My grandfather came over from Italy in 1934 and set up an ice cream manufacturing business in Stoke. My father and his three brothers then worked in the businesses but it wasn't big enough to support four families, so my dad moved to Tamworth in 1967 and that was when Suncream Dairies was founded.
He slowly moved into wholesale and when I took over in 1996 we also had a retail presence in some of the co-operatives. However, I changed that because I didn't think we were geared up enough for retail in terms of the technical knowledge – that's very different today though.
When I left school I worked for NatWest bank on a management training scheme, but in view of the banking crisis, I think ice cream makers are viewed as much more favourable. When I came into the business I said I'd give it 12 months and see what happened and the rest is history.
At peak periods we employ 50 people and that drops to 35 in slow periods. We have great flexibility because we get a lot of college students coming to us during the summer. The great thing is that they come back year in and year out until they start their own careers.
I slowly built the business so I had the cash to build a new factory – and that was the change of our fortunes. The building of this factory in 2009 was a really big thing for us. We also bought the site next door and that is the next phase of my plan. Starting in September we will be knocking that down and building a new warehouse and cold store. Really, I should have built it last year, but this economic climate doesn't really help with making big decisions like that.
Our bottleneck has always been our cold store because we run so many lines, and some of them can be quite slow movers. I've got to keep those lines because they form part of the package we offer, so I need more space. Our turnaround time at the moment, bizarrely, is too quick. I'd be much more comfortable if the product sat with us a little bit longer.
QUALITY AND SERVICE
I'm running 105 different lines, but in terms of flavours we have around 25. Foodservice is our main market along with the likes of Booker and Macro. We produce 13M litres a year and I would say 70% of our business is foodservice. Last year we remained pretty stable in terms of output, which I was really pleased with because the year before we'd had 30% growth.
My general trend since I've been here is to have 10% year-on-year growth. Our focus has been on building slowly. If you don't overwhelm your production equipment or your staff, you can lay a firm foundation from which to continually build. Huge growth, even though it is probably what we'd all like, doesn't often give you the quality and service that you'd like, especially for a small business where people are stretched as it is.
The move to this site in 2009 was brilliant: it was like coming to work in a proper factory. Everything here was fit for purpose, which removed so many of the constraints I had in my last factory. Even little things like the cold store here being rectangular – whereas in the old place it was shaped like a triangle because that was the shape of the land we had – made a huge difference. We also had the production line in a straight line, specific changing areas and everything was purpose built. It made a huge difference to the business and to morale as well.
It was a very stressful period, though, we only gave ourselves two weeks to move.
Part of the plan for the new building is to have space for onsite training and the new development kitchen, which will make a big difference. I might even get my own office! We put a lot of money and effort into training, which we currently have to undertake away from the factory so this will take us to the next level.
Also, at the minute, our product development is quite restricted because we don't have the space or the right equipment, which means we are often producing similar things to what we have before. I'm not expecting to break the mould, but I do think there is more we can do in terms of formulation, looking at new markets and to be able to make test batches instead of going outside.
Around 15 years ago I felt I had to make a decision about going down the value or the luxury route, because the market was beginning to split. Until then, we had always tried to tread the middle path. I decided that we'd focus on the value route and that is how we've been able to build. This became our Summertime range which now extends to six flavours. The Summertime vanilla is around 80% of our sales. It is low margin so we shift a lot of volume and that has enabled the funding of new range, the Gelato Gold, a luxury ice cream.
To be honest, for an experienced ice cream manufacturer, it is much easier to make a luxury product. You can put in all the raw materials and all the double cream you want to make a great product, while with a value ice cream you haven't got the luxury of being able to put in everything you'd like, but you've still got to make it taste good. I always get hands-on myself when it comes to making new products – I used to be a size 8 before I started here.
We are targeting the Gelato Gold as a mid-market range Napoli product – so it is for scoopers rather than for those wanting to add it to a dessert. It is a dessert in its own right. Because we have also done all of the point of sale work and the branding that goes with it, it should sit really well in ice cream parlours and cafés too. The range was launched in March and it has been very well received. In terms of preference it always goes vanilla, strawberry, chocolate and mint. Customers then take on the others, depending on their markets.
We knew we wanted to put a rum and raisin flavour in too and we then developed the others depending on what our equipment could handle and what would provide customer value.
We have two lines in the factory and we move between producing the Summertime range or the Gelato Gold depending on when we need to replenish stocks. I think that is one of our unique selling points; while we are big enough to service the market, we are flexible enough to be able to respond to demand quite easily.
Location: Suncream Dairies, Tame Valley Industrial Estate, Wilnecote, Tamworth, Staffs
Staff: Up to 50 at peak periods
Operating Hours: Monday to Friday with double shifts during peak periods
PRODUCTS: Ice cream for wholesale and foodservice
OUTPUT: 13M litres a year. In 10l, 5l, 4l, 2l, 1l and 105ml tubs.
NAME: Rebecca Manfredi AGE: 44
CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Moving factories
DOMESTICS: Married with two children