I was trying to work out what to do at university and ended up at Harper Adams. I did a placement at [savoury snacks manufacturer] Farmers Boy, part of Morrisons, working in its bakery department. After that I moved to Hull University and went from there to [Bradford-based] poultry processor Spencer & Rae, which supplies poultry products to Morrisons and foodservice outlets. It supplied Summit Foods with cooked doner kebab. My husband, Dean, got a job there as a factory manager. Eventually he built the business up and it was sold on to Parkam Foods.
We worked for [meat processor] Randall Parker Food Group for a year, but were then approached by Robin Pemberton, the md of Summit Foods. He wanted to take products into the major retailers, but to do that he needed British Retail Consortium (BRC) [safety and quality] certification. We had experience of what was needed to get that. We joined in 1998 and within six months we achieved BRC Grade A accreditation. Shortly after that we both joined the Summit Foods board.
We had another manufacturing operation about one mile around the corner from the main site. Then, in 2001, we brought our high care operation down to this site, keeping the old site just for storage. We finally gave up the leasehold on it last April. We converted the offices around the corner into a canteen and the main canteens into food-to-go production lines.
In 2008, we bought out the venture capitalist that owned Summit. The core team has been with us for more than 10 years, so they understand the business.
In 2010 we bought a new £1M Teflon-coated Berief oven. That gave us increased flexibility and opened avenues to cook things like fish fingers and gentler cuts of meat that baste in their own juices. We have recently invested just shy of £100,000 in new checkweighers and metal detectors and have also bought a new gas flushing machine for the chilled foods division.
There was a half acre of land at the back of the original manufacturing facility here. There were some units there that were up for sale and we bought the freehold on them in 2011 and that was added to our chilled food operation.
Chilled is definitely where we are focusing in particular, extended shelf-life offers. There are huge opportunities there to reduce waste. The British Frozen Food Federation is also promoting the benefits of frozen food in terms of reducing wastage and controlling portions. Expanding into extended life products also opens up new markets, especially wholesalers who are looking at selling frozen sandwiches into catering and foodservice channels.
We have got a lot of versatility. We can mince, mix and tumble. We wanted to go into the sausage and burger market. This year we are looking at breakfast-style products that can be reheated in ovens and put in heat-holding cabinets, which you see in retail food to go areas and foodservice. We are working on a lot of new product development.
We have been developing a product for two years that can be wrapped in ovenable film to retain the steam and the heat during cooking. The applications for that are huge in the airline industry, for example, which uses ovens rather than microwaves.
We are focused just on the UK, but, funnily enough, someone did talk about China being a huge opportunity. Set up a meat supply business over there and people would be mad for it.
We have launched frozen mini 100% beef burger sliders for sharing and developing ideas for bread snacks such as wraps and doner kebabs with our four or five bread suppliers. We have also been working on provenance with Assured Farm Standards to source components branded with Red Tractor.
We rely on the Yearsley Group to handle our distribution requirements. We leave supply chain logistics to the experts, although all of our storage is on site. We have a 200-pallet freezer and Yearsley collect roughly four freezer loads a day. As far as chilled is concerned, we make it to order, but we always ensure we have some stock in reserve.
Price increases have had a massive effect on us, especially on the beef side, where prices have gone up about 40% year-on-year. It's very difficult to push price increases through retailers and there's only so much cost you can take out without affecting quality, but I think high prices are here to stay.
We buy in cooked omelettes for some products and the new EU egg legislation [outlawing eggs from battery-farmed hens] has also pushed up egg prices, with producers charging a premium to secure supply. That's just one ingredient.
Sourcing tuna has been a huge challenge, because of the EU's policies on line- and pole- caught tuna. There's not nearly enough to serve the whole of the UK market – only about 1% of the catch, but certain retailers have policies you have to adhere you and, because demand is heavy and supply is tight, prices are high for that too.
Another thing that has had a lot of impact on the business is the rise in minimum wage and labour costs. Fortunately we produce a lot of the component parts for our products, so we have managed to keep a lot of costs in-house.
We recycle everything: tins, cardboard, so we already send zero waste to landfill.
Location: Summit Foods, 170 Walton Summit Road, Bamber Bridge, Preston, Lancashire, PR5 8AH
Staff: 175 full-time employees, plus one part-time and six agency staff
Operating hours: 24 hours a day, Monday to Friday
Products: Primarily frozen-meat-based products, including snacks that can be microwaved and oven cooked; doner kebabs; burgers; sausages; ready meals; meat ingredients (mainly sausage meat). These include a recently launched range of chilled snacks, as well as bite-sized Burger Sliders. Half of all products are own-label and half are branded and 80% are sold to retailers, while 20% go into foodservice channels
Output: On cooked product, 30,000 burgers an hour; on meal solutions, one million units a week and on ingredient manufacturing, 100t of sausage meat
Turnover: £13M, which is forecast to grow by a further 25% for 2012
Name: Vanessa Lewis
Career highlights: "My husband, Dean, and I joined Summit Foods in 1999. We went on to become directors after rejuvenating the company's relationships with the big three supermarket chains. After three and a half years we became majority shareholders at Summit Foods and we have since launched many products and expanded the business by as much as a third by venturing into the chilled food category."
Domestics: "Married to my husband Dean, with two daughters: aged six and seven."
Outside work: "I have recently rekindled my love of horses and horse riding after buying a Connemara pony, which I keep at stables near my home. I also enjoy boxing to keep fit and travelling with my family."