Me and My Team

Breaking the stigma of chicken production at 2 Sisters Scunthorpe

By Gurpa Singh

- Last updated on GMT

2 Sisters Scunthorpe site director Gurpa Singh discusses his time in the role and the changes he's helped bring about
2 Sisters Scunthorpe site director Gurpa Singh discusses his time in the role and the changes he's helped bring about

Related tags Meat & Seafood People & Skills

From finance director to head of one of the largest poultry processing sites in the UK, Gurpa Singh speaks about his time at 2 Sisters Scunthorpe, the impact of COVID and Brexit and the turnaround of the business he helped bring about.

I've been with 2 Sisters for 23 years starting in 1999, and the majority of my career (15 years) has been in finance. I started at the bottom rung of the ladder, if you like, in process and purchase invoices, then moved into management accounts, eventually becoming financial control and then finance director (FD) of that [department]. At that time, 2 sisters was split into divisions, so we had a slaughter division and a cutting division.

I was FD for the poultry division, and then in 2014, following a number of different roles in finance, I made a move into the sales and operational planning department for the whole business. So that was every single site, poultry-related in 2 Sisters. So at that time, there were around 12 or 13 sites and I was consolidating those sites into one planning function.

We knew what our demand was, we were able to ascertain what was coming into the factories and it was about matching principles and making sure each site was optimised in terms of activity, and we were servicing the customer. I spent nearly five years doing that job, and I then had a sabbatical.

I thenbecame agricultural operations director, which gave me a massive insight into that side of the business. The reason for doing that is it was one part of the jigsaw that I wasn't fully au fait with; I knew the basics of agriculture, but I wanted to learn more. With a strong financial background, it was about understanding what metrics impact agriculture and drive financial performance.

I'd been in that role for just under a year when I got a call from Ranjit [Singh Boparan, chief executive] who said ‘Gurpa, I’ve spent a lot of money in Scunthorpe in 2016/17 and it's not delivering what it should have done. You've always been very good with people and you also had a significant skillset – you understand planning, you understand agriculture now and you understand finance – those three things plus your people skills will help us turn Scunthorpe around’.

So, for three years the site was pretty much in the doldrums – we'd had the huge investment, but we just weren't able to deliver. What I recognised was that although there were people-based challenges, they were more indicative of the food industry in general – a significant transient workforce was coming in from Europe and working in these factories.

Reorganising management

We had about 1,800 people, of which 80% belonged to that transient workforce. So, it was about harnessing what those people had to offer. They're all incredibly hard working but what we realised very quickly was because of the lower levels of English, we needed to add a layer of management into the operation.

The top line for me is, it's not just about profitability, you have to understand what's important to you as a site. For me, keep people safe.

Whereas previously, we were taught to streamline and take layers out, we actually needed to put a layer of knowledge into the business so we have the correct span of control – one person should have been able to look after 100 people, for example, providing those 100 people always shared a common language they all understood and could follow direct instruction. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case.

So, we then put another layer in. We had a frontline manager and we added a supervisory level to that. The frontline manager then had supervisors who managed each operation within.

The top line for me is, it's not just about profitability, you have to understand what's important to you as a site. For me, keep people safe.

But I couldn't have done it by myself. It was about identifying that we had an insufficient presence in the factory in a managerial capacity. You know, so this team, so the likes of Dan, Shawn, Nick and Reagan, they've all been here for a long time, but they weren't working together, it was about making them understand that every element of your operation is important.

It can't just be about throughput, it can't just be about profit, you know? And for me, people are at the heart of it, because you need good leadership and strong management skills throughout to make a site this size work. We have King Arthur's roundtable and everybody's equal at the table – everybody's voice is heard.

It meant going back to the discipline of having daily meetings, reviews for your staff to understand what the feedback is. That's how we turned the site around to deliver all those metrics – everybody has a value, everybody has an input and being able to listen to queries to then make the team work together to deliver it.

Running a team in a pandemic

Then of course in March 2020, just six months after joining the site, we got hit by COVID-19 – that was a hugely challenging time for us. Overnight we went to being food heroes, frontline workers keeping food factories running in the midst of panic buying in the supermarkets.

But as the country got to grips with the pandemic and the vaccine was rolled out, suddenly there was this association that all these compact, labour-intensive factories are areas where the transmission of COVID-19 was more prevalent. We went from hero to zero overnight because people were blaming food factories as the reason for outbreaks – we’ve closed the schools and everybody’s working from home and the only people working are the ‘food heroes’ so they must be spreading it.

Absolute rubbish that was. This site alone spent over half a million pounds putting in various controls – barriers, one-way systems, giving everyone enhanced levels of personal protective equipment. We even have a pop-up clinic here for vaccinations. We’ve done so much work that we actually got recognised by North Lincolnshire Council last year for outstanding contribution towards mitigating the spread of COVID-19.that

As soon as we got over the Covid hump we were hit by Brexit (summer 2021) and the end of June 2021 was the trigger for settled status – you had to have obtained this to carry on working in the UK. Nearly 80% of our workforce was transient so we knew that this deadline was going to hit hard. So, we went on a massive campaign to retain people.

Retaining people during Brexit

We had to understand two things - why people do not join the chicken factory or manufacturing and why when people do join, they leave. We've undertook an analysis of our local competitors to understand our own demographics better, looked at lever exit interviews and at our recruitment strategy.

Basically, we turned it all upside down, we changed so much it's difficult to put into words. But we're really proud of what we achieved - and the reason I'm saying ‘we're’ is because while the business does recognise that I've been the catalyst that pulled it all together – which is great for me on a personal level – I couldn't have done it without the support my team.

What I’m proud of is that I made the team work together, but I didn’t force them. We came together as a team because we all understood and respected each other's viewpoints, something that I was very keen on drawing together.

Changing perceptions of working in the factory

When it comes to the challenges we face, top is ‘perceptions of a chicken factory’ – with it commonly being the last resort, a place you go to work if you don’t do well in school. It’s a perception and reputation that all meat industries have, the stigma that it would be better to be claiming benefits then to be working in a chicken factory, crazy as that sounds. We know the environment is cold and noisy, and the work is hard and involves raw meat – these are the facts, there's no getting away from them.

Then there’s the fact that British people are the minority at this site. Local British people don’t work in these factories, so there’s a huge foreign element so you can get the sense that ‘there’s more of them than there is of us’.

So we knew we had to attract people to the site in a way that hadn’t been done before and then we had to develop them. It’s the route we’ve taken with most of the senior team. They’ve worked their way up from the bottom.

We’ve got 75 delegates from this site alone on management training and we have multiple apprentices – just two weeks ago we had 16 engineering apprentices, which was a huge group considering there’s been a massive shortage within the poultry industry. Rather than find them, we would much rather grow our own talent.

Mental health is also a big thing for us and we have a ‘Wellness Wednesday’ where we will discuss mental awareness. Employees can come and talk about everything from suicide rates in men, which never used to be spoken about, to children being bullied at school.

Our purpose was to make people less inclined to leave - and I think you can see that [we succeeded] from the numbers. In August 2021, 42% of the people in site were Romanian, 20% were British and 38% represented other. Over the past year we have dropped that Romanian percentage from 42% to 35%, while the British and other went up to 24% and 40% respectively. So, while we have seen a 7% reduction in our transient workforce, we’ve also seen a 7% increase in our non-transient workforce.

If we were to carry on that trend, in two years’ time we could halve that Romanian percentage. Our recruitment is telling us we are bringing in more local people and have become less reliant on the transient workforce, which is exactly what we have to do if we are to survive Brexit.

I truly believe that people are at the heart of business – if you don't have the right people, if you don't treat your people well enough, you won't have a successful business and to do what we have to do in this industry. You have to engage your workforce.

By treating them well and promoting good behaviour, you make it so your employees choose to stay with you, rather than them being there out of necessity.

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