Alan Pearce is certainly a modest baker. But when he says he didn’t feel worthy of winning the coveted Baker of the Year award, sponsored by Vandemoortele, at the Baking Industry Awards last year, he’s just being honest.
That’s not to say he isn’t humbled and proud of his achievement; it’s more that he sets such high standards for himself and holds so many other bakers in higher regard that he feels there is always room for improvement.
As MD of Cornish bakery WC Rowe, Pearce has been working for the business since he was a teenager, starting out as a Saturday boy. He says he hadn’t planned to go into the trade, but found that the buzz of the bakery and the satisfaction of seeing the products going out and making customers happy, really struck a chord with him. "The bug bit me," he says.
Pearce must have made an impression on the late owner of the business Bill Rowe, as he was offered a four-year full-time apprenticeship, paid for by his employer. He studied for his City & Guilds at Plymouth College, spending six-months at the college itself and the remainder of the year working in the bakery. By the time he was 19 years old, Pearce says he had aspirations to go further in the business and the owners were at a point where they needed to decide what they wanted to do for the future of the firm. Pearce says he was fortunate that they saw him as a means to carry it on.
The owners formed a limited company so that Pearce could become a director he was only 20 at the time. Pearce says that, sometimes, it’s difficult for people who have been running a business for years to let someone new come in and not stifle them, but Rowe’s allowed him to make mistakes, so he could learn from them.
Pearce says that he genuinely wakes up seven days a week excited about the day ahead, as there will be another challenge, something else to learn, or new people to meet. Interestingly, he says, on winning Baker of the Year, rather than just feeling like he’d made it, he felt inspired to live up to the accolade, because he didn’t feel worthy of it yet. While the judges clearly had other opinions, Pearce says jokingly that they must have been drunk. "It’s nice to think that people judge you higher than you judge yourself," he adds.
Despite his ultra-modest approach, he is rightly proud to have won and says it has given him a spur to wind up, instead of winding down. "I don’t want to live off the award, I want to live up to it that’s the challenge for me going forward," he explains. "We all tend to beat ourselves up in life about what we aren’t good at and the award got me focused on all the things that we have been doing right. We all need to give ourselves a pat on the back sometimes, for the things we are doing well. I look at this award as a badge that I am carrying for the staff as, without them, I’d be nothing."
Known by his employees as Alan, he sticks to his father’s saying that, "It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice." Every year the firm ploughs its profits back into the business, as Pearce believes you only get out what you put in.
"If you provide your staff with the best overalls, the best equipment and the highest wages you can afford, as well as good working conditions and good training, only then have you got the right to say that you’re not happy if the business hasn’t done a good job," he explains. "If you don’t give people the right tools, then you cannot criticise."
He says he’d like to think the judges were impressed by the way he runs the business: by commanding, not demanding; and by leading by example. "I might have got the title, but it was the teamwork that got us there."
One of the most important things in business, says Pearce, is to be in touch with the people that pay your wages your customers, so he takes any complaints about a product very seriously. He even says he wouldn’t be as upset if Rowe’s lost business to another firm, because it offered a cheaper product, but that he would never like to lose trade to someone else because they produced a better product.
He sees his job as championing the products, and admits that he is probably not the best MD, as he is supposed to let everyone else get on with things. But it is exactly that passion and enthusiasm that keep him very hands-on in terms of coming up with new product ideas. "I delegate certain things to people who are better at doing them than I am, but I still want to get involved in the product."
He spends a lot of time talking to people and getting their opinions on ideas, and admits that he has ideas that have been on the back-burner for years, but for which he has now started producing vision boards.
Currently employing around 550 people, the firm has taken on additional staff for every year it has been in business, with around 50 extra people employed in the past year. Pearce says the business has "kicked on massively" since the award win. "The training is better, the presentation is better we’re not resting on our laurels."
Rowe’s now has 21 shops and Pearce says he hopes to have 40 by 2015. In addition to serving customers in its high street outlets, it supplies the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons, and retail chain the West Cornwall Pasty Co. The firm also teamed up with Levi Roots last year to launch a Reggae Reggae Chicken Pasty, which managed to overtake sales of its traditional steak variety. And Pearce reveals that the firm is in talks about exporting to Hong Kong.
Pearce is always concerned with how the business can improve, and says any success he’s had has come from meeting people in the baking industry. "Luckily I know lots of clever people," he says. "It’s all about communication talking to customers, staff and people in the trade. And if you’ve got anything to give back, then do it. At the end of the day, satisfaction is priceless."
How did you feel when you’d won?
"I could have cried... you do get choked up. When you see people that you’ve known for years genuinely clapping, it’s very humbling. I think the other contestants were all winners and, on another day, they could have won. If it was down to me I would have taken the other two up on stage with me." Alan Pearce, Rowe’s
Comment from the sponsor
"The entries for Baker of the Year 2009 were, as in 2008, varied and of a very high standard. Alan Pearce demonstrated enthusiasm and a passion for baking, and the baking industry, during his day of judging. All three finalists did extremely well to reach the final three, but Alan Pearce ticked all the boxes on the day. His commitment to his staff, his thirst for knowledge and the quality of his products were inspirational, making him a worthy winner of the title, Baker of the Year."
Stephen Bickmore, Vandemoortele