Life on the bread line

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Bread, Frank roberts

Life on the bread line
I will have been working here four years this autumn. I started as general manager of The Pastry Case, our pastry business, and moved to this role 18 months ago. Prior to that, I worked for Northern Foods for about 13 years, which is where I started: on their graduate scheme. I have always worked on the manufacturing side.

At Northern, I completed projects at Holland's Pies and Kara Foods, then went to work at Park Cakes. I went from doing sales with a marketing team to doing a nightshift with ex-miners working on cake, so it was a real variety.

Frank Roberts was founded in 1887 by Robert Roberts as a corner shop in Northwich, which quickly thrived. In 1900 the firm moved to a larger shop not far from the current site.

In 1936 Robert died and his son, Frank, took over and what was originally a greengrocer focused on bread production. The business purchased its current site, which had previously been farmland, in 1952 and the Red Rose bakery was built, parts of which still exist.

The company installed a new morning goods plant in the 1970s. The Pastry Case, which was originally an ambient puff pastry operation, was built in the 1980s and metamorphosed into a ginger bread and novelty biscuit business in the early 1990s. It's now the biggest producer of its type in the country.

In 2000 the cooling towers were built, which stand outside and are a local landmark, with their own Facebook appreciation page. A second bread plant was installed in 2002.

When I joined Roberts Bakery, part of Frank Roberts, there was a real division between operations and commercial functions. The commercial guys would say we were at our limit in terms of production and needed to diversify. Operations believed we could increase production by reducing changeover time and downtime.

In terms of increasing production time we had loads of ideas, but the crux of the problem was that we had a lot of mini stoppages that were unrecorded. We identified this by picking out core areas of process and allocating shift teams to look at each area. With the support of the maintenance team we managed to crack quite a few of the problems causing these stoppages.

For example, like a typical bread plant, we were running two mixers, which mixed intermittently. One was not emptying the dough completely, so the mixer guy would then have to get it out manually, the depositor would run out of dough and stop depositing and we would lose time. Once this was ironed out, performance took a real step forward.

We got on top of the short stoppage problem by December last year, so we were able to take advantage of the strong sales. When we had the bad weather we saw a spike in sales as people rushed to stock up on bread.

We began a large project to expand the site in February 2010, funding this with £9M of our own cash, which we had saved. The plan had been long discussed, but how to conceive and develop it was the subject of much debate. We finally got planning permission and agreement on how to progress at the start of last year.

Lorien Engineering did the design and project management it was such a large project and we carried on manufacturing throughout, so having guys here just to run the construction was crucial. The principal contractor was John Sisk & Son, which did a very good job.

Things progressed quickly, but last winter's big freeze caused problems with the ground work and it was too cold to pour cement. Christmas was mayhem. Christmas Day is the only day we aren't running. When we restarted the plant on Boxing Day it was -18°C in the bakery, so the equipment needed to thaw out first.

Our start point was to change traffic movement, access and parking to free up the existing road, which we had secured ownership of. This enabled us to start moving things around.

For the first two to three months we built roads and car parks. Then we began to build dispatch facilities in two halves, so we could continue to run distribution from here. Modelling software enabled us to look at the movement of products and pinch points.

We built three additional loading bays to help us through some of those pinch points and that enabled us to get through the World Cup in the summer of 2010. England's dismal performance meant burger and hot dog buns never really took off, but it did make it easier to cope.

The first part of dispatch opened in October 2010 and the second in March 2011 about one week after the original plan. It has enabled us to relocate packing into the new dispatch area and free up the factory to start expansion there.

We have installed a new system for cleaning dirty baskets, which uses centrifugal drying. It's quite unusual and has saved us about 25% of the energy the previous washing system was using. And there's a new system for slicing and bagging, for which we have reached the commissioning stage. This has removed one bottle neck and was one of the last areas that needed investment.

We have taken out manual handling and repetitive work and, with this level of automation, we have also removed a reasonable amount of labour costs and been able to divert people to other areas where they can add value. Once this kit is fully operational we will move our old slicing and bagging equipment. This will enable us to expand one bread plant and install an oven extension. The new slicing and oven expansion should help us to boost capacity by about 10%.

We went through a packaging relaunch earlier this year and have seen a good return from that across our entire range. We have stretched our footprint and increased the rate of sale from our existing footprint. We have now become the UK's fastest growing regional bread brand, putting us at number four in the UK.

In the next 12 months we will engage in some meaty engineering projects to secure capacity. We have completed the first phase of a slow replacement programme. The next phase begins in the new financial year. We are putting in self-sufficient water and electricity, so if there's any disruption to those we can survive for a period of time.

We are investing to improve the reliability of our provers and ovens.

On the environmental side, we have replaced our old compressed air system with a more modern system, which reduces energy consumption. We are also looking at how we can recover and recycle the heat our ovens produce.

The other big thing we have been involved with in the bakery industry has been using a common bread basket for deliveries the so-called omega basket rather than different baskets for every brand. Under the old system baskets were harder to track and losses were a big problem for the industry. All major manufacturers have signed up now that the baskets have been adopted by Tesco. It's also quicker to load them into vehicles than dealing with several different formats. We have seen a six figure saving from that.

Factory facts

Location: Frank Roberts & Sons Rudheath, Northwich, Cheshire, CW9 7RQ

Staff: 677

Factory size: 6.47ha, of which 1,393.5m2​ is built on

Operating hours: 24 hours a day, seven days a week

Products: Bread and morning goods, of which bread represents 95% of business. Virtually all products are branded. Frank Roberts claims to be the fastest growing bread brand in the UK. 60% of products are for retail and 40% are for foodservice. About 10% of what the company makes is for the export market.

Output: 83.2M loaves a year

Annual sales: £80M


Name: Stuart Borthwick

Age: 39

Career highlight: "We recently ran a project to align the commercial and operational teams. The challenge was how much we could make and sell. Our glass ceiling was 1.5M loaves a week and we achieved that last winter. People thought I was bonkers and I got accused of making bread with a calculator, but that was a real highlight."

Domestics: "I'm married with a 15-month-old son, George."

Outside work: "Until recently I was a very keen golfer and enjoyed skiing and running. However, since George came along, that has been kaiboshed and DIY is becoming my main pastime."

Related topics: People & Skills, Bakery

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