Wheat in a field

Source: Getty Images

Supply disruptions, rising costs and future opportunities were among the topics discussed

Bakers, manufacturers, suppliers and more gathered in Oxfordshire for the British Society of Baking’s spring conference earlier this month.

‘Moving business on’ was the theme of the conference, which was held for the first time since 2019, with speakers including former Wrights Food Group managing director Ian Dobbie, Sean and Talia Sarafilovic from Stephens Bakery and Rising Star Award winners William Leet and Megan Roberts.

Here are a few of the key messages from the event:


William Leet

William Leet

The next generation of bakers is eager to help the industry thrive

“I want to give back and help the next generation of bakers coming up,” said William Leet, NPD baker for David Woods, who kicked off the conference as part of a double act with Megan Roberts, research & development technologist for AB Mauri.

The duo explored the relationship between up-and-coming talent and the baking industry. Both are relatively new to the sector and are also recipients of British Baker’s Rising Star Award, which Roberts won at the Baking Industry Awards in 2019 and Leet took home in 2021.

The pair’s enthusiasm and passion for baking was clear from the session, with each jumping on any opportunity presented to them before and after their award wins.

“When you win awards it presents great opportunities,” said Roberts. “I have been given the opportunity to judge competitions including Britain’s Best Loaf and the British Pie Awards.”

However, she acknowledges that not everyone is presented the same opportunities and more could be done to improve things for students. This includes greater awareness of industry internships, offering up visits to different types of bakery businesses and enhancing the visibility of different jobs.

“Companies can go into the colleges,” Leet added. “Sometimes the smaller ones get forgotten so we need to be going into those colleges with fewer students and giving them the opportunities as well.”

Roberts added that “inclusion is a really big thing”, along with collaboration, as the industry risks missing “a pool of people in apprenticeships or people already in jobs”.


A field of sunflowers

Source: Getty Images

Sunflower seeds and oils are among those with immediate availability issues

Supply disruptions due to Ukraine are likely to extend into 2022/23

“We’re talking about a war – people are dying,” said Alex Waugh, director of trade body UK Flour Millers, who was keen to put the recent supply disruptions and price rises into perspective.

“We’re not even the worst affected by those not directly involved [in the war]. There are many parts of the world, in particular north Africa and the Middle East, which depend for their food supply on grains and products coming out of Ukraine and Russia.”

That’s not to say UK firms aren’t facing tough decisions as prices for key commodities are rising sharply – and, Waugh added, supply disruptions could stretch well into the 2022/23 grain marketing year. He also highlighted a 70% increase in London wheat futures, a 250% increase in imported ammonium nitrate prices and a 400% increase in gas forward delivery contracts as examples of price increases.

“Farmers may cut back on fertiliser, which may mean lower yields so higher protein wheats will be more costly to produce,” Waugh added.

Commodities with immediate availability issues because of the conflict are sunflower seeds, oils and lecithins as well as some organic seeds and grains. While there are replacements, many buyers and sellers are seeking to secure supplies so the cost and availability of these is also challenging.

However, Waugh noted, this does present opportunities for alternative solutions, such as enzyme-based ones, which could improve wheat or flour performance.


Sean and Talia Sarafilovic outside Stephens Bakery

Source: Stephens Bakery

Talia and Sean Sarafilovic

Times are tough, but there are opportunities aplenty

Dealing with the aftermath of Covid-19, mitigating rising costs and recruiting and retaining staff in a highly competitive market are just some of the challenges facing Scotland’s Stephens Bakery as well as others.

But fourth-generation Sean and Talia Sarafilovic believe there are plenty of opportunities for maintaining and growing the business. Their five-pronged approach includes: supporting the local community, embracing technology, automation, lean production principles and expanding its estate.

“Our two main focuses for retail are drive-thrus and drive-to stores,” explained Talia. Discussing the opening of Stephens’ first drive-thru in Dunfermline – there are more of the format in the pipeline – she added: “Within one week of opening it was by far our biggest turnover shop and still is now.”

On the production side, Sean said “automation is going to be the way forward” as it allows the business to enhance product quality while mitigating the impact of the competitive labour market. This will include converting paper-based tasks to tech-based ones by embracing technology to monitor production but also staff and customer feedback.

Introducing recognition awards for staff are one of the ways the business is looking to thank and retain its hardworking employees. The team received further recognition after the firm secured the Craft Bakery Business Award at the 2021 Baking Industry Awards.

“It’s a fantastic thing for ourselves and our customers to reinforce why they are using us,” Sean said. “It was also a lift for the team. Having worked in what was a scary environment [throughout the pandemic], it was a huge thank you and a great morale boost for the team.”


Ian Dobbie

Source: Wrights Food Group

Ian Dobbie

Delivering results takes a clear strategic vision

“If you don’t have a clear vision of where your business is going then I don’t think you’re doing your job properly.” These were the bold words from Ian Dobbie, former CEO of Délifrance and managing director of Wrights Food Group, who charted his role in the latter’s sale to Compleat Food Group.

Dobbie joined the pie specialist in early 2021 with the task of developing a strategic plan for the next stage of business expansion and helping to find a buyer for the family-owned firm.

A key part of a transaction like this is understanding the type of business you want to buy your firm. “If you don’t have an idea of who you would want to sell it to then you’re undervaluing your whole proposition,” Dobbie said.

Wrights Food Group was a good fit for Compleat, which was formed of “two successful businesses” with a chilled food proposition predominantly serving the retail sector. The acquisition of Wrights allowed it to venture into the supply of frozen goods as well as foodservice.

Regardless of whether the goal of the business plan is to sell the business or simply make it more successful, Dobbie outlined a few key lessons. They are:

  • Always have a clear strategic vision and constantly share it with your employees and key customers
  • Don’t be hesitant to adapt to ever-changing market conditions
  • Build the very best team around you and never stop listening to them
  • Work as hard as you can and be transparent as it earns you trust which is ‘priceless’
  • Don’t forget to have some fun along the way.