Dare to be different

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Fray bentos, Baxters, Lincolnshire

Global operations director John Campbell said the move went better than expected
Global operations director John Campbell said the move went better than expected
Baxters moved Fray Bentos production from eastern England to northern Scotland in record time. Gary Scattergood finds out how the company did it

Be different, be better. That's the Baxters' motto. And a few people thought they were being very 'different' when they snapped up Fray Bentos from Princes at the end of 2011.

There was little surprise that the tinned pie and meatballs brand was sold Princes needed to offload it to appease the competition watchdogs just six months after acquiring it as part of its takeover of Premier Foods' canned food business.

But it was a bolt from the blue that the family-owned Scottish firm was the buyer.

Not only did some industry insiders think it was a strange fit for a company known globally for its soups, jams and chutneys with plenty of them at the higher end of the market but some openly questioned the brand's longevity.

As Julian Wild, food group director at law firm Rollits, told FoodManufacture.co.uk​ when Princes was looking for a buyer: "Who buys meat in a can anymore?"

Such concerns, however, are water off a duck's back to Baxters' global operations director John Campbell.

The firm has bought out several businesses in recent years in the UK, Poland and Australia and when I met Campbell at Baxters' picturesque riverside setting in Fochabers, north Scotland, his enthusiasm for Fray Bentos was clearly evident.

For him, the brand is a neat fit that is opening new markets and will usher in an increased period of growth for the company, which was set up by George Baxter in 1858 and is currently run by Audrey Baxter, the fourth generation of the family to be at the helm.

"First, we are concentrating on what we know, which is thermal processing and, secondly, our skillset is in managing brands, and Fray Bentos is a great brand,"​ he says.

"It is a key item in all the multiples, it is a widely recognised brand and has many loyal customers who love it because it is very well produced and provides good value."

It was these factors that persuaded Baxters to "act very quickly"​ to get a bid in and then fund the daunting process of moving production from Long Sutton in Lincolnshire 500 miles north to Fochabers in the Highlands.

And they did it in what most "lift and shift"​ specialists would describe as breakneck speed, especially when a factory extension had to be built to accommodate the new production line.

The whole process began in January 2012. The physical building and installation was complete by November 2012 and production was well underway by January this year.

"We picked up the complete production line and moved it here on time and on budget. These things tend to be very stressful but there were no major issues. It went better than we could have hoped,"​ Campbell adds.

Terrifying project

A major factor in its success, says Campbell, was recognising that staff at Baxters were not experts at this kind of project and appointing project manager Lorien Engineering to oversee the move.

Lorien's Phil Colquhoun headed up the project and concedes that there was a "terrifying amount"​ of work to be done.

"We were appointed in the first week of January and the capital money came in the March. That meant we had nine months. When we came on board, there wasn't even planning permission for the extension."

In his opinion, the project was only successful because of the sheer determination of the people involved, be it from Baxters, Lorien or the many local suppliers he worked with for the first time, and because there was a clear budget and design agreed from the outset.

That said, it was still an "exhausting project",​ but nevertheless one he is immensely proud of.

"We managed to complete the project in nine months, when we would usually want double that for something on this scale and in this location,"​ he added.

Another key player in the project was Anthony Goodwin, now Baxters' UK production manager. He was originally a freelance taken on to oversee the move from Long Sutton after managing similar projects for the likes of Greencore.

"The key rule is that you should never move a factory out of its skillbase, but that wasn't an option here, so we took the skillset to the factory,"​ he says, explaining how Baxters took 30 employees down to Long Sutton over a seven- month period so they could get to know the line and ensure a seamless transition.

Now they'd ensured the skills were in place, moving the line to Fochabers wasn't so straightforward. While it could have been accommodated in the existing factory, it couldn't be done "efficiently enough"​ for the firm's liking.

Therefore, they built an L-shaped extension to house the kit, and laid it out differently to how it had been done in Long Sutton.

"It is very different to how it was in Lincolnshire,"​ Goodwin adds. "The biggest difference is that here it is over two floors, whereas it was previously one.

"However, our main concern was to limit the amount of lifting and handling required and therefore eliminate the need to pay people to move things from one place to another."

A prime example of this is that the gravy for the pies is now pumped from the vessels to the line, which is five metres away. At Long Sutton, it was on the other side of the factory.

Goodwin says the training gained by the Baxters' staff in Long Sutton was pivotal in ensuring the production in Fochabers has been "nightmare free"​, but equally important was the fact that 11 former Princes employees were persuaded to up sticks and move the Lincolnshire Fens to the Scottish Highlands.

One who made the move along with his young family was Jamie Duckmanton, who is now the site production manager.

"The fact that we know the line inside out, along with those who came down from here, means things have gone really well. There have been a few little niggles but nothing major, which is remarkable really."

Changing landscape

One area where the former Princes staff have played a pivotal role, is when it comes to pastry production for the pies, something Campbell admits that Baxters' had absolutely no previous experience of.

"It's fair to say very few of us here had any pastry background, so it was a skillset that had to be picked up quickly,"​ he says.

"It has to be a really robust pasty to go through the process here, so the knowledge of the staff that came up and those that went down to Long Sutton has been invaluable."

Pastry production also meant a giant flour silo had to be transported by road from Lincolnshire and through the winding Highland roads to be installed on the site.

While this didn't cause as much drama as Campbell had feared, "it has the changed the skyline of Fochabers a little bit,"​ he quips.

So now the move is completed, the line is successfully up and running, 80 of the 125 new employees have been recruited and plans are in place to move from two to three shifts in the near future, what's next for the Fray Bentos brand under Baxters' stewardship?

Campbell says the focus now is on a vast programme of new product development, with the launch of Fray Bentos soups last year likely to be the first of several new ranges.

"Once we have consolidated production we intend to develop the brand and use our skills to improve it.

"We have already improved the recipe for our meatballs and designed new packaging. We're also working on our suet puddings so they will be packaged in plastic micro-bowls so they can be cooked in a microwave,"​ said Campbell.

"As far as we were concerned, we didn't buy the Fray Bentos brand to stand still. We will develop it and make sure people get an even better product and move it into other groups in the sector."

That growth will be needed if Fray Bentos is going to recoup the level of investment that Baxters has already ploughed into the brand.

Figures revealed in March showed that while sales at holding company WA Baxter & Sons edged up 9% to £136.8M in the 53 weeks to June 2012, pre-tax profits dropped by 35% to £4.6M, a fall attributed to the Fray Bentos takeover and spending on marketing campaigns.

Campbell, however, is adamant there is plenty of demand for the iconic canned pies.

"When we go on the promotion, the volume is absolutely incredible,"​ he says.

"Fray Bentos represents quality and value, and there is nothing wrong with that, especially in these times."

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