Just over a year after a major fire at its Bathgate facility at the end of October last year, Scottish firm United Central Bakeries (UCB) has ambitious plans.

Rather than give up on the business or aim simply to rebuild, the management team decided on restructuring its production operations, in a bid to become "bigger and better", duly dispensing with some of its "commodity" products and turning to increased automation to boost its output of popular niche lines.

The firm’s renaissance was completed by July this year and turnover is already approaching pre-fire levels of around £9.5m per annum.

UCB managing director Archy Cunningham reckons that figure could be trebled within the next three years, because of the growth potential now designed into the facility. He says the company could achieve this through a combination of expanding the output of current product lines and developing completely new areas of activity - including the production of specialist breads.

aftermath and response

Last year’s blaze, which was attended by some 50 firefighters and a dozen engines, completely destroyed one of UCB’s three 30,000sq ft production bays and brought down the roof of another. At first, Cunningham thought the entire facility would succumb to the flames, but the third bay - an area dedicated to gluten-free products, which had been opened only six months earlier - suffered only smoke damage and loss of power and returned to full output some six weeks later.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, which started on the naan bread production line, the company installed generators and new telephone lines, and contacted customers and local suppliers who could help out. With two bays out of action, production of many of the company’s key lines was transferred to other firms - including fellow members of parent company the Finsbury Food Group. Cunningham says that many of UCB’s 140 staff were asked to relocate over this period, but demonstrated tremendous loyalty and flexibility - and not a single person has been made redundant. "The staff were incredible," he says. "We bussed them backwards and forwards, but there were no complaints from anyone."


With the support of suppliers and customers, as well as the third-party manufacturers who provided essential back-up, Cunningham and his management team found time to look to the future. Within two weeks of the fire, UCB’s insurers had confirmed acceptance of full liability for the cost of replacing the lost assets, as well as compensation for the costs associated with the interruption to business. So, from a very early stage, the focus was on rebuilding the facility and improving what had gone before.

"We designed it as we went along," says Cunningham. "It wasn’t all plain sailing, but any problem we hit, we managed to overcome. It was problem-solving on the hoof."

The key decision, he says, was to discontinue production of low-margin "commodities", such as Scottish cakes and rolls, in order to concentrate on boosting the production of more profitable lines through increased automation.

To help achieve this, the company has invested around £3m in what Cunningham described as "a United Nations" of new equipment. A new unit from BVT Bakery Services of the Netherlands has raised UCB’s production capacity for twisted doughnut Yum Yums from 4,000 to 12,000 per hour for the mini versions and from 2,500 to 6,000 per hour for the larger product. The Yum Yum line also features a fryer from Moline of the USA and a spiral freezer from Dantech of Denmark, which was manufactured in Singapore.

"Although we still hand-twist the Yum Yums, we now have totally automatic proving, frying, enrobing (with sugar glaze) and cooling," says Cunningham. At present, he adds, the company is exploring the possibility of developing a filled Yum Yum product containing, for example, jam or chocolate. If research and development goes well, he envisages a launch date in late summer 2008.

Before the fire, UCB was able to produce up to 5,000 potato scones per hour, but capacity has been massively increased through the installation of a BVT line and a hot plate from British firm Sugden, both of which can handle 12,000 pieces per hour. Mixers from Italian firm San Cassiano round out the array of international equipment in the Yum Yum/potato scone production bay.

While this kit was being sourced and installed, UCB spent a further £2m on the building and related services, including rewiring work and new flooring, gas mains and water supply. The entire project, including pre-commissioning of the equipment, was completed within eight months of the potentially business-breaking blaze. "We now have world-class production and efficiencies - we have already achieved 89% efficiency on Yum Yums and 85% on our potato scones," says Cunningham.

With the new Yum Yum and potato scone lines both fitting within the same bay, UCB has been left with a further 30,000sq ft of fully-wired and air-conditioned production area, but the company already has plans to make use of this space - big plans, as Cunningham explains.

bringing home the dough

Trends in the bread market beckon for UCB. "We are aiming to spend £2-£3m on kit to produce artisan and speciality breads, such as focaccia, ciabatta and seeded rolls," says Cunningham. "We want to be in niche markets at the premium end."

A proposal will be presented shortly to owner Finsbury Food Group’s board, with the aim of bringing the bread manufacturing operation on stream by October next year. "We feel we are on a roll," adds Cunningham (drolly). "The factory has a ’wow’ factor and we have reached world-class manufacturing standards within three months. We’ve got great staff, a wonderful management team and Finsbury behind us. Also, we’ve got an empty production bay - so why wait?"

UCB has already demonstrated success from its foray into the specialist breads arena; the firm launched its dedicated gluten-free bakery in April last year, but this operation is already contributing around one-third of the annual company turnover of £8.3m.

UCB now offers a total of seven gluten-free lines, including pizza bases, naan breads, pitta breads and pancakes - six of which were "first to market", stresses Cunningham. The most recent additions to the range include a crumpet, launched in September, which is already turning over an estimated £7,000 per week, and a jam doughnut, unveiled in late October.

With the gluten protein in wheat, barley and rye thought to adversely affect up to one million in the UK alone, supermarket chains such as Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have already latched on to the potential of UCB’s gluten-free products. The company is also exporting to the Nordic countries and New Zealand and is in the process of developing interest in the French market, based on contacts gleaned from other parts of the Finsbury group.

Taking all these factors into account, Cunningham is confident that, within three years, the company’s gluten-free sales will top £8m. He is also targeting an increase in total business turnover to £20-£25m over the same period, as well as significant additional job creation. The phoenix, it seems, has risen from the ashes. n


=== Are you doing enough to meet new fire regs? ===

Bakeries could be doing more to meet fire regulations that came into play in October 2006, says a fire and safety consultant, who believes businesses are not maintaining adequate records of checks and maintenance.

These should provide the evidence that the systems you have in place are minimising and controlling the risks of fire outbreaks.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order - or for Scotland, the Fire Scotland Act - changed the role of the fire service from one of inspecting to one of monitoring and enforcement. Safety officers now carry out audits of bakery businesses to assess their level of risk and bring to their attention any issues that need to be addressed. The audit covers every aspect of how the building is managed and the fire safety within, and failure to comply could ultimately lead to prosecution.

Many companies are guilty of failing to carry out - or keep records - of weekly fire alarm tests and monthly emergency lighting tests. Lighting systems, which are prone to causing combustion from dust and flour, are not being regularly cleaned.

Bakers must also safeguard against the highest risk in the baking process - the ovens. "When they look at their hot processes and the ovens, a regular cleaning programme for the flues, extractor systems and the oven itself, is important," says fire prevention consultant Alan Gill of AWG Fire, Health & Safety. "It’s not enough to just say you cleaned them last month; we are now looking for the records, and they should be up-to-date."

Consider installing a suppression system that kicks in where there’s a fire. Such a system injects a high-pressure atomised mist into the oven, or discharges an inert gas, which can protect against very serious fire.

Weekly fire inspections are vital and every member of staff should receive fire-awareness training - not just key members of staff. "It’s important that staff in the baking industry receive training annually - because it is well-known as a high-risk industry," warns Gill.


=== Firms affected by fire ===

The UK baking industry has been blighted by a series of fires in recent years, from large-scale plants to craft manufacturers and supermarket in-stores. Here are some of the lowlights:



A Tesco superstore in Harlow, Essex, has to be evacuated after a fire in an in-store bakery.


Welsh bakery chain Ferrari’s has its headquarters in Hirwaun, south Wales, "severely damaged" by fire.



A fire at Fletchers bakery, Sheffield, costs Northern Foods £5m in lost sales, caused by "a catastrophic technical failure".


A fire that destroys part of United Central Bakeries’ West Lothian factory is believed to have started in a naan oven.


Greencore suffers an electrical fire at its largest sandwich facility, Manton Wood, Nottinghamshire, when a switchboard fails and blows out the power.



Fire destroys the New Rathbones bakery in Carlisle and takes 80 firefighters two days to control.


Bakkavör’s group sales growth in speciality bread is hit by a fire, which destroys facilities at a former Geest site - one of the largest garlic bread manufacturers in the UK - at Barton-upon-Humber, north Lincolnshire.


Hilliers of Plymouth, a £25m turnover supermarket supplier, goes into liquidation after fire guts its factory in Devon.


Scottish firm Auld’s facility in Renfrewshire is destroyed by fire. The company erects a semi-permanent production facility, costing £2 million.



Suspected arson ignites a fire, fought by 150 firefighters, at Warburtons’ Wednesbury plant in the west Midlands.


Delice de France’s freezer depot in Southall. London, is gutted by fire caused by a faulty light, blitzing £1.5m worth of stock.