Me and my factory

Eyes on the pies

By Noli Dinkovski

- Last updated on GMT

Wilf Lewis has installed a cultural change since taking on the family business
Wilf Lewis has installed a cultural change since taking on the family business

Related tags: Middle east, Pasty, Pie

Wilf Lewis has set his sights on refocusing his company's priorities.

Key points

Since joining the company two years ago, family Sunday dinners have never quite been the same. My father and his brother had grown the business fantastically well up until that point, but I could see that the business was in need of modernising. Manufacturing has moved on a tremendous amount in the past 20 years, and it would be fair to say the company hadn’t kept up with the pace.

The Lewis Pie & Pasty Company was formed by my grandfather Wilfred in 1936. My father, also called Wilf, and his brother John took over in the late 1970s. The business moved from Beech Street to its present location, in Abergelly Road, in 1996 – and two years later it acquired the adjacent Wendy’s Bakery.

In 2009, the company completed a £2M expansion, increasing production space and adding a new 200 pallet freezer, new butchery and improved staff facilities.

I really wanted to add a new dimension to the business and evoke some serious change, which has actually been pretty difficult, given the family dimension.

My dad thought I was going to sit behind a keyboard all day, but I wasn’t interested in that. For me, it was about making big decisions from the start, about the way we manufacture, the way we hold stock, the way we manage ourselves, and the way we engage with staff.

Continuous improvement  (Return to top)

I was very keen on following the Japanese business model of continuous improvement and lean manufacturing. My background is in IT, and while it’s a different industry, a lot of the methodologies involved in making software more efficient are similar.

I also wanted to change the culture by empowering staff to make decisions. Previously, my dad had a very top-down approach, where everybody would tell him everything, and he would make the decisions. By doing that, I think you end up managing a lot of things, but possibly not managing them very well.

When I arrived, there were a lot of people who, shall we say, had their feet under the table. As a result, in my time here, I think we’ve changed 50% of the workforce.

We have a new technical manager and a new production manager. We also have a new shift manager, who is actually someone that’s been here working on the sauces for 25 years. He always had lots of good ideas, so we pulled him off the vessels and asked him, ‘what can you do for us?’

We’ve got a new sales team and new designers. I’ve also employed a continuous improvement manager, which is a big step for us. His role is to make sure that we push forward projects all the time, and to make sure that staff are engaged.

So, I’d say our biggest investment since I’ve been here has been in quality staff. We’ve replaced some equipment parts and have plans for further modernisation, but we’ve actually removed more than we’ve invested in.

An example of this would be stock, which we manage just-in-time now. When I arrived, we were just about to invest in a new £500,000 freezer. In the end, we chose to put the build off and better use the space we’ve got. Now, we’re going to invest £20,000 in new racking and forklift trucks, doubling the capacity in the existing freezer, so we’re a lot smarter in the way we work.

Cautious price approach (Return to top)

Our turnover has come down slightly, but that’s because we’re a bit more cautious about the prices we’re selling at. We have more of a handle on our margins, and if customers aren’t prepared to pay the price we need to make the product viable to manufacture, then we aren’t going to make it. Because of this, our profitability has improved.

We deal with a whole range of customers, from retailers such as Tesco and Asda, right down to sandwich vans. So, it’s really a broad spectrum of customers. We also have a large national contract with Bidvest as well.

The next phase for us is growth. Our Lewis Pie range of pies, slices, pasties and sausage rolls will continue to be our mainstay, but we are looking at expanding our premium offering.

With that in mind, we have just launched the Wilfred’s range, which includes the likes of The Saucy Cow, with Welsh beef steak; The Fiery Chick, with Collier’s Welsh cheddar; and the Lamb of my Fathers.

It’s about adding a bit of personality to a product. We also wanted to provide a product that was unmistakably Welsh. It’s interesting actually – a lot of our pies are hand-finished, but are made to look manufactured, so it was logical to highlight our handmade credentials and sell some products for a little more.

It also fits in with us becoming a leaner manufacturer. Before, someone was spending three or four hours a day crimping pies but not adding value. Now, they are.

While van sales are still important to us, we’re also looking at targeting the brand at the likes of delis, butchers and cafés.

Halal and Middle East market (Return to top)

Around 80% of our sales are pies and pasties, or variations within those. One key growth market that we’re eager to exploit is halal. We are currently working with a halal body in developing a product for the Middle East market. It is reasonably close to completion, and I’m hoping it’s going to be a real growth area for us, in the UK and overseas.

Halal is quite complicated. You will have certain Muslims who will trust one authentication body, while other Muslims won’t recognise it. But we’ve actually worked with a couple of these bodies and are very confident in what we do.

There are 3M Muslims in the UK and a lot of them are second or third generation, and westernised. They want to eat pie and chips like everyone else, but can only eat halal meat.

We have an audacious goal to grow the business 10 times bigger than its current size. But we’ve got to be realistic about that, and we need to focus on stability, and then growth.

We reduced staff from 130 to 109, and still operate on a single shift pattern – so there’s plenty of capacity available. We still need to rework the whole production flow of the factory, but that will come in time.

The chief focus of the business was to make sure that we were sound on the pie and pasty side, and we now we’re starting to invest a bit of time on the confectionery side.

Marketing remains a weakness for us, so that’s another area I want to focus on next.

Overall, I won’t deny that it’s been tough, working alongside my father, bringing in a new set of ideas, and getting him to agree to them. But both he and my uncle are still involved in day-to-day running of the business, so that must count for something.

Factory facts

LOCATION: Units 3-6 Abergelly Road, Swansea West Business Park, Fforestfach, Swansea. SA5 4DY

SIZE: 3.5 acres

STAFF: 109

TURNOVER: £6M

PRODUCTS: Pies, pasties, slices, sausage rolls and multipacks in fresh, unbaked frozen and halal formats; the hand-finished Wilfred’s Pies range; bread and confectionery (via Wendy’s Bakery).

CUSTOMERS: Tesco, Asda, independents, wholesalers, cafés, delis, butchers, bakeries and van sales.

PRODUCTION LINES: Seven.

OUTPUT: 2,000 pies an hour (per line).

Personal

NAME: Wilf Lewis

AGE: 39

DOMESTICS: Married, with three children.

OUTSIDE WORK: I’m a super-keen surfer, and I’ve been doing it since I was 12. Locally, I surf off the Gower Peninsula, but in May I’m off to surf in Sumatra.

GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: Other than my three kids, I would say it has been undertaking what has been a really difficult cultural change here. In doing so, we’ve managed to improve profitability and secure jobs.

ADVICE TO YOUNGER SELF: Be a bit more patient and appreciate that some things take time. I am incredibly impatient, which I think can be a really good attribute, but also something of a curse.

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