Hovis."

And while Warburtons might spend extra on sourcing bespoke wheat varieties from Canada, it is able to "more than recover" the margin hit through premium pricing, he claims.

It is also trouncing its rivals in the new battleground of the South West when it comes to growth rates, says executive director Brett Warburton.

While Nielsen figures reveal that Warburtons is still behind Hovis in the region with a 15% market share by volume versus Hovis's 18%, Warburtons' volumes in the year to May 16 grew 29% year-on-year whereas Hovis saw volumes slump 7% over the same period - suggesting its dominance may not last long.

So what does the new £45M bakery at Avonmouth, Bristol, add to the commercial equation? Perhaps the most significant development is temperature-controlled mixing, dividing and moulding, which has enabled the firm to increase dough consistency, work with less salt and reduce its dependency on improvers, says bakery general manager David Williams.

"This is unique. Temperature fluctuations can wreak real havoc in terms of consistency of product because heat affects the yeast, which in turn affects dough development.

"If it gases up too fast it can glue up the equipment. Some days there can be a 15-16 degree Celsius difference in temperature between dough mixed first thing in the morning and dough mixed mid-afternoon.

"You want dough to be at the same stage of its evolution every time it enters the next stage of the process, and if the temperature varies, that's incredibly hard to achieve. A constant temperature means a consistent product.

"Put it this way, when you open a new site, it can take 10 months to two years to achieve target efficiency levels. We did it here in six weeks, and having temperature control in the dough handling area was one of the biggest single factors in helping us achieve that."

It could also help Warburtons achieve the challenging 2012 salt reduction targets set by the Food Standards Agency, says Brett Warburton, although retrofitting other plants to help them gain similar benefits might not be plain sailing, he accepts. "We've got generations of plant so it will work with some plants, but for others it would probably be impossible."

Unusually, the plant also has four mixers instead of two, which creates a fresher product, says engineering manager Richard Robottom. Another novel feature is an inline sensor or 'double dough detector' that monitors the height of dough in tins and automatically puts the brake on the line if a product is out of spec.

This is not simply about quality control, but plant productivity, says Robottom. "If a tin has too much dough in it, it can raise the tin lids and cause significant disruption further along the line."

Indeed, sometimes it is the simplest things that can generate step changes in efficiency figures, adds Robottom. "For example, we've moved the photo cell on the bread slicer to a different location and reduced daily slicing damage by 2%. That actually makes a big difference if you think about the amount of bread we are producing."

Today, if a loaf falls onto its side before it enters the slicer, the beam of light from the cell hits a receiver on the other side because the top of the loaf is two inches lower than it should be. Instead of continuing through the slicer, causing havoc and ending up as waste, it is simply turned back up and continues on its way.

Although efficiency levels are already very high, a continuous improvement programme is now focused on delivering constant, incremental improvements, says manufacturing manager Clive Strawbridge.

"If you're running something like 140-145 hours a week and producing 7,650 800g white loaves an hour, a 1% efficiency increase equates to nearly one and a half hours, which is another 10,000-odd loaves, so small things make a big difference."

Hit the ground running

One of the things Williams is most proud of is the speed with which preventative maintenance regimes have been implemented, with systems established from the outset rather than built up over time. "With most new builds you find it can take up to two years to get preventative maintenance bedded in."

Longer term, operators will also be given more responsibility for routine maintenance checks and tasks enabling shift engineers to concentrate on more value added activities, he says. "But there are also specific projects going on, looking at things like blades on our slicers so we can better predict when they will fail. We're being more precise.

"It's not just a case of saying 'replace them after every 20,000 loaves', because the type of loaf affects their lifespan. There is more resistance on wholemeal than white bread, for example, which puts more strain on the blades."

Bristol is also Warburtons' quietest bakery, partly because of the cordoned-off mixing and dough-handling area, but mostly due to the hard work of the engineering team, which has looked at everything from soft starts on motors and conveyors to working more closely with equipment manufacturers on noise reduction at the specification stage, says Williams.

Energy-saving initiatives have also made the site quieter, he says. "Conveyors instantly turn into sleep mode if nothing is moving along them. This reduces energy but also noise."

So what is next for the plant? The first stock keeping unit was the 800g white loaf - the biggest seller, but next in line is the 400g Danish loaf, which will probably be followed by an 800g wholemeal loaf, says Williams.

Further plants - and significant further investment - will follow as the business grows in the region, he says. "It's hard to predict, but we'll probably have a second plant running here in three to five years. There is also space for a third. We could be talking about a total investment of £60M."

Williams' own role is also changing as the site evolves: "It's been a moving feast. At the beginning, I was focused on the building and the infrastructure, then there was a big staff recruitment drive and then I was working with the engineers on the commissioning.

"Today I am able to step back from all the firefighting and think much more strategically, basically because all my team are doing such a fantastic job."

Painting Britain red...

The 14th bakery in Warburtons' burgeoning estate, the £45M Bristol bakery is relieving pressure on other sites and enabling retailers across the south west to benefit from direct deliveries of fresher product.

The 12-acre site was developed at breathtaking speed. The mainframe was erected last June, the kit was installed by August and bread was delivered to the market in December 2008. The first plant can produce up to 1.5M products a week: 800g white loaves are being churned out at the rate of 7,650 loaves/h, with 400g Danish loaves expected to follow at 10,000/h and 800g wholemeal loaves next on the menu.

Related topics: Bakery, Processing equipment

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