Me and My Factory

Confectionery firm boosts profits the traditional way

By Noli Dinkovski

- Last updated on GMT

Richard Shepherdson explains the history and workings of marzipan maker Shepcote
Richard Shepherdson explains the history and workings of marzipan maker Shepcote

Related tags: Confectionery

A traditional way of working has enabled marzipan maker Shepcote to command a price premium, explains md Richard Shepherdson.

Shepcote is a family-owned ingredients supplier and confectionery manufacturer, and our specialism is marzipan. In fact, we’ve been using the same secret recipe to make marzipan since the business was started by my father, Michael, 48 years ago.

I’m actually the fourth generation of my family to be involved in sugar. Both my grandfather and great-grandfather worked for The Old White’s Sugar Mill, which had factories in Liverpool and Hull.

Both sites were bombed in the war, so the company relocated to Driffield – and my father joined soon after. In 1969, he decided to set up on his own, and the rest is history.

I joined the business full-time in 1986, after working in the factory from the age of 18 as a summer job while at polytechnic. I started in a junior office role, but I also did some time on the road as a salesman, and I even drove the lorries at one point.

In 1994, I was made md, with my father helping out until he fully retired six years ago. When I took over, we were based in the centre of Driffield.

While the site was sufficient for our needs, it was never going to allow us to expand – and getting our lorries through the town centre was proving problematic.

Purpose built site (back to top)

That’s why, in 2007, we took the decision to move to this purpose-built 3,060m2​ site on the edge of town. It was a big decision for us, and one I don’t regret at all.

While the ingredients side of the business has always served us well – we mainly deal in nuts and dried fruits on site, while bulk sugar is delivered directly by the refiners – moving to this new site has enabled us to expand the manufacturing side.

Our marzipan making is split into two – as fruits or other speciality shapes for retail packs and for cake decoration – which we supply to other manufacturers.

We produce marzipan fruits for high-end retailers like Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, but also multiple retailers. While pack sizes range from 45g up to 454g, best-sellers are the 75g and 150g formats.

We use machinery to make marzipan sheets and balls, but the intricate shapes are all put together by hand, which enables us to focus on the quality end of the market. The spraying process is also done manually, which again, requires skill.

The tradition in marzipan making is reflected in the length of service of some of our staff. We’ve only been going 48 years, but three people in the factory have worked here for at least 40 years, and six have been here for more than 30 years.

Length of service (back to top)

Factory facts

LOCATION:​ Pexton Road, Kelleythorpe, Driffield, East Riding of Yorkshire. YO25 9DJ.

SIZE:​ 3,060m2

STAFF:​ 40, rising to a minimum of 60 between August and November.

TURNOVER:​ £12.5M (£9.5M ingredients, £3M confectionery manufacture).

MAIN PRODUCTS:​ Speciality, handmade marzipan confectionery and edible cake decorations.

MAIN CUSTOMERS:​ Wholesalers and retailers. High-end customers include Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. A reasonable volume of own-label marzipan is sold through larger retailers.

NUMBER OF PRODUCTION AREAS: ​10, including assembly, spraying, coating, and packing areas.

TOTAL FACTORY OUTPUT:​ 10t a week (all ingredients).

Another long-term member of staff is our factory manager Gavin Astill. While I’ll be on site around two or three times a day, he’s usually here for the duration.

Most business decisions are made together. I don’t want to visit a customer and tell them that we can fulfil a specific order, only to return to the factory and have Gavin tell me that we can’t – so constant communication between us is vital.

We do use key performance indicators (KPIs), but the biggest thing for us is customer satisfaction. We can drive up numbers in the factory, but it really comes down to the service we provide, and the quality of the product.

We have a tremendously loyal customer base, which we’re grateful for – but all customers are under huge pressure when it comes to margins.

However, given the intricacy of what we do, we are not prepared to compromise on price. Marzipan is a seasonal confectionery that does especially well at Christmas – so when consumers buy it, they are buying it because it is marzipan. They are not looking for a heavily marketed brand of marzipan widely available on supermarket shelves.

The same applies to the cake decoration. If potential customers are looking for something cheaper, we are not the right people.

Seasonal items (back to top)

The fruits remain our most popular product, but in recent years we have extended out to more novel seasonal items like hot cross buns and spring flowers for Easter and hearts for St Valentine’s Day. Halloween items are also popular.

Another potential growth area for the business is producing confectionery under licence. Last year, we gained a British Retail Consortium Grade AA accreditation, which has helped us attract start-up firms that don’t have the facilities to manufacture themselves.

We had to buy in a small amount of kit, but at the moment we are making marshmallows and American brownies. We do the manufacturing, packing and distribution, leaving our customers to concentrate on the selling.

Going forward, we remain committed to being a family firm, and both my sons, Ed and James, have an opportunity to come into the business if they want to. However, I have said to them that they have to gain experience elsewhere before they join.

Margins are tight throughout the supply chain, but I look to the future with cautious optimism. Overall, I think the one thing we have to keep in mind is to remember what we’re good at, and not lose sight of what has made Shepcote the company it is.

Meanwhile, find out more about the level of skill that goes into the marzipan making process at the Shepcote facility in our exclusive photogallery.


NAME:​ Richard Shepherdson

Age:​ 55

Domestics:​ Married, with two sons Ed and James.

Outside work:​ I like to think of myself as sporty, having done a few sprint triathlons and I particularly enjoy playing tennis and cycling. I’m also a Hull City FC supporter.

Greatest achievement:​ It has to be moving to this site in 2007, because it was a huge commitment. A decade on, I’m delighted at how everything went there’s nothing about the factory we would change now from when we first drew up the plans.

Advice to younger self:​ Embrace technology. We are looking at a new stock control system to take the business forward but to be honest, I didn’t acquire any IT skills when I was younger, and I find even using a computer quite challenging, so it’s been a slow process.

Related topics: People & Skills, Confectionery

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