Sessions is a family business that was set up by my Grandad — a former beef inspector — in the early 70s. He wanted to run his own business and was joined by my Dad a few years later.
To start with we had a butchers shop and after a couple of moves and expansions we came to this manufacturing site about 15 years ago.
We've recently taken on the neighbouring unit, which will give us the opportunity to expand further.
I've been involved in the business for the past seven years. Before that I was working in gas turbine engineering. I fancied a change so we had a chat with the family and hatched a plan.
The crux of it was that we needed to make some changes and invest. There's only one fridge left in the factory now that was here before I came. Everything is new. The biggest investment was probably the Handtmann sausage filler. We used to have piston fillers which needed refilling every after 70lbs of production. Now we've got a vacuum filler which is a continuous operation and has really improved portion control, quality and consistency.
We have put in a massive amount of investment over the last six to seven years. Pretty much everything we make goes back in. The only investment that I have regretted was our new meat room, because I should have had it built twice as big because of the growth we've had.
If you are going to enter the family business, I am convinced that you have to go off and do your own thing first. That'll probably have eighth generation butchers crying into their mince, but I've seen £70M factories up and running and I've worked in them. Now I'm not saying we'll ever get to that level, but you do get an understanding of how things work. It gives you awareness that there are alternative ways of doing business.
Likewise, my sister Kate — who is an accountant — is now a director here and is working alongside me.
We're growing about 12% a year in volume terms. We had a 139m2 mezzanine put in for the dry goods for the sausage and we've already outgrown that, so you can see why we needed to take on the extra space.
Jamie Oliver effect
I think we are seeing an increasing demand at the moment because people are concerned about traceability in the wake of the horsemeat problem, but it will be interesting to see if it continues.
At the minute I'm comparing it to the Jamie Oliver effect. A few years ago he said we were exporting too many shoulders of pork, instead of eating them here. This led a lot of schools to put it on the menu and you couldn't buy a UK shoulder of pork for months — but then it all died down again. It'll be interesting to see how this pans out.
For now, from a factory point of view we are consolidating and making sure everything is up to our specification — we already get very high inspection reports, but I have very high standards.
We are making sure we've got good foundations in place because we are turning over a lot more and need to make sure we've got really robust systems in place, because we think it will take off even more.
Recently we've had a lot of success with our frozen sausage. Previously we only ever made fresh, but we had the capacity to develop a frozen one. At first, it was done as a bit of filler to keep the machines running.
That said, I didn't want to develop a bad one and put things like chicken protein in it, so I worked really closely with our seasoning people. For about six months I did nothing but make batches of sausage every day for freezing.
Eventually, I developed one that I consider to be the best on the market — it contains the same meat that we put in our best pork sausage, although at a slightly lower content.
Now we have to work overtime to meet the demand for it. I was a bit worried that it would take away demand from our higher priced products. I thought it might be like if Land Rover started selling a £15,000 car — everyone would want to buy that one. Thankfully, it hasn't gone like that because we managed to sell it into new markets like cafes and fish and chip shops.
The competition out there, however, is phenomenally sharp, and at the higher end we have probably lost a small amount of business, because I won't go in for the gunslinger approach and lower my prices too much. I will not compromise on quality.
When people do compromise on quality or make certain business decisions, that is when you start to see problems (with authenticity).
We are massively concerned with traceability; we always have been and we are only getting stronger in that regard. We are about to install a fully electronic traceability system that has been designed specifically for us.
The production process starts when we take delivery of the whole muscle meat and put it in the mixer where it gets cut up. We then add water, rusk, seasoning and colour before spinning it around until it gets to a certain consistency. The lads will tell you it reaches the perfect consistency when it just slips off your hand.
Then it goes in the filler before going into a range of skins. The most expensive we use is a lamb's intestine skin, which is a thin, natural casing. There is a massive cost on those. It's gone up at least 250% in the past two years — and that's buying pallet quantities. It effectively got to the stage where we had to put on a natural casing surcharge. The last price increase was the biggest, so I sent every single customer a pound of sausage with the natural casing on and a pound with the synthetic collagen casing on and told them what the price difference would be and that they should cook them off and decide which one they wanted. Not one customer swapped.
If you have a natural case, it comes off in a long line and you hand tie it. While with the collagen synthetic ones, it twist links so every sausage is identical but a lot of people like the variation you can get with hand linking it. We do a collagen version for the fresh and frozen if people want it, though, because we want to appeal to as a broad a range of people as possible.
The manufacturing process for the frozen sausage and the ingredients that go in it are slightly different because you have to chop it to a higher temperature, purely because it has to be able to cope with the rapid increase in temperature when it is cooked.
I think we've been having success because we work hard; we put out a good product and we refuse to compromise on quality. We're constantly looking to improve, we're constantly passionate about what we do and we are always willing to invest.
A lot of people who have had businesses haven't invested in them. My dad could have used this as a cash cow and sent it to the wall, but that was never an option because we are loyal to our staff and loyal to our customers. We want this business to grow and be around for the future so we have been prepared to invest, because we want it to be here for our kids too.
Location: Oaklands Business Park, Hoo Farm Industrial Estate, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, DY11 7RA
PRODUCTS: Manufacturers of sausage and mince, and suppliers of raw and cooked meats
CUSTOMERS: A large number of butchers shops and markets in the Midlands and north west, wholesalers, nursing home contracts, school contracts and a range of foodservice outlets from restaurants to fish and chip shops
OPERATING HOURS: 5.30am—2pm for manufacturing, six days a week.
NAME: Rob Sessions
CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Working to build up the business over the past seven years
DOMESTICS: Three children
OUTSIDE WORK: "I enjoy Geocaching, which uses GPS to hide and seek containers, called geocaches or caches."
Listen to our podcast where Sessions calls butchers "the mistresses of the high street" and describes how to exploit the horsemeat crisis.