The Scottish Bakers’ annual conference at Peebles this past weekend, May 13-15, saw some historic entrances and exits.

New full-time chief executive Alan Clarke presided over his first conference, with attendance at its highest in 20 years. Supported by the board, Clarke introduced some radical changes, including a whole day of presentations, a panel discussion and technical sessions, which kicked off the packed conference on Saturday.

But the conference also bid a fond farewell to retiring company secretary, conference organiser and all-round legal eagle Fay Somerville, who has served the SAMB and Scottish Bakers for 28 years. At Saturday night’s black tie banquet Somerville was given a standing ovation and presented with a commemorative medal and a large tribute cake, decorated by food consultant Robert Ross. Earlier, paying her tribute, he told British Baker: "Fay has been the backbone of the SAMB. I could go on all night about what an asset she has been and how much she is appreciated by Scottish Bakers. I wish her a long and happy retirement."

Jim Lamond, past SAMB president, said: "She has been so dependable, always asking, ’What can I do for you?’ and then just getting it done."

Changing the format

Clarke said he had been listening to members and, together with the board, had spent two days at a strategy development workshop to look at objectives, change the conference format and turn around the profits of the organisation (see box opposite). He told delegates: "We want to work with key organisations, including Scotland Food & Drink to really influence policy."

President of Scottish Bakers Alan Stuart praised the energy and personality of Clarke, who had joined last July from being national director NI for Lifelong Learning UK. Finding time just to think is challenging, said Stuart. "When you are waist-deep in alligators, it is difficult to remember you are there to drain the swamp!"

Clarke echoed the sentiment, quoting Henry Ford: "The hardest work is thinking, that’s why so few people do it. I hope this weekend makes you think."

But the thought put into conference presentations attracted a record number of delegates. This could have been due to big names such as celebrity baker and chef Nick Nairn, speaking on how to build relationships to sell more, or topics with eye-catching titles, such as The Definition of Madness, by Peter Ford.

However, the day began with Marks & Spencer’s Jim Hawk-ridge, responsible for R&D, technical innovation and bakery supply. He said the retailer has 600 UK stores, including small formats, and 51% of total sales is food. On the bakery side, he said, M&S makes nothing from scratch and has already reduced packaging on bread. But Hawkridge also said the future of bakery depends on five key influences, the first being training. "How do we encourage more people into the industry and get across the need to understand the science behind bakery?" he asked.

"How do we get producers to reduce water usage, and feed energy back into the premises or the production cycle? How do we make food safety have the same importance ranking as health & safety?" And he urged factory owers to brighten up production sites by, for example, lighting them more efficiently.

He also asked producers, small and large, to "look at WRAP’s 2011 document, because five million loaves of bread a day are baked and there is 30% waste".

And, speaking to suppliers, he added: "Innovation drives our business; 25% of our food range changes each year. But don’t be scared of ’back to basics’. Some of the old ways are the best."

Alliance building

Paul McLaughlin of Scotland Food & Drink (SFD), spoke of the need to build alliances: "Markets such as bakery are too small to solve issues by sector."

SFD works with forward-thinking companies of all sizes and he gave the example of Paterson Arran, which had eliminated palm oil from 60% of products and used rapeseed where possible. It also introduced oats, perceived as ’good for you’, into a number of brands. And it had launched the Café Brontë brand of cookies, shortbreads and dunkin’ bars, which had proved a big success in foodservice. "We are here to analyse your training needs and talk about innovation and what competitors and consumers are doing," he told delegates.

"We have two analysts available to help you grow your business, help with access to markets and ’meet the buyers, and help withthe supply chain."

Peter Ford, who comes from a long line of bakers, left the trade in 1999 to go into government, but did not like all he saw. He returned to start the Premium Roll Company in 2006. He defined Albert Einstein’s theory of madness as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, so he set out to do things differently.

His now successful Premium Roll Company uses three simple doughs: white, brown and Vienna, for 14 different product lines, all baked in deck ovens. He said: "I have a passion to succeed. We started with three people and now employ 28, with 300 customers. Flour price increases have provided an opportunity for (wholesale) bakers like us to get premium prices. We have put prices up time and again. We have had to."

He pays staff a minimum wage of £8 an hour but 40% of production is over two days, so instead of paying overtime he offers only single time or time off in lieu. "In the end, all business operations come down to three words: people, products and profit."

But referring to what he had seen in government and declining town centres, he said: "The planning laws are decimating town centres. In one area, local traders and much of the community did not want a nearby large supermarket because it would threaten local shops. The council said ’No’! So the supermarket introduced sweeteners. These amounted to £250,000, so the council changed its mind. But now, in absolute irony, the council is seeking £500,000 to regenerate the high street!"

In a panel discussion with several industry heads, each was asked to name one key issue. Jack Matthews of Improve said: "We must look hard at how we attempt to recruit and retrain."

Chris Donkin a craft baker and chairman of Bako Northern, said: "Footfall and planning laws must be looked at in relation to supermarkets." He also saw the price of raw materials as a big issue and suggested sugar was still a couple of years away from coming down in price.

Peter Meadows, of California Raisins, said: "Get really close to customers and treat loyal customers a bit differently."

Nick Harris, MD of BFP Wholesale, stressed the importance of being known as a good local employer. And Peter Ford urged bakers and allied traders to get together and "challenge local authorities hard, because they are not used to it".

Other suggestions were to: lobby as an industry with one voice; change and innovate your product range for weekends; and charge more.

In the afternoon several firms gave commercial presentations, including Bakels, Puratos, Matthew Algie coffee and Fleming Howden with Moul-Bie.

Finally, celebrity Michelin-starred chef and baker Nick Nairn told bakers that good relationships lead to success. He said: "You only get one opportunity; be likeable, be pleasant. Build a great relationship with buyers, otherwise when things go wrong, as they do, there is no forgiveness. Ensure everyone in your business knows your strategy and mindset. And make full use of social media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.

"Always ensure your products and your reputation are the best," he added, "because if you want to expand, banks have gone from saying: ’More cash sir?’ to: ’We want the house, the car and the kids as collateral’."

On the final day, Sunday, Lewis MacLean was bestowed with the office of president, taking over from Alan Stuart who many said had been an "exceptional and entertaining president".

Clarke’s objectives

l Increase membership by 10% in 2011
l Attract 70% of Scottish bakers as members by 2015
l Develop an online learning platform to support the delivery of qualifications, called the James Allan Bakery Academy
l Develop a knowledge base of the size of the sector and number of employees
l Revise the trade union agreement
l Increase the profile of Scottish Bakers and their craft members to make them first choice for consumers and provide a much larger voice, influencing Scottish government