Digital feature: long read

Me & My Team: Avara Foods Wednesbury

By Phil Davidson

- Last updated on GMT

Avara Foods committed an initial £4.7m to getting its Wednesbury facility operational
Avara Foods committed an initial £4.7m to getting its Wednesbury facility operational

Related tags Meat & Seafood Training & recruitment Technology & Automation

Avara Foods's Wednesbury factory illustrates the company’s parallel priorities of investing in people and transformative technology, both of which are essential in the middle of the skills crisis, operations director Phil Davidson explains.

Phil Davidson

Davidson’s CV

In 1992, Davidson became a graduate trainee with Cargill/SunValley after graduating from the University of Stirling with an honours degree in Marketing and Economics. He went on to work for Marshalls and subsequently Grampian Country Foods.

In 2001 he became operations manager at Faccenda’s Sutton Benger site.

Progressing through the business, he was made operations director in 2010. When Cargill and Faccenda created the joint venture Avara Foods, Davidson was appointed operations director with responsibility for Avara’s nine processing and manufacturing sites.

Outside work, he enjoys playing golf, watching rugby and spending time with his family, friends and dogs.

The Wednesbury site was part of Hilton [Foods] SV Cuisine. This was where they conducted a lot of their sous vide activity. They consolidated that back and the building therefore was on the market as a leasehold. We secured the lease, then commenced a major refurbishment. We had already ordered automated equipment for thigh deboning. From getting the keys to producing the first deboned thighs was 12 weeks.

We had an aim to be more automated, higher skilled, with better pay and conditions to attract and retain the right people. COVID and Brexit have been massive accelerants in the restructuring of the labour market, which we saw was going to happen over a longer term, but it’s happened in a very short time. We have had to take activities outside of our traditional rural centres and move them into where we can access labour in more populated conurbations.

COVID meant people didn’t go back and forth between their homeland and where they were working. Then they went back and realised significant change had happened economically and perhaps made their mind up to make that move permanently.

In a shrinking labour market, you have to be more competitive. You have to raise wages. We went early. It went down well. We operate with two collective bargaining agreements with GMB and Unite. They have been delighted.

If people work eight hours in a refrigerated factory, they have got to have somewhere nice to have dinner'

We have as a country benefited from cheap labour, because there’s never been a requirement to raise rates; we have operated with low inflation and general stability in the economy. Although we have had full employment, we have had plenty of people available and wanting to work for us.

Recruitment has been about understanding the dynamics in each area. With some communities it’s about radio advertising, in others it’s about social media or having a presence with colleges and schools.

A lot of people have gone through agencies. I’m proud we’re not doing that now. I’ve always said even if we use an agency, why would you leave a permanent job to take a temporary job in the hope it might become permanent? You have to offer permanent employment from day one.

We could have moved into this factory and used facilities the way they were – tired, dark. We said, we’re going to rip it out and get it done properly. Locker room, canteen, toilets are important facilities. If people work eight hours in a refrigerated factory, they have got to have somewhere nice to have dinner.

Wendesbury canteen 2
Wednesbury's refurbished canteen area

Our investment’s been in graduates, degree apprentices, shop floor apprentices, placement students. Cohorts are coming through now in senior positions – site managers and production managers.

Degree apprenticeships have been a game changer. People are recognising, ‘I can do a degree over five years, I can be employed the whole time, I’ll have an income, I can potentially get on the property ladder, I can buy a car and I don’t have debt round me and I’ve got five years there. If I last the five years and I’m doing OK, I’ve probably got a job.’

Now we create our own degree apprentices from our apprentice programme. Someone can join as an apprentice at A-Level and do a further apprenticeship at degree level. People can create a new skills set and career path within 18 months.

I see a lot of people buying machines. Who’s going to run them? We’re running complex processes, so we have to invest in our people so they are up to speed. I’d like to see the same tax credits we get on capital equipment on the spare parts and training packages to have them working. We’re getting consistent feedback that we’re unique in the request for training and support packages.

Degree apprenticeships have been a game changer'

A lot of people don’t have the access we assume they would to healthcare and health services. We have employed qualified health practitioners not only for compliance – medical screening, return to work – but to help people get the right help.

We have consulting rooms and offices for our health and wellness team. You can phone or email, make an appointment through line management or HR or go directly to them. People will speak to health and wellness professionals more openly than perhaps they would with a manager.

There’s a host of factors associated with workplace stress. If you can get to the bottom of what those factors are, absences might not happen, issues might not happen in a person’s life. When you provide these services, it’s another reason to come to work.

Mid 2020 we were taking in colleagues – often furloughed, often from the service industry –who said, ‘I don’t feel my wellbeing is even considered and this is totally different. I may prefer my old job, but I prefer the culture here.’ Then you talk to those individuals about upskilled jobs and robotics as our direction of travel. The majority are still here. We didn’t do it in a calculated way. It just felt like the right thing to do.

Mental health awareness

We have partnered with a company called Excaliber on mental health awareness and the creation of our mental health first aiders. Mental health issues are caused by a series of traumatic events that become overwhelming. It’s being able to have interventions – having that conversation.

People are anxious about family abroad, the cost of living, the mortgage. We’re not here to provide them directly with financial advice, for example, but we can say, ‘Have you thought of this, have you spoken to these people?’ We have had that in place since last year.

These guys are now working with our health and safety people looking at ergonomic work design. You often find people will come to work and put up with horrendous things and you think, ‘Why haven’t you just told me that you can’t reach that?’ And three weeks down the line it’s, ‘Boss, I’ve got a sore elbow.’

Factory facts

Key members of the Wednesbury team:​ Rob Bywater, general manager; Kelly Ingram, site manager; Jamie Jones, engineering manager; Jeetinder Chall, technical manager; project team: Zack Mallalieu, project engineer; Simon Hodges project manager

Site refurbishment completed:​ May 2022, including amenities

Total investment to date:​ £5m

Capacity:​ 80 tonnes a week, which will increase with further spend

Full time employees:​ 106

Main products:​ Deboned and packed chicken thigh, with scope to develop

Customers:​ Major supermarkets

Green initiatives:​ Improved insulation in chilled areas; motion sensor lighting. Longer-term Avara aims to look at its refrigeration system and heat recovery. It’s moving to paperless operations, from engineering maintenance to quality assurance, and focusing on waste reduction and recycling, as well as cutting product and packaging waste. Recycling points are in place. Ensuring cardboard waste is recycled, not wasted has been an initial target.

We’re progressing away from CO2 for slaughter and using waste products to create fertiliser, CO2, heat, power, gas and biofuel.

Anaerobic digestion is on the cards. We’re also looking at combined heat & power plants.

The work we have done on packaging has been successful in reducing plastics and has allowed us to work with customers on packing methods less reliant on manual packing. Those automated processes are more attractive as an employment proposition. We can offer technical apprenticeships and engineering apprenticeships and we have a queue at the door. For the same money we can ask you to come in the factory manually packing and it’s a much bigger challenge.

People who want to work in leadership and management roles want to join businesses they feel reflect the values they hold dear. We have set science-based targets.

We can offer technical apprenticeships and engineering apprenticeships and we have a queue at the door'

If you can store electricity when you’re generating it and not using it, you can share that. We’ve got our own water treatment and we’re looking at how we can refine that and get that to potable standard, reuse an element of it and reduce the amount we take out of the system.

We have concerns about using inert gases [for slaughter], because you’re drowning the animal. With the CO2 mix we use the bird goes to sleep before death. It’s important that whatever method we use is either a step on in welfare or mimics the standards we achieve with current slaughter.

We’re working on generating our own energy, looking at technologies there – a combination of all of them, not just on site.

BBQ automation 2
Avara Wednesbury has invested in automated deboning and barbecue lines

We have made investments in further deboning thighs. We’re continuing to refine the automation of breast deboning and breast packing. We pack all retail breasts with robotic packing. In all our factories, we’re rolling out end-of-line packing.

Does someone really choose to pack by hand cold pieces of meat? Does someone choose to put elastic bands around chickens’ legs all day? I have always challenged our business: how do we get out of these repetitive, mundane tasks? When you convert them into automated tasks, you’re employing a machine technician, a process technician, someone who has responsibility for the upkeep and running of the machines, the process, the quality output. What we look to do is combine that with work we’re doing on the green agenda around packing where we’ve used less plastics and looked at innovative ways of packing products with a different packing substrate that still looks after the product, but also lends itself to being automated.

Does someone really choose to pack by hand cold pieces of meat?'

We’re reducing packaging. That’s not to say we’re not working with our material suppliers and challenging them with how much product you can get into something that has already been recycled. Is it recyclable? Does the infrastructure exist for it to be recycled? Compostable – that’s on the cards. Those technologies are coming.

The Plastics Tax will be a massive driver on reduction. We went from a tray with a film, with a label, maybe a secondary label, even a base label to a bag. It’s still plastic, but it’s a lot less. All our barbecue products for major UK retailers this year were launched in a bag – ovenable. You buy a bag of drumsticks and put them in a baking tray in the oven, you take them out, then you lift the bag out with an oven glove and you can finish that on the barbecue. For food safety and cooking, it provides consistency. When we sell product through our rotisserie supply chain, the vast majority are cooked with that method.

We have got people who are used to running a seasonal barbecue campaign, which is about labour management of seasonal workers. We have taken them through technical and competency training to allow them to run the new automated kit rather than manage that seasonal worker. Rather than going out to the market to seek those skills, we have taken an in-house upskilling approach. We will not require seasonal labour to produce our barbecue products this year.

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