The best thing since sliced loaf

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Related tags: Inter link, Malt

The best thing since sliced loaf
A £2m investment, plus a complete makeover for firm and factory has borne sweet fruit for malt loaf business Soreen. Rod Addy reports

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who expect life to be plain sailing and those who know it's about hard graft.

Paul Tripp is very much of the latter mould sort of a fixer-upper, if you will. His domestic DIY skills are an unknown quantity, but he's clearly the sort of person who can take over a tired, old-fashioned food brand and transform it. Take malt loaf firm Soreen, at least 95% of whose production is dedicated to its eponymous brand.

The input of Andrew Coppel, executive chairman of its owner, McCambridge Group, who joined in October 2008 and steered it through an initial turnaround before leaving early this year, should not be underestimated.

But it is Tripp who has been on the frontline of Soreen's development. Having become md in January 2009, in the 52 weeks to April 18, he has presided over value growth of 21% to £27.9M in the supermarkets alone off the back of strong double digit volume growth [Kantar Worldpanel]. Wind the clock back a year and results looked less than impressive just 2.6% up in volume and 0.3% down in value.

He's clearly a rising star in the food industry. At just 35 years old, he's still a spring chicken, although he already has a distinguished pedigree. He has more than 17 years of experience in technical services at site, regional and head office level working for British Bakeries and Allied Bakeries. He became technical director at Inter Link Foods in January 2007, switching to the board of McCambridge Group in October that year as technical and compliance director.

You get the impression that even he is a bit bemused by Soreen's success, referring to the consumer feedback he has been getting with a wry smile. "I have never worked with a brand that people feel so emotionally connected to. In the last month, I've had an email from someone who claims to have met their wife through their love of Soreen, and someone else who wrote a long poem about it."

The product's exact heritage is a moot point. Until recently, Tripp thought it was middle-aged. Now he reckons it's more geriatric at around 75 years old. The story goes that the recipe was created by a Mr Sorenson hence the name for his wife.

What is known is that in 1959 it was bought by Warburtons, which held on to it until it finally sold it as a non-core business to Inter Link Foods in 2003. However, the fortunes of own-label cake firm Inter Link were tracing a downward arc at the time. It was only prised from the administrators' jaws by the timely intervention of McCambridge Group in 2007, with substantial backing from Barclays.

There have been several strands to Tripp's turnaround strategy. For one thing, it could not have been accomplished without a heck of a lot of investment in infrastructure, he says £2M to date. "We couldn't start pushing the brand until we got the manufacturing right."

The latest site opened in 2007, and was functioning alongside another, older nearby plant, both at Trafford Park, Manchester. The plan is to transplant the older one into the newer factory by September in time for the Christmas production cycle. The move will double the amount of kit in many cases, creating pairs of ovens, provers and coolers and boosting capacity by 40%. Packaging will take place in an adjacent facility. The result will be two main bread lines, with two further value-added production lines to facilitate slicing and snacking products.

The newer facility was inefficiently laid out and had suffered from under-investment as Inter Link began to struggle financially. "Processing was like a snake, doubling back on itself due to the poor layout," says Tripp. "We straightened it out."

Redundant equipment was stripped out and replaced with everything from a new mixing area and ingredients handling systems to a new test kitchen and new packaging machines.

Milestones included replacing two 60t ingredients silos that were never commissioned, which had its stresses, Tripp jokes. "We had these cranes taking the silos out, people were stood there watching and I'm praying, 'Please don't take out the side of the building.'

"Before Christmas we had 10 capital expenditure projects running concurrently while we were also running the business."

To update the product cooling process post-baking, which helps to give Soreen its crust, he even had to track down the designer of the old factory's original equipment.

There is now a dedicated area for the deboxing, debagging and weighing of fruit ingredients, with bulk dry ingredients, which were previously added to product manually, now piped to mixers.

The metamorphosis took place in a day to minimise disruption. "We threw the switch early in the New Year," says Tripp.

The factory facelift in itself gave staff morale a boost, but cultivating enthusiastic employees after Soreen's sojourn in the doldrums was also something that needed separate focus.

"The people came first," says Tripp. "We had to get the people in place 70% of the leadership is new and we have an entirely new finance team. We have brought in a head of engineering and have recruited more sales people overall. Our main task was to form a strong enough team to deliver the plan."

After all the changes, headcount was 15 up on its previous total, while casual labour had been reduced by improving manufacturing capability. A total of 160 people now work at Soreen's headquarters. Shift patterns were stepped up to cater for a six-day rather than a four-day week. "We worked hard to manage denial and resistance to change," says Tripp.

He launched a questionnaire to encourage workers to have input in the firm's success. Then, he set up an event akin to university freshers' fairs, where stalls were set up to communicate his plans for the business and people could sign up to project groups.

Since then, the business has built on its phoenix-like revival by introducing a range of new products, mainly tailored to convenience and snacking trends, and stepping up exports.

In export markets, because of its rich history, Soreen is very popular with older ex-pat communities such as Australia, where the firm has won a contract to supply 800 Woolworths stores. Although the brand's sales department has also been working hard to introduce it to 'virgin' consumers through overseas trade shows such as last October's Anuga show, which yielded more than 90 leads. "We've had meetings with three key retailers in Germany. We've agreed small trials and we start full supply contracts later this year when we have got the capacity.

With Soreen's high-fruit and low-fat content (the original malt loaf is 97% fat-free), Tripp says he's been handed a gift in marketing terms. The original malt loaf has even been recognised by the Food Standards Agency, which recommends replacing less healthy alternatives with a Soreen in its online 'Snack Swapper' challenge to consumers. Fruity Five, which was launched in snack packs last September, contains five fruits raisins, currants, cherries, orange and lemon peel.

There are also plans to launch healthy snacking portion lines covered with low-fat spread for individuals later this year in addition to relaunching the original brand in new packaging. And Tripp has intimated that some brand extension into categories outside morning goods is in the offing.

Supporting the NPD is a £2M 'Chew it. Then do it.' multi-media advertising campaign, which aims to introduce Soreen products to a younger audience, including mums with young children and students. In keeping with the healthy message, schools and the sports clubs are in Tripp's crosshairs, with the company talking to local authorities about ways of increasing the product's lunchbox presence.

It's clear that Tripp has had few problems in coming up with a wealth of new ideas to drive Soreen forward. The only question now is whether the early successes can be sustained and whether growth can be maintained.

Related topics: Bakery

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