Ale and hearty

10 April, 2009
Craft baker Ian Thomson has been appointed to the leading role in driving the UK's skills agenda forward, as chair of the National Skills Academy for Bakery steering group. Andrew Williams heads to Newcastle to find out what makes his business tick
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There are few people in the industry more passionate about training than self-styled Geordie Baker Ian Thomson. You'd also be hard pressed to find a baker more single-minded about getting booze into bread, but more of that later.

Now sat in the chair guiding the NSA's bakery steering group, having taken over from Dave Brooks, former MD of bakery giant Finsbury, Thomson is adamant about finding a common path for craft, big business and supermarket in-store skills alike. "In the early days the awarding bodies were in charge of the training schemes and courses. Then it became the responsibility of the trade associations. Now we have a totally independent body with no agenda at all other than to make training work," he says. "If that means making different types of courses or delivery available, then it will be done. We must make it flexible."

Thomson has a rich and colourful background as a craft baker. Perhaps most famous for its Broon Ale Bread - a Newcastle Brown Ale licence - Thomsons Bakery is still profiting from this signature product two decades after its launch. Not that this success came easy, though it no doubt involved some rollicking NPD sessions.

The first aborted effort was a lager pint-shaped bread using a local Scorpion-branded lager, cunningly featuring a chilli in the bottom ("the best idea we ever had!" says Thomson). Alas, this was snubbed by the brewers' misguided marketers. Next came an ill-fated stab at a Guinness bread, made of a soft white dough on top of a rye, again in a plant pot pint shape, but "finding anyone in the Guinness organisation who would say 'yes' or 'no' proved impossible".

By this stage, says Thomson, he was wise to wasting time on what he thought were "absolutely brilliant marketing products" - but thankfully, not too wise to give Newcastle Brown Ale a pop. And the penny finally dropped at Scottish & Newcastle Brewery, which was delighted at the Broon Ale Bread, made from brown flour with malted wheat grain and ale. It remains a best-seller to this day, retailing through Asda stores and foodservice, and used in everything from loaves to sandwich breads. "Bread has fashions and trends and we thought that if we got two years out of it, that would be good," says Thomson. "We're probably producing more now, 23 years on, than we were then. We're even making brown ale Christmas puddings."

While Thomsons now has a healthy wholesale business, it wasn't always so. Two enormous supermarkets opening nearby in the late 1970s reduced his business by two-thirds overnight and, by 1981, he had revamped the business model of Thomsons, which was set up by his parents in 1956, and which he now runs alongside wife Jan. "We had to go out and look for business," he recalls, and began developing bespoke products for caterers and chefs.

Not that this predominantly handmade one-shop bakery hasn't dabbled in major retailer supply, and was once stocked in over 100 Waitrose stores (a deal he ended due to difficulties in making the logistics pay). He has also tried satellite shops, but, "The operation didn't suit us, we were far better at the wholesale side," he says. "Hotels and catering companies loved it that we made products unique to them. It wasn't hard for us to do - we could have a product on someone's desk within four hours."

In fact, lifecycles are a recurring theme at Thomsons. When archaeologists discovered a brewery in Queen Nefertiti's Temple of the Sun in Egypt, he realised his Broon Ale Bread wasn't quite the breakthrough he'd once thought. "Apparently what they used to do to give the ale flavour was add bread to it. The bread was made from emmer wheat - the strain that was used for the flour we used in the brown ale bread, all these years later. Not only that, the wheat grains they'd used in the bread were covered in sugar solution and malted. So what they were actually making was Broon Ale Bread and we thought we'd invented it in 1986!"

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=== On training ===

Ian Thomson has a long history in bakery training, having lectured at Newcastle College shortly after leaving college himself, teaching cake decoration, flour confectionery and breadmaking. He worked his way up to become national chairman for training and education at the National Association of Master Bakers (NA). "At the time, the NA was responsible for all the training in bakery, so I was always involved in training and education, right from the word go."

Thomsons doubles as a registered training company, offering health and hygiene training on-premise and on manufacturers' sites. He has always trained his own bakers on-site and now has 15 employees. While some firms fear losing their staff, once they've invested time and money in their training, Thomson takes the opposite view. "We have a seven-year expectancy from them, then really it's time to move on," he says. "They've learned that much by then - quality systems, HACCP, the breadmaking process, employment law... they can get much better jobs somewhere else! We're all about career advancement and a lot of our past trainees have gone on to senior positions or run their own businesses. We're very proud of the standard of trainees we've raised.

"There's only one thing more valuable than having a skill yourself, and that's being able to pass it on to someone else," he says. "If I ask a trainee 'why am I training you?', the answer I want to hear is 'so I can train somebody else'. That way it's a cost-effective process for us, because they are then able to train the younger person coming in."

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=== Baker to baker: best practice tips ===

What systems have you introduced to improve your business?

"IT is now at the forefront of any kind of relationship with a customer. We have to make specification sheets available to all our customers. This gets us business. We don't have to go in and undercut prices - we give them what they need and they trust us. We use the CyBake program and that monitors everything from ingredients to delivery notes, traceability and invoicing, and links with accounts and payroll. It costs the same as a part-time staff member. When I think back to how things used to be handwritten... it was a nightmare."

 

What are your most profitable lines and your best margins?

"Standard bread is not as profitable as it was, and certainly confectionery isn't. Because of the increase in price in confectionery pre-mixes, I'm starting to consider going back to scratch methods -, not for everything, but for some products - and that's to control the profit margins we make. So the most profitable are the unique bread products that we make for customers - ones that other bakers won't bother with - and we can charge premium prices for those."

 

What is the biggest mistake you've made in recent years?

"The biggest mistake we make at any time is employing the wrong people, because staff is one of our biggest costs. The more time we spend in interviews, the more time we spend in initial training, the better off we are. Because we're such a manually influenced operation, the biggest mistake would be not telling staff how to do things properly."

 

What's the best advice you could offer a similar-scale business?

"Communicate with your customers. You can almost train your customers. You can train them into buying the good products that you have. But you also have to have the relationship where you listen to them. The easiest part of our operation is making the product. Everything else is hard. If you know what your customer wants, you've won half the battle."





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