Me and My Factory

Swancote finds success in added value

By Noli Dinkovski

- Last updated on GMT

Swancote boos John Lyons talks about the potential of potatoes
Swancote boos John Lyons talks about the potential of potatoes
Swancote boss John Lyons explains the huge potential in the humble potato.

In essence, what Swancote does is take the ugly potatoes – the ones that aren’t attractive enough to sell directly to consumers – and turn them into a variety of added-value products.

Consumers may not have heard of us, but there’s a good chance they would have eaten one of the 175 products on retail shelves currently containing our products, which include potato-topped ready meals, pre-prepped mash potato, potato fish cakes and potato salads.

We are a standalone business unit owned by Produce Investments. The group grows daffodils through its Rowe Farming business, while another subsidiary, Restrain, provides sprouting suppressant systems for vegetables in storage. But those aside, Produce Investments is overwhelmingly focused on potatoes.

Greenvale is the big beast of the group, delivering about 70% of the turnover. It is the largest supplier of fresh-packed potatoes in the UK, and is a major supplier to Tesco, Sainsbury and the Co-op. Its growing division, together with Vale’s Growers – a collective of independent growers – supply us with our potatoes.

Our role here at Swancote is to take away a degree of complexity and provide consistency for those further up the supply chain. Our fresh, par-cooked potatoes are primarily sold in a diced format, which are popular in salads – but we can also offer a variety of other shapes and sizes.

In addition, we have what we describe as a pasteurised potato line. It vacuum-packs the potatoes, which allows us to give 28 days shelf-life to the product. That is particularly useful for our smaller customers, who don’t want to be taking two or three deliveries a week.

Last September, we installed a dedicated raw line, which I would describe as the final element in our potato offer that we have been missing.

Dedicated line (back to top)

The line uses an abrasive peel process. This prevents the edge of the potato being cooked, which is what happens with our steam peelers. Potatoes are not widgets, however.

Personal

NAME:​ John Lyons

AGE:​ 44

DOMESTICS:​ Married, with four children – three girls and a boy.

OUTSIDE WORK:​ I’m a rugby union referee and coach, having recently joined Bridgnorth RFC. I also enjoy shooting. Outside the shooting season, I sail. Our home overlooks a reservoir where I live, and that allows me to keep my feet wet.

GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT:​ I have four greatest achievements – they spend a lot of their time bickering, sulking and eating crisps in the back of my car.

ADVICE TO YOUNGER SELF:​ If you can’t change it, don’t waste time and energy worrying about it.

They will occasionally have concave surfaces that the peeler is not able to get to – so, in addition, we have a team of between four to eight people checking and trimming the surfaces manually.

The potatoes then pass through a sodium metabisulphite dip tank. That stops the oxidation process, which turns the potatoes a horrible grey/black colour.

The sodium metabisulphite dissipates over the life of the potato, so its presence in the finished product is negligible. This means customers do not have to declare their finished products as containing an allergen.

Because it is a relatively new line, we are still building a customer base for it – so it is currently running three days a week, while the other two are 24/6. Its installation is very much phase one of a bigger project that will involve us introducing chipping capability, which we may attach to the raw line.

The chipping line will allow us to deliver chips and wedges to any of the three lines when it is installed later this year.

With it, we are targeting the foodservice sector, which offers a huge opportunity. The idea that people will eat chips made by Swancote when they go out for their Sunday roast is an exciting development for us.

Ongoing investment (back to top)

The new line is part of ongoing investment into the facility. On the same weekend as we installed it, we added an X-ray machine on the pasteurised line, which was purpose-built in Japan for us by Ishida.

There is already a metal detection system in place, which picks up foreign bodies at 4.5mm and above. However, we’ve got the sensitivity of the X-ray machine down to about 1.2mm in stainless steel, and it will also reject any other foreign bodies that are denser than the potato.

I have to admit that following the installation of the X-ray machine, I probably had my first good night’s sleep since I joined the business in June 2016.

In 2015, the company suffered a major recall of a number of lines supplied to retailers after traces of metal were found in one of the products. It was a machine fabrication issue, which was dealt with immediately, but it led to the company undertaking a great deal of work to address the underlying causes.

We’ve completely overhauled the preventative maintenance programme, investing heavily in inspection and control systems. But we’ve also addressed the culture within the site – making food safety the number-one priority in all of our decision-making.

For example, the cutting machines are now inspected every couple of hours by two people. Meanwhile, the blade assemblies are inspected on a daily basis by different members of the senior management team – which serves as a counter sign-off, and focuses the minds of the those conducting the two-hourly inspections.

Transition to processing (back to top)

Prior to the recall, I think the company was very much in the mind-set of being a produce business, rather than a food processor. In contrast, my own background is very much in processing, having held technical and operations roles at the likes of Unilever, Northern Foods, Greencore and Oscar Mayer.

Many of the senior management team are also new to the business, and together with the staff, we have raised standards considerably – moving from a British Retail Consortium (BRC) B grade site, to BRC AA.

When I came to the business, there was a huge appetite among the staff both to learn and improve the business.

Frequently, when you go to a business to try to deliver a transformation programme, you’ll meet an awful lot of resistance. But here, people were crying out for change because they knew the company had to.

Our journey isn’t going to stop there though. We are also looking at unlocking further capacity on the pasteurised line, which we would be able to fill in a heartbeat. Another way to unlock capacity is to extend the shelf-life of the par-cooked fresh product, which will encourage some customers to switch from pasteurised. It’s something we plan to look at this year.

Overall, there’s plenty of opportunity for growth with us in the months ahead. Managing footprint, capacity and space are the three big challenges for our customers, and the more we can help them by taking some of those pressures away, the more our business will benefit.

Factory facts

LOCATION:​ Hortonwood 7, Telford, Shropshire. TF1 7GP

FACTORY SIZE:​ 1,110m2

STAFF:​ 74 full-time employees, with up to an additional 45 agency staff in peak season.

TURNOVER:​ £6.6M (2017). Forecast to be £7.6M this year.

PRODUCT RANGE: ​Fresh potatoes with a shelf-life of five to six days, fully or part cooked – and delivered in 10kg bag or bulk formats. Pasteurised potatoes with a shelf-life of up to 28 days – available in bespoke formats and sealed in vacuum packaging. Raw potatoes in a variety of cuts and formats.

MAIN CUSTOMERS:​ Food manufacturers and foodservice. Product also goes to schools, colleges and other local authority-managed locations.

PRODUCTION LINES:​ Three lines – for fresh, pasteurised and raw potato production. The lines have a combined output of 7t an hour.

TOTAL FACTORY OUTPUT:​ 22,000t a year.

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