Bells Food Group is a third-generation family pastry and pie maker established in 1931 by Donald Bell.
After realising the potential of selling puff pastry to local butchers, Donald grew the business with the help of his father David and brothers – hence the original company name, David Bell & Sons.
I joined the business as a young accountant and, to be quite honest, at the start I would have laughed at the suggestion I would still be here 27 years later.
To move from a very high tech laboratory company to a pie maker, as I did, didn’t seem very progressive.
However, I quickly realised that my boss, John Bell, was someone I could work with and learn a lot from. After stints as human resources director, finance director, and then deputy md, I became md in July 2014.
Each of the roles I have had helped me become a much more rounded boss. Balance sheets are one thing, but it’s just as important to be attuned to the needs of the staff.
Today, Bells employs 205 people across two bakeries and one distribution depot in Shotts, which is directly between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Turnover in our last annual accounts was £16.2M, and we’ve budgeted for £17.2M in the current financial year though I suspect we will easily pass that.
200 independent butchers (back to top)
The bulk of our sales goes to supermarkets, but the company still supplies approximately 200 independent butchers through van sales.
That was a traditional part of the business when it started, and it’s still an area of importance for us.
We also sell pastry to manufacturers, which are then turned into other value-added products.
We’ve just completed the first phase of a £3.6M investment, which has increased our pastry production capacity from 60t to 140t a week and created 25 new jobs.
New equipment includes a new Rondo pastry laminator – which alone cost almost £1M – and a spiral freezer.
They will help us compete for high volume commercial pastry requirements across the UK and Ireland, with the export market in our sights.
The new laminator allows us to manufacture around 500–600kg of product a day. That may not seem like much, but is actually a fairly decent volume for pastry manufacturing, considering that rolling pins reduce the product down to a very thin level.
Both of our laminators allow us to offer butter-enriched, shortcrust, or puff pastry in various shapes, including the likes of 5kg blocks, triangles or rectangles.
Admittedly, one of the bottlenecks is that we have to separate the shapes manually, so we’re looking into the idea of adding some sort of pastry interleaver.
One of the bottlenecks (back to top)
In the pie factory, production is generally split between steak pies and round products. We manufacture about 45,000 round products a week, and our ‘hero’ product is the Scotch pie.
We’ve worked out that three out of four Scottish people will eat a Bells Scotch pie over the course of a year, which is a great statistic.
We are the leading pie maker in Scotland, but we have plans to grow further in England. We are always rolling out new products – including 30 new pastries, pies and cakes last month alone.
However, while we have products that include the likes of chicken, venison and cuts of beef, we find that consumers tend to stick with the traditional products, such as mince and steak – so it’s important not to stray too far from these.
The second stage of our investment will go towards productivity and improving our processes.
The emphasis will slightly shift towards the pie manufacturing, with new cooking and cooling systems – and we’ll also look at improving our wrapping abilities.
Fair play to the board, and John Bell – who is still chairman – because they could have sat back and been quite happy with our current profit levels.
But they want to keep driving the company forward, so are prepared to support me in making investments.
Already paid dividends (back to top)
The money spent has already paid dividends, in that we can approach customers, confident in our ability to fulfil their requirements. The laminating machine has already been productive, and we’ve won some decent orders.
At one point, we had reached the horrible stage where I had to tell our sales team not to sell any more pastry, because we were at capacity and couldn’t guarantee service levels, which is not a great situation for any manufacturing company to be in.
While we are now still limited by physical space in the pie factory, the investment means there is plenty of machine running capacity.
Currently, we only manufacture Monday to Friday on a two-shift per day pattern, so there are opportunities to move to seven-day week production as well.
With all this focus on equipment, it’s easy to forget about the staff. For me, the most important thing is to act fairly and treat them with respect.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that a simple ‘thank you’ can go a long way, and that a little bit of praise can make all the difference.
We’re also improving the way we communicate with staff. We’ve just introduced small restaurant menu-style information cards in the canteens and work areas, so they can sit and read about a colleague who may have passed an exam, or a new product launch, or a new listing with a retailer.
Dealing with supermarkets means we operate at a very price sensitive point in the marketplace.
So, in the next two to three years we need to focus on improving our productivity, reducing our downtimes, and increasing our yields. I relish the challenge and the exciting times ahead.
Location: Hawthorn Bakery, Torbothie Road, Shotts, Lanarkshire. ML7 5BD
Size: 1,750m2 (bakery), 1,300m2 (pastry factory), 1,750m2 (distribution depot)
Main products: Pastry, Scotch pies, steak pies, cakes, gingerbread
Customers: Retailers, independent butchers, other manufacturers (pastry only)
Production lines: 10 core lines across both manufacturing sites
Total factory output: 60t of pastry a week. 33M pies a year.