Me and My factory

Creamery on the Isle of Man faces special challenges

By Noli Dinkovski contact

- Last updated on GMT

Creamery boss Andy Thornton says running an island creamery brings special challenges
Creamery boss Andy Thornton says running an island creamery brings special challenges

Related tags: Milk

Running a creamery on the Isle of Man brings a novel set of challenges, but boss Andy Thornton tells Noli Dinkovski he relishes them all.

We are the commercial arm of the Isle of Man Milk Marketing Association, which is a cooperative of 33 dairy farmers on the island.

Our purpose and goal in life is to give the dairy farmers on the Isle of Man the best possible return on their milk. To achieve that, we try to add as much value to our products all the way through the production process.

We do everything, from milk collection all the way through to delivery. Our three milk tankers go out every day, collecting in the region of about 24.5M litres of milk a year.

The milk essentially has two destinations. First, there’s the dairy liquid products, which include whole, semi-skimmed and skimmed milk, single and double cream, and butter cream – which gets turned into full cream butter. The milk and cream are purely for the local market, and that equates to around 6.5M litres per annum.

The rest of what we collect goes into our cheese production. We’ll make somewhere in the region of about 1,700t of cheese a year. There are various types of cheddar, including mild, vintage, mature and extra-mature, as well as a Red Leicester and a Double Gloucester.

We also do some cheese blending on site, where we’ll take 12-month-old mature cheddar and add flavours such as garlic and chives, split black peppercorns, and chilli.

I joined the company back in 1996, and at the time the creamery was making what would be classed as commodity cheese. It would leave the island in tonne batches, predominantly to the UK, where it was then cut and packed.

No Manx identity (back to top)

It had no Manx identity, and could have been cheese from anywhere. Realising this, around the turn of the century we entered into a strategy of adding value to the product.

Personal

NAME:​ Andy Thornton
AGE:​ 47
DOMESTICS:​ Married with two children.
OUTSIDE WORK:​ Most of my spare time is taken up with local football. Up until the summer, I was first team manager of Corinthians AFC. Last season, we finished runners-up in the Isle of Man Premier League. I’m also an avid car enthusiast.
GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT:​ Being part of the continual development of our site and staff, in order to meet the changing needs
of our customers. It sounds clichéd, but we’re very proud of the factory and the people
we employ. It can be quite challenging at times, but everybody pulls together to get the best outcome.
ADVICE TO YOUNGER SELF:​ Take each day as it comes and try to enjoy life. Also, be prepared to learn something new every day.

We still sell cheese in bulk, but now under contract to customers that understand the importance of the product’s provenance.

We also added value when we installed our own cutting and packing lines. All of the products we pack now have Isle of Man Creamery branding.

It was so important to bring out the island’s identity because it’s a beautiful place – unspoilt in many places. Last year, the Isle of Man was awarded UNESCO status, which means the entire island is designated a Biosphere Reserve.

Being on an island, however, means you’ve always got that stretch of water – which poses issues in bringing materials in, and shipping products out.

To make our business as efficient and economical as possible, we maximise our buy-in capacity and buy-in schedules. Of course, that results in extra storage costs, so it’s a delicate thing to get right.

Milk operation (back to top)

Our milk operation is more straightforward. The island operates a Milk Price Order, which means anything processed on the island cannot sell for less than 60p per pint.

This leaves us to open to being undercut by imported milk, so again we have to add value to our operation.

One way of doing this is by delivering free-of-charge to the 6,000 households we serve. We guarantee our milk is delivered before 8am at no extra cost.

To achieve this, we start processing milk about 1am, while the cheese-making process begins around 4am. Most of the staff are on site by 6.30am, and production usually ends by 2.30pm.

As we’re the only dairy on the island, it can be very challenging to undertake large capital investment projects while keeping the impact on operations to a minimum.

We can’t offload work to another site, and there’s nowhere else for the milk to go – we have to work out-of-hours and segregate areas off.

In 2015, we invested in a new milk filling and cartoning line from Gaudi. The line has improved the quality of our cartons, and as given us the ability to add screw caps.

It has also enabled us to produce a 950ml carton, which means we can retail the milk at £1. Under the Milk Prices Order, we would have to charge £1.06 for a 1-litre carton.

Latest project (back to top)

Our latest project has been to install two new steam boilers, which went in last month at a cost of £400,000. Our previous steam generation capability was in excess of 25 years old, and the new equipment will make us more efficient and increase our access to spare parts.

The efficiency of our kit is always going to be close to my heart, as my background is in electrical engineering.

I served my apprenticeship at RAF Fylingdales, in North Yorkshire, which is a ballistic missile early-warning station. So I’ve gone from trying to stop Russia from blowing the world up, to trying to stop the market being flooded with cheap cheese!

Before moving to the Isle of Man, I worked at the Associated Co-operative Creameries in Whitby – where I am originally from. My first 10 years here were as chief engineer, before I became manufacturing manager in 2006.

I have noticed a shortage of skilled engineers in recent years – and specifically in food and drink manufacture. Production line experience is quite difficult to come across.

We have a great engineering team here, though, and we’ve also just taken on an apprentice through the Manx Craft Apprenticeship scheme. Overall, we have quite a stable workforce, which isn’t surprising given that people need a permit to work on the island.

I wouldn’t suggest there are opportunities to develop in the business every week, but we try to promote internally as much as we can before going elsewhere. That said, I can’t discourage people who may want to move to the island either, as it’s a wonderful place to work and live.

Factory facts

LOCATION:​ Ballafletcher Farm Road, Cronkbourne, Isle of Man. IM4 4QE
FACTORY SIZE:​ 20,000m2
STAFF:​ 79
TURNOVER:​ £12.5M
MAIN PRODUCTS:​ Liquid milk, cream, butter and cheese – including mild, coloured, mature, extra-mature and vintage cheddar. We also produce Red Leicester and Double Gloucester.
MAIN CUSTOMERS:​ All the main retailers on the island, including Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Spar, The Co-op and Shoprite. The creamery also delivers to 6,000 households. Leading export markets for butter and cheese are the UK, US and Ireland.
PRODUCTION LINES:​ Two main milk-packing lines. The first line runs at 6,000 cartons an hour, and the second runs at 3,500 plastic bottles an hour. A maximum of nine vats of cheese are produced daily, equivalent to 16t. The cheese cutting line can create 80 blocks a minute.
FACTORY OUTPUT:​ 6.5M litres (liquid milk), 1,700t (cheese) a year.

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