Me & My Team

Shaws: The art of preservation

By Jan Docker

- Last updated on GMT

Docker has used Shaws' family heritage to make a name for her business
Docker has used Shaws' family heritage to make a name for her business

Related tags: Ambient

Shaws managing director Jan Docker (front right) is using the Huddersfield-based chutney maker’s long family heritage to take the business to new heights.

Shaws is a sixth-generation family business, celebrating 130 years of chutney, salsa and relish making. George Shaw opened Shaws Relish Works in Huddersfield in 1889, and we have operated from this site, Storths Mill, since 1913.

I started working for the business as a consultant in 2009, and became managing director (MD) a year later. I’m an accountant by trade and had no previous food industry experience, but I was approached by my uncle, Terry Peace, to help out with the finances. Terry was part of the second family to join Shaws in 1967, and was MD before me.

A couple of years before I joined, Matthew Shaw – who is fifth-generation – replaced his father, Martin, as chairman. Martin was responsible for developing our mango chutney, which to this day remains our most popular product.

Taking over a stagnant business

When I took over, business was fairly stagnant. We had 26 products in retail alone, so I set about rationalising them. Our Everyday range now has four products – Chunky Mango Chutney, Caramelised Red Onion Chutney, Devilish Chilli Relish and Mighty American Style Relish.

Our five-strong Heritage Range is sold through farm shops and delis. It’s slightly more luxurious and includes a Piccalilli and four chutneys – Beetroot & Horseradish, Caramelised Red Onion with Balsamic, Fig & Honey, and Spiced Apricot & Ginger. We have a broader range of products for foodservice, including fruit sauces – but our biggest seller by far in that sector is Thick & Chunky Salsa.

The turnover when I joined was £900k and, in our last financial year, we were at £3.2m. Foodservice is 65% of our business, and this is where most of the growth has come from. We also sell a small amount as ingredients to pie and sandwich makers.

I inherited an ageing building, so my first years here were literally spent putting our house in order, including new roofs throughout the Mill. I’ve always believed that if we make money, we should reinvest it back into the business – and the owners have been hugely supportive of that approach.

In the past five years, we have spent around £750,000 on equipment and the inside of the building. Our plastic capping machine set us back £250,000, our new steam boiler was an £180,000 investment, and the staff welfare facilities cost us about the same. We also invested last year in a tomato pump, which saves the hard work of having to barrel the tomatoes in manually.

Nothing without the staff

While the investment has helped, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve a thing without the staff. I knew from the start that I needed a management team with food industry experience, as I lacked any myself, so I set about making connections. For example, I found our commercial manager, Michelle Heaney-Firth, through a mutual friend.

But whether they are management or not, all our 26 staff are part of the Shaws family. I consider myself very approachable – everyone knows they can come to me with their problems.

As well as being MD, I manage the finances, do all the HR, and get involved with some of the marketing. It’s hard work, but it’s enjoyable. At the start, I was conscious of everyone thinking that a bean-counter had taken over – but I’m creative, too. I came up with Mr Pickles, for instance, our flat-capped mascot that we use in our marketing.

Chutney might be a traditional condiment, but it has been made trendy by foodies. For us, it’s about creating a modern twist and promoting its versatility; our onion chutney, for example, includes balsamic vinegar and muscovado sugar. On our website there are recipes demonstrating how chutney can be used as a cooking ingredient, rather than something that sits on the side of the plate with cheese.

A saturated market

We are aware, though, that the chutney market is very saturated. We sit in the middle of that market – which suits us fine. Our size gives us the flexibility to make smaller, bespoke batches, as well as handle larger runs.

Our other main challenge is reformulation. The first reduction was around salt, which wasn’t easy as salt, of course, is needed to bring out flavour. Now, the focus is on sugar, which is fine for salsa, as there’s hardly any in it – but our new foodservice product, Smoky Chilli Jelly, has plenty. It’s like asking a jam-maker to reduce sugar to the point where they are not actually making jam.

We’ll do what we can to reduce sugar, but what I will say is that those eating our product don’t eat the whole jar, so to compare us with other food groups is a little unfair. 

Overall, we’re in a good place. I want us to invest in a second line by 2023. For that to happen, we would need to get to a turnover of £4.5m–£5m.

It’s also great for the business that Annie – five-times great-granddaughter of our founder George –recently joined us as a graduate trainee. She’s just started on a food safety course as part of her journey to understanding all aspects of the business. It looks like the Shaw family legacy is going to be preserved for a little while longer yet.

Shaws (Huddersfield)

Location:​ Shaw Park Office Centre, Silver Street, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, HD5 9AF

Turnover:​ £3.2m

Factory size:​ 2,931m2

Staff:​ 26

Main products:​ Chutneys, relishes, sauces and salsas.

Customers:​ Major multiples, foodservice, farm shops and delis.

Output:​ 30t a week (glass) or 60t a week (plastic).

Jan Docker:​ “I’m very much an outdoors person. I love cycling, and I enjoy growing fruit and veg in my garden.”

Related topics: Ambient foods, Operations

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